Food

Why One Mom Started Drawing Adorable Comics of Her Family’s Quarantine Cooking

Food prep is the main activity during lockdown, so why not document it in art?

A glass jar of milk, star crackers, bread, and a knife with butter on it.
Photos by Jess Bailey/Unsplash, Alexandra Kusper/Unsplash, and Toa Heftiba/Unsplash.

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.

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

Family size and situation: Married couple, college professors, living in London, Ontario, with two boys, ages 9 (almost 10) and 4. Their two older children live independently, in different cities; “we haven’t seen them since this started.” Mom’s the one talking and also the one who made the comics about their daily cooking.

Pandemic impact: They’re teaching online, and the kids’ schools are closed. Both of the older kids still have to go out to work, for a butcher and a call center, but so far, everyone is healthy and has retained their employment. “The government suspended and deferred student loan payments, which is an enormous boon for us,” she said. “We’re a country where we expect some level of support; we expect we will not be asked to do unreasonable things.”

What It Was Like

I’m really reevaluating how much I cooked before this began. I suspect there’s a lot of foggy memory. I thought we ate at home a lot more than we maybe did! Now that we really are eating at home all the time, I see how often we would get takeout pizza, go out to the Persian restaurant or something kid-friendly, or my husband or I would pick up something at the farmers market for lunch, if we didn’t feel like making it.

I’d do things like, I’d make sweet potato tempura, and little dumplings, and then to round that out I’d want cold rolls [in the U.S., we’d call these “fresh spring rolls”], and I didn’t want to make them so I’d just get them at this little Vietnamese place. And I’d think of that as “I made dinner,” but I didn’t do the whole thing! Now I see just how much I was supplementing.

Switching to Local

This is a pretty agriculturally rich area. I grew up on a farm not super far away from here—very much a cash crop place, though, not a hippie organic place! It was like “spray it all.”

We have almost exclusively been getting our groceries from a place called On the Move Organics; they also operate an organic restaurant in our neighborhood, called the Root Cellar. They have a micro beer brewery, it’s cooperatively owned. When we moved into this neighborhood, very little of this stuff was established.

On the Move sells local produce, and they’ve really expanded their grocery delivery service during the pandemic. They have all these employees that are a lot of people who live in this neighborhood—people involved in the arts, who worked as bartenders and waiters at the brewpub. And they moved everyone over to delivery. I feel confident that they’re being paid well and treated well; it’s the place where I feel most confident that the people who are packing this stuff up and delivering it are protected in their workplace.

It definitely costs more than if we ordered from a big supermarket. Just for example, the milk selection there is like—it’s bottled in glass, it’s an organic dairy, on and on. I think it’s like three times as much than if you were to buy it at the grocery store. Everything is local, or else they get it through a free trade network. But on the other hand, this is kind of what we are spending money on, now. The only thing.

This place only delivers to our neighborhood about once a week. That’s about right for produce, and so we order ingredients for a few meals and then hope we can improvise a couple of backup meals. I had the realization after the first week, when I had ordered stewing beef to make a stew and it just didn’t come, that I needed to start ordering three or four different options. Sometimes I get my first choice, sometimes my second, sometimes all of them!

Home All Day

I’ve always been able to cook, and I used to fantasize that I’d be a good log camp cook [someone who cooked for loggers, a very Canadian historical figure]. A weird fantasy! I really felt like, I could churn butter! I’ve never done it, but if you give me the equipment, I bet I could! Now I’m like, hm, wait a second. This is so much cooking.

We do a serve-yourself breakfast. Some people eat toast; we got granola this week, so we’ve been eating granola. My kids can cook an egg, they can make toast. For lunch, we sit down together at the table; it’s usually just leftovers, or if we don’t have that, then we’ll make burritos or something like that.

The kids have a snack around 3 p.m., which is usually a piece of bread, or a piece of fruit. I grew up in a rural place where you couldn’t really go to the store all the time, and kids couldn’t go to the store all the time, and we came up with all these weird snacks. So now my kids are learning about this way of snacking. I’m like, “Do you know about butter and sugar bread? Where you put butter and sugar on bread?” I found some sugar cubes in the cupboard and was like, “Look! It’s like candy!”

My oldest kid is 23, and so for 23 years, my concern has been, I need to make sure my kids like eating healthy foods, organic foods that are good for them, to balance out the huge abundance of treats that comes to them in the world. Now, I am the only source of treats. This is where they’re getting all their sweetness.

