Posted on May 6th, 2020
Greetings from beneath the refrigerator, bed, sofa, desk, dish washer, tub, toilet, television, desk again, washing machine, and kitchen sink, all the daily stations of the quarantined cross on this little circuit we’re all running now, so I’m glad I made this decision. Yes, I’m glad I piled all these things up before climbing under its multi-ton glory. Because this is what it feels like to be alive right now.
Or, perhaps, being alive right now is a matter of weightlessness—the open expanse of time. Floating, freely. Spacing out, freely. Doing 200 jumping jacks, freely. Staying inside, freely. Everything is cancelled, nothing is happening, so all time feels light, effervescent, moving freely as water.
But water is heavy, one of the heaviest substances.
So which is it—heavy, or light? It is both. The duality of this inversion repeats, permeates: We stay isolated to support our communities. We strenuously avoid each other as a form of kindness, even love. We sit still and call it progress. We are all at home, but home feels like a foreign country.
In our case, home is a foreign country. In January, my husband and I, both Americans, moved to Holland for work. We had planned to be here until July or so. Now—who knows! We had planned to travel and see friends in the region. Now—who knows! We thought maybe we would have tuna for lunch today. Now—who knows! Even small decisions can feel huge, while huge ones inconsequential. Inversions, inversions everywhere.
The other day we visited our local grocery store. Just as we arrived, a man closed the door. He barricaded it with both hands, his palms pressed cold and white-hard against the glass. It happened very fast. We did not expect it. We stood back, watching and waiting. We talked quietly about what food we still had in the house. And we struggled with the intensity of the idea that our access to food had suddenly changed.
After a few minutes, the man turned around. He opened the door. We wandered around for a few seconds, blinded by the infinity of the place. We were inside a grocery store again!
See? It happened very fast. We did not expect it.
Sorry if this essay feels disjointed. My brain is a little addled and I’m having a hard time concentrating. I’ve been forgetting things a lot lately. I hope you’re feeling okay wherever you are and whatever is going on when you read this. I hope things everywhere are better by then.
The only cookbook I brought with me to Holland was Amanda Hesser’s 2003 classic Cooking for Mister Latte. I love this book—full of cheerful good advice and brothy pastas that traces the tale of Hesser’s romance with Mister Latte who, by the end, becomes her husband. It’s studded with lovely details (afternoons spent “plucking meat from crab after crab and watching ships and barges ease across the bay”… I mean…) and wonderful recipes for things like salt-crusted shrimp and coconut layer cake. I adore, adore, adore Cooking for Mister Latte, dating from the days when the story ran as a column in the New York Times and my friend Monique and I would read and compare notes on the latest installment.
I wonder how Monique is doing through all of this.
At the center of the book is a short chapter that recounts Hesser’s experience during 9/11. I’m taking comfort in people writing about food and recipes and telling the stories of how they live, and live through, a disaster. I’m also interested in stories of revelation, sudden discovery, and/or new beginnings. Hesser’s book in general, and the 9/11 “Dinner When No One Wanted To Be Alone” chapter in particular, feel so relevant to me right now. I’m dying to hoist buckets full of crab or pluck peas from green pods or shuck corn with Hesser and her crew. With anyone, really.
Hesser writes of 9/11: “Fear, sadness, anxiety, even exhilaration, all the emotions that are normally tucked away, enveloped us like heavy, humid air.” How similar these feelings sound to what we are all cycling through now. How good it will be when the situation (hopefully) calms, when we can all be together again in the bright, fresh air and light. When we can meet without fear.
For now, here is a little more of the dinner Hesser ate that night with her friends, as the world then, like the world now, reels:
“The grill had caramelized the edges, and when it conked out, the slow dissolution of heat had kept the chops moist. The baby white potatoes, boiled in their skins and tossed with butter and herbs, had a sweetness that resonated with the sugars in the lamb. Green beans and tomatoes in vinaigrette were served cool. The beans were crisp, without tasting green, dripping with the tangy sauce, which bled into the juices from the lamb.”
This is what I am going to make for friends as soon as we can all be together—laughing and talking and eating and shaking our heads and living lightly, as Hesser did on that heavy evening in September 2001, our skin “hot from wine and conversation.”