Food

What’s Cooking During the Pandemic Like for a Twentysomething in L.A. With No Experience?

Home cooking with more nutrition than frozen pizza would be nice, but a crisis is no time to struggle with a new skill.

A collage of Brussels sprouts, frozen pizza, and pancakes, with the outline of a window and a tag reading "Pandemic Kitchen" both seen.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Geoff Kidd/Science Photo Library/Getty Images Plus, Shana Novak/DigitalVision via Getty Images Plus, and Eleonora Festari/EyeEm via Getty Images Plus.

Due to the “stay-at-home” and quarantine orders necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic, many of us are finding ourselves cooking more than ever before. In Pandemic Kitchen, we’ll hear from home cooks—experts and newbies, those with plenty of access to food and those with less, the avid and the reluctant—about the culinary struggles, and unexpected joys, of this time of social distancing. If you would like to be interviewed for this column, please email humaninterest@slate.com with “Pandemic Kitchen” in the subject line and a brief description of your cooking background and current situation.

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This interview, conducted by Rebecca Onion over email, has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Family size and situation: A twentysomething administrative assistant at a multimedia entertainment company, living in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley with two roommates.

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Pandemic impact, so far: She’s now working four days a week and furloughed, without pay, on the fifth day. The division she works for is events-based, and she worries that the cancellation of Comic-Con bodes poorly for its prospects.

One roommate, a local, has moved back in with her parents and extended family—“I think she kind of regrets it now”—and occasionally visits the apartment, though the other two roommates try to stop her: “Her grandma’s, like, 99, and I don’t want to be responsible for anything happening to her.”

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The other roommate, who was a manager’s assistant, has been laid off, and her family is helping her with rent.

So far, nobody has gotten sick.

Before Times: That Takeout Life

I never learned how to cook, and my mom never enjoyed cooking. She came from a big Italian family, my grandma did a lot of cooking, and my mom just resisted it. She was a single mom during the first half of my life, and has always been the primary provider in the house. I get why she didn’t cook, but I would still make fun of her a little. She’d say, “I’m going to cook you dinner,” and put something in the microwave, and I’d say, “That’s not cooking!”

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Before the pandemic, I would usually buy a lot of frozen foods and takeout and end up eating from that. Then maybe like once a month I’d make myself a grilled cheese. My office was next to a grocery store with a big hot bar, and we’d all go over and eat prepared food from there for lunch.

What I’m used to eating is what I’m comfortable eating, and that’s what I spend a lot of my money on. I don’t go out a lot, like to a bar or whatever—though of course, during this quarantine I’m feeling like I’d kill to do that! But usually I don’t, and I don’t buy a lot of clothing. … My big expenses are for takeout, and that’s how I’ve always justified it.

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I’m so nasty—I get, like, McDonald’s delivered. I have some gastrointestinal problems, so I should probably stop eating fried fast food, but stuff like Denny’s pancakes is fine for that, since it’s kind of bland and settles your stomach. I’m a frequent flyer at Denny’s.

Maybe you’ve picked up on it, but my food habits are very in the moment. I eat when I’m hungry. It’s really hard for me to plan: OK, I’ll be hungry in three hours, and this meal takes three hours to prep. Grocery shopping and cooking at home is such a long-term game. Food prep is a completely foreign concept to me, because even when my mom did cook, it was like, “She’s making meatballs!” That was the one recipe she’d make, then it would last us a few days. She was never prepping stuff on Sunday for the whole week.

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I’ve had former roommates, and recently even co-workers, have me come over on Sunday to prep—You come over, we’ll all pay for ingredients, and we’ll all food prep together. I last did that about three months ago, and I had a great time, but I couldn’t bring it back into my own home. They did all the planning, knowing what recipes and ingredients to get, all that. I thought I’d try to do it at home, then quarantine happened, and it was like, Well, great.

Bring on the Frozen Food

When quarantine started, I was thinking, OK, I can do this. I’ve gone through stages where I’ve eaten nothing but tortilla chips and peanut butter and jelly. … Especially when I was still in college, I could go days and eat only tortilla chips. So in my mind, I thought surely I could hunker down for the worst. I really don’t want to eat like that anymore, but I thought, at least I know I have survived it before. I went to Trader Joe’s and got a bunch of frozen stuff, like orange chicken.

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My roommate and I had an experience at a Target early on in quarantine, when we went and bought five frozen pizzas, four boxes of La Croix, four boxes of White Claw, and a couple boxes of microwave popcorn, for snacks. We stopped at the clothing section and bought some cute tops, because when would we be able to do that again? And we got into the line, and got the nastiest looks up and down. When we were putting our stuff on the conveyor belt, the woman in front of us turned around and said something snide, like, Oh, you’re throwing a party. I already have so much anxiety, and now everyone at Target thought we were breaking social distancing to throw a rager. We were like, No, this is just our food! We’re going to put it in our cabinets and freezer and eat it! I can never go back to that Target.

