Prompt 170. Food = Love
Jenny Rosenstrach on dinner as a love story
Behold: the famous (or infamous?) chore chart.
In the early days of lockdown, my partner Jon, my brother Adam, my friend Carmen and I found ourselves holed up at my childhood home in upstate New York. We didn’t plan it that way—in fact, when Jon and Adam drove up from the city, they were only going to stay the weekend. But within hours of their arrival, the city shut down, and we became a commune.
Within a couple days, my brother conceived of this highly detailed chore chart, as only a fourth grade teacher could. Some tasks were dreadful, like wiping down the whole house with Clorox each morning, or summoning the courage to make a grocery store run. But amid the chaos—as Adam was figuring out how to teach over Zoom, as Jon was shooting segments for the Late Show on an iPad in the living room, as Carmen and I were up in the attic, dreaming up what would become the Isolation Journals—we had one steady anchor: our evening dinner.
We took turns cooking, and it was such a joy to see what everyone came up with each night. Adam made a lot of things from scratch, including delicious stews and homemade sourdough and some glorious layer cakes that we’d demolish by lunch the next day. Carmen and I usually cooked together, and with all we had going on, we ended up serving quite a few frozen pizzas; Jon’s specialties were his Ma’s red beans and rice and tacos from a box. But honestly, the food itself mattered less than the solace we found in each others’ company. In those very dark days, our evening meal was a bright spot, as only a meal with loved ones can be.
Which leads me to today’s prompt by the New York Times bestselling author and excellent food writer Jenny Rosenstrach. For years, Jenny and her husband Andy (who’s my editor) had a food blog called Dinner: A Love Story, about food and the way it connects us; most recently she published a cookbook The Weekday Vegetarians, which I absolutely love (and which has nearly converted Jon and me to full time vegetarians). I hope her words inspire you, like me, to give thanks.
P.S. Reminder to paid subscribers that this month’s Studio Visit is going to be a Dear Sugar-style advice column from me called Dear Susu. Click here for info about what to expect and how to submit your questions!
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170. More than Sustenance by Jenny Rosenstrach
I got a text from my husband around 3:00 on a gray Wednesday in October. He was in his office. “Hospice called. I’m coming home now and will leave for Virginia soon after.”
Virginia was where he grew up, where his dad had been living, and living with Parkinson’s, for the past eight years. We had gotten this call a few times before, but that day, it felt more urgent. I cobbled together a babysitting plan for our two dogs—our kids are in college so that was taken care of—packed a duffel bag with some jeans and running clothes, then went to the kitchen to figure out some sort of meal for the road.
I write about food—specifically dinner—for a living, which might make it easier to understand why the spice mixture (cinnamon, cumin, smoked paprika, curry) that I had been planning to use on a skillet shrimp for dinner, was already mixed and waiting on the counter. I wondered if I should abort that plan and pack some peanut butter sandwiches. It seemed ridiculous to go ahead with this kind of recipe, to worry about spices and flavors, and even eating dinner, given what was happening. But it would only take fifteen minutes, so I started cooking—simmering water for five-minute couscous, sautéing the shrimp in a little butter, tossing in the spices, then dolloping yogurt and packing it all up in to-go containers I’d saved from a deli. I stacked them in a Trader Joe’s shopping bag along with two cookies and a single cheap IPA for the passenger (i.e., me).
A few hours later, I found myself spoon-feeding my husband his shrimp dinner, making sure he had a little bit of everything in each bite, while he drove south on I-95. It was dark and starting to drizzle. We were almost in Delaware, the highway crammed with rush-hour traffic and trucks spewing exhaust. But “How Lucky Can One Man Get,” the famous John Prine song, was playing, and I weirdly felt a rush of gratitude. It wouldn’t be an easy weekend; my father-in-law would die three days later. But in that exact moment, with that song playing, and that undeniably delicious shrimp and couscous dinner, I felt privileged to be there, doing my small part to take care of the caretaker.
That night, and countless other times, cooking made me feel useful, in control when things decidedly weren’t.
Your prompt for the week:
When has cooking, or food in general, meant more to you than just sustenance?
If you’d like, you can post your response in the comments below, in our Facebook group, or on Instagram by tagging @theisolationjournals.
Jenny Rosenstrach is the creator of Dinner: A Love Story (now a weekly newsletter) and the author of four books, including most recently the New York Times bestselling The Weekday Vegetarians. You can also find her on Instagram.
Every day while I make my way around the kitchen, investigate what we have in the fridge and the pantry, I have a large sense that food is not only sustenance but also an opportunity to please, delight, satisfy (and more) my family and me.
I also see food as nourishing and recognizing when I take special care w my high school son’s lunch. I want him to be happy when he opens it and also excited to enjoy it. I get a lift when a lovely meal comes my way; I want that for him in the midst of a school day. Sometimes I also put little notes in it, which range from labels on the lunch parts to imperatives (fruit before dessert), or just hi how are you love you w little hand drawn hearts.
Since I live alone, cooking for me is usually sustenance. But I belong to a book club that meets monthly. We take turns hosting, making the main dish when it’s our turn and bringing sides when it’s not.
The book club began over 15 years ago when Carol W., Carol G. and I were all working at F.M. Day elementary school. We had all read The Kite Runner and it was such an intense book that we agreed to consider a book club. We added Mary and Melinda within the next couple of years and we’ve lasted for 15+ years.. The person hosting picks the book and about a week out sets the main dish. Then we all chime in on what we will bring. Once or twice, we did not have dessert, so we planned that that would not happen again.
A couple of people have their “specialties”. Melinda almost always brings a killer salad, that goes to someone else when she hosts. Mary likes to bring a snack, sometimes from her garden.
Both Carols are fantastic bakers (and cooks) and their pies are superb.
I don’t have a specialty, but I do love to make an effort every month, with the main dish and with sides.
I’m the vegetarian and they graciously accommodate that with wonderful meals. We’ve had pot pies, pizza, tacos, pastas, quiches, stews, potato bars, beans dishes, Mexican food, roasted vegetables. Sometimes Carol W. will make bread and Carol G. will make soup.
But regardless of the main dish and the sides and salads, dessert is often the masterpiece.
No one every gets exclusive rights to desserts. I think we all enjoy finding something decadent to concoct, peach and blueberry pies, angel food cake, chocolate cake, lemon bars, cookies, custards, Dairy Queen ice cream cake, berry crumbles. I can’t think of one failure, it’s always a delicious treat.
I can’t imagine a book club that does not include a shared meal.