Cooking alone together | Cookup

Meals are an age-old way to bring people together, writes Franka Philip. But in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, with so many foodies quarantined or practicing social isolation, social media has become even more important as a way to share recipes, ideas, and a sense of community

  • Illustration by Shalini Seereeram

As I write this, we’re living “in the time of Corona,” as the COVID-19 virus has disrupted the world, and we’re now forced to fundamentally rethink our daily lives. For example, some of us don’t cook every day, and we’ve become used to picking up relatively inexpensive but nutritionally balanced meals on the run. Now that many restaurants are closed or operating with restrictions, even foodies like me find the challenge of cooking almost every day somewhat daunting.

While people were panic-buying toilet paper, I was more concerned about whether the farmers’ market would still be open, and how I could get good fresh produce. I also recognised it was important to think more carefully about how I shopped, and about scenarios like possible closures of markets and the very real prospect of not being able to readily access fresh vegetables and fruit.

For some advice, I checked in with my friend Chef Bianca Savary-Bianco, who was preparing her kitchen in almost military style for the long and testing time ahead. Instead of catering for dinners and big events, she is concentrating on cooking for her family and some of her more vulnerable neighbours. “In stocking, I thought about foods that are nutritionally dense and high in fibre, protein, and iron,” she said. “Food that could last a long time both raw and cooked in the freezer, and that you can share easily with loved ones.

“I cleaned out my refrigerators to get a clear idea of what I have, and this prevents me from impulse-buying,” said Savary-Bianco, who’s based in St Joseph, Trinidad. “The first thing I did was top up my basics like brown rice, basmati rice, salt, sugar, and things like garlic and onions. I added canned foods for the long haul — sardines, salmon, and tinned tomatoes, which are extremely useful. Of course, I bought dried food like saltfish, smoked herring, three to four types of dried beans, and different types of oil — olive, canola, and coconut.”

Savary-Bianco also pointed out that fresh greens like callaloo, spinach, and kale can be washed and frozen. And there are those fresh but hardy vegetables like carrots, celery, pimento, and cabbage that store well in the fridge. “What was important for me was to focus on food that can easily be prepared in large quantities, and retain flavour after freezing.”

With Savary-Bianco’s advice in mind and time on my hands, I’ve taken the opportunity to embark on some interesting food adventures, inspired by social media. At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, social media timelines were quite downbeat — then things started to change, and instead of coronavirus notices, I noticed more folks posting photos of their homemade meals. 

Social media has been a joy, as food lovers have taken it upon themselves to post photos, handy tips, and recipes to help us through these quarantine blues. I got into the act, too, posting some of my photos, and my biggest hit was an Instagram post showing off a traditional meal of ground provisions (purple cush cush, sweet potatoes, and green bananas) served with stewed saltfish in a tomato and pimento sauce.

One of my favourite foodies online is Baidawi Assing, who runs the food site EatAhFood. Assing explores a mix of traditional and modern T&T cuisine. He’s got a fresh and rootsy vibe, and his posts appeal to a largely millennial following. The EatAhFood post “Pantry Essentials for Quarantine Cooking” has been shared widely across several social media platforms. I especially liked his last tip, bonus level: “Start a Kitchen Garden.”

“I started to buy a couple of extra canned goods — not in a paranoid way, but I like to be prepared,” Assing says. “Going through that process myself, I thought it would be cool to do some recipes based on the stuff I was buying. I wanted to give my recipes a slant by using ingredients that people would use in an emergency.” Assing is also doing cooking videos on his YouTube channel.

It’s been a revelation, the number of people who’ve been posting recipe threads on the platform Twitter. But I’m really hooked on those by French-based American food writer Jamie Schler. I’ve been following the witty, socially conscious writer for many years, and through her initiative #IsolationBaking, she’s built up a community of isolated cooks across the world.

“I am spending a lot of time on social media: it’s a great way to stay active in a community while in quarantine or respecting social distancing,” she explains via email. “I have been sharing simple recipes on Twitter, hoping it would help others who are also in isolation.”

Schler is in lockdown in France, where she and her husband run Hotel Diderot in Chinon. “Besides being a necessity, cooking and baking are now a much-needed distraction from the news and to keep us from going stir crazy,” she says. “Making cookies or cake is a great activity to do with children who are home full-time now. A lot of folks have stocked up on baking basics like flour and sugar, so my #IsolationBaking project gives them a variety of things to make while bringing together and reinforcing our social community, creating solidarity for everyone confined to their home.”

Food has always been a magnet for getting people together: the family cookout, Christmas dinners, barbecues by the beach. Now with COVID-19 forcing us to practise social isolation, the internet has given foodies a way to be alone together. 

Check out Baidawi Assing’s food posts:
Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube: @eatahfood