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We have a good-sized pantry and freezer, but our freezer has begun to do something weird. It’ll ice over and everything gets freezer burn. We’ve dealt with this a few times, and it seems to be starting up again, and we need to get it fixed or we might lose a freezer full of food, again. In Los Angeles you own your own fridge, instead of the landlord owning it, so it’s us who needs to do something about it!

The stove does come with the apartment, and the oven portion of the stove doesn’t work. It doesn’t get very hot, and my roommates, who do use the oven, have been frustrated by it. … The landlord needs to fix that, but hasn’t yet.

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So there are lot of physical barriers, on top of my emotional barriers, to cooking. It’s like, if I didn’t want to cook before, I’m not going to cook now.

Hiding Inside

My roommate is cooking a bit. She made stuffed shells last night. But we have a little kitchen, not a kitchen for two people to be scooting back-and-forth in. I’ll basically hover and watch her do it and then be like “Can I help?” and be told, “No, go sit down.” I do that a couple times, and then the meal is ready.

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Obviously, during quarantine, takeout is a little bit harder to justify. I’m going to tip above standard, of course, so it’s even more costly. And then, I’m making less money! So I’m stuck.

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I still get takeout four times a week, but more and more I’m getting nervous, like, [the delivery person is] in a mask with gloves, but I’m thinking about how, if they’re not switching up the gloves, and they’re delivering to multiple people, the gloves aren’t sanitary toward me, they’re helpful to the delivery person. Which is good, but … I guess it’s just a calculated risk.

I didn’t realize at the beginning how poorly other people would react to the crisis, with the hoarding and unsafe shopping habits. I’ve kind of stopped going to grocery stores because they make me nervous. I was a hypochondriac before this, and now I’m like, Well, well, well … look who was right!

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My roommate is going to the grocery store once a week or so, and I’ll give her money to pay for my half, or even whatever more I can give, since she isn’t making money and I am. I’m just so terrified of going to shop. I’ll go to Starbucks to pick up coffee and that’s my big trip, how I stimulate the economy and get fresh air, and I don’t have to look at another person too closely or navigate touching carts and touching food and touching food that other people have touched …

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My roommate and I have agreed that if one of us gets [COVID-19], the other one gets it. We just live in such close proximity. And we were trying to stay a little bit far away from each other, but I kind of lost my mind, I was feeling so isolated, and I wasn’t even living alone. She washes her hands really well whenever she comes in and I know she’s careful. We wipe the food down with disinfecting wipes before putting it away.

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We alternate who goes to pick up weed. To me, more important than groceries is making sure that gets picked up!

It’s Not Good

I don’t have anyone who could bring over home-cooked food for me, since my family lives really far away. I’m pretty isolated here. My nearest family is in Texas, and I’ve thought about driving to live with my cousin there for a while. She’s a really good cook of Italian and Vietnamese food both, and has a big enough kitchen that we could hang out and make food together—I could be the sous-chef to somebody who’s making the big plans. But I don’t really want to leave Los Angeles, since I just got here a year ago, and I’m working on following my dream [of getting into children’s television production]. … I don’t want to leave California for Texas and end up stuck there. So I’m saving that for if we’re both desperate.

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I feel terrible about how I’m eating right now! I don’t feel good, most of the time. I wake up and feel sort of lousy. I went through some tests back in January to find out if I had ulcerative colitis, which runs in my family. I don’t—it’s mainly acid reflux and IBS, brought on by my stress and my diet. I’m always high-stress, and my diet’s always shit. My food and health negatively affect each other; it’s a snake eating its own tail.

I love home-cooked meals, and I’ve been craving nutrients. … I would love to have, like, some bangin’ Brussels sprouts right now, but that’s a good example: I have a bag of frozen ones, but I can’t cook them. I don’t know how to do it right! Sprouts are amazing when they’re good, but if you just steam a bag of frozen ones without the proper fixings, it’s nothing. I disliked a lot of kinds of food for a long time because my mom would just steam frozen veggies in the microwave and put some butter on there, so I know how that tastes.

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I would love to be able to cook. I see what my brother, my sister, and my friends get out of it. But I’m doubling down on not cooking. If I have any motivation or energy, it has to go toward work. Working from home is tough for me—I’m just inside of my tiny bedroom. It’s very hard for me to concentrate. And I don’t want to lose my job.

When I do get off work, I’m not doing anything. I see all these people who are trying to start new habits, going for runs or exercising, and I’m like, I’m just trying to keep it together.

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