Generally speaking, we eat dinner as a family at the table, but occasionally—basically when I can’t take it anymore—we feed the kids something they want to eat. And then make something for us, like we had those boil-in-a-bag Indian food meals, those are so good—and then we’d put them to bed and have time with a movie and a beer after the kids go to sleep, which is wonderful.

“I Don’t Want to Hurt Your Feelings”

They’re the most genteel little boys. They’re not going to kick up a fuss, or reject the things I cook. But for sure, my 4-year-old will say things like, “Mommy, I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but this is disgusting.”

What they will and won’t eat probably hasn’t changed, it’s probably just that it was easier for me, before, not to notice that they only ate a little bit of whatever I put together. Now, I feel like, Oh, if you don’t eat this, you’re probably going to be hungry later. I just don’t have a lot of snacks around, to fill in the cracks with stuff they like.

They also just don’t realistically have a bunch of self-serve options. I’m realizing we probably went through a bunch of bananas every two days! I had no idea. I used to buy a lot of little snacky things that I would put in their lunchboxes to round out their lunches. At the beginning of this we had a bag of Goldfish, and then it was gone, and we didn’t get commercial groceries for like four weeks. One day I even made crackers! I used the only small cookie cutter I had to make them—a little star cutter—so they were star crackers.

I worry more about their nutrition, where I was relaxed about it before. I guess I could say what they eat hasn’t changed that much, but my anxiety about it has. But hopefully I keep that stuff on the inside!

Calendar pages handwritten for April 22 and April 23. Rebecca Onion

Why I’ve Been Drawing Our Daily Food

When faced with unstructured time in the past, I’ve definitely struggled with the ennui and a sense of foggy timelessness. Creative projects have always helped. As soon as my husband and I knew we would be working at home with our kids, I suggested we all spend part of each day doing art, or playing music, or just generally making stuff. The first day I tried writing and drawing about a bunch of different things that were happening, including a little comic of what we ate that day. The next day, out of all of the things I’d been writing about, that was the idea I was most interested in taking up, especially as I was reading news about food shortages and the safety and ethics of grocery shopping.

After a few days, I started posting the comics on Instagram, and my friends and grown kids encouraged me to continue. This helped to get me over the stage where, in any long-term project, it’s easy to waffle as to whether it’s “worthwhile,” however that’s defined. I really love drawing all of the little mundane things—from onions to cans of soup to small appliances—that are so beautiful and familiar.

Hand drawn calendar pages for March 23, 2020.

“I Give Up”

The only time we’ve gotten takeout? We ordered pizza on April 14. I made a comic about it. I felt really weird about it. In Canada, if these places close down, their employees go from making minimum wage to the CERB [Canadian Emergency Response Benefit], which is like 2,000 bucks, more than a lot of them are making in a month. I don’t really want to pay businesses when they’re continuing to squeeze their employees.

So I feel very conflicted, but this was also my idea. I hit a wall that day, about cooking. I couldn’t get past it. I’d run out of dried pasta, which I used to feed my kids all the time, and we have a pasta machine, but it’s like … it’s so much work. And the pasta machine is the most attractive appliance we have, for young kids. If you get out that crank pasta machine, my younger son is THERE with you. And I didn’t buy a pasta tree to dry the pasta, so it always clumps up when I’m drying it.

I looked at my desk—the only place the pasta machine clamp fits—and it was covered in fabric for a project, and I was like, am I just going to sweep all this into a bag and stuff it somewhere and look at the bag for another month and a half and get flour all over my desk?

I couldn’t. We got pizza. I tipped the delivery guy 20 bucks.

This is something I feel consistently bad about. I can, and have, buy an exit from this whole thing. I can buy a different reality, where people would just come to your house and bring pizza, and your kids would like it. I’m seeing what a privilege that is. I’m trying not to do it.

Moving Forward

One thing we’re definitely going to take out of this is that my husband is going to do more cooking. Even before this started, he had begun making bread, but he’s going to do more of it in general. And we’re going to make bread from scratch all the time, because that’s worked for us. I’m going to make cheese and yogurt, which is something I didn’t do before this.

And I’m going to never not order from the organic place again. I will order from them every week. I will often identify the right thing to do, and want to do it consistently, but not really do it. But now, after this, I feel like I really want to live as consistently as I can, in terms of ethics around food. This has really driven home to me how fragile the whole food system is.