This is a dispatch from an apartment not left for the last week, which will not be left for a week more at least. Who knows what the future holds exactly; general consensus is that it’s not great. Thankfully the fridge is full, and the pantry is stocked. As the reality of social distancing sets in, the edible implications are beginning to emerge. With them, it’s becoming clearer what modern comfort food is and what it says about us. How we eat in uncertain times—when the only thing you can count on is hunger and boredom—is who we are.
For me, the answer is simple. I’m a cup of black coffee. Right now I’m staring at my Breville Precision Brewer next to it a Virtuouso Baratza grinder and next to that five pounds of darkly roasted Sumatra Ketiara beans from Brooklyn Coffee Company. Together these gadgets and bags form a caffeinated skyline against my kitchen wall, a buttress against despair. There’s something about a cup of coffee waiting for me when I wake up that makes me think it can’t be all that bad.
As for food, I don’t know what I’d be. I was recently diagnosed with a genetic condition called familial hypercholesterolemia that all but assures I’ll die from a heart attack by the time I’m 50 if I don’t drastically change my dining habits. But who wants to eat healthy when the world might end? Celery and carrots don’t comfort anyone.
A recent study proved that the succor provided by comfort food has less to do with the food itself and more with the associations around it. The study found that the more stable one’s attachment style, the more pleasure comfort food delivered. Or in other words, if you don’t have happy memories of eating Ritz Crackers, Ritz Crackers don’t comfort. If meat and potatoes don’t recall home, they’re just starch and cholesterol, but if they do, the pleasure they provide in times like these can be profound.
At my local coffeeshop, Der Pioneer, owner Bjorn Boettcher tells me that while food sales are down, pastry sales are way up. “People are grabbing,” he says, “and going.” But Boettcher isn’t sure how long he’ll stay open, echoing an anxiety all restaurateurs are feeling. The parade of closures—some temporary, some permanent—is drastically affecting the lives of my fellow foodies, not to mention thousands of employees.
We live for restaurants, and for the fact that restaurants are about so much more than the food on the plate; they are artistry, theater, community, expression. And yet, over the past week, we’ve seen how vulnerable restaurants are.
It seems that health for most of us is an afterthought in these hours of short-term panic. “My plan is to stick to my normal routine—no sugar, no dairy, no fun—for as long as possible,” one friend tells me. “But it only works because in the back of my mind I know I’ve got a bag of chips and a pint of mint chip ice cream for when things to start to feel really dire.”
As for me, I’ve been busying myself making big batches of sausage-studded baked ziti my favorite cookbook (At Home by the great chef Steve Poses). I just turned in the manuscript for the il Buco cookbook so for lunch, I’ll slather buckwheat rye with fresh butter and anchovies and pretend like I’m in Sicily. (Not Sicily right now but the Sicily I visited this summer.)
Some people, like Jeff Gordinier, author of Hungry and the food and drink editor at Esquire, who’s currently stuck in his Westchester home with his four kids, are going back to basics. “I take comfort in potatoes,” he confesses. “So I roasted a bunch of small potatoes with a lot of salt and pepper and olive oil and onions and garlic and chopped parsley. We had those potatoes with pork chops last night for dinner and ate the leftovers today for lunch.”
Howie Kahn, another food chronicler, has turned toward egg salad. “If I’m locked down, I’m locking down with egg salad. It’s therapy. It’s comfort. In the most skilled hands, it’s a luxury. It’s a reminder, too, that adventures once happened, and adventures await.”
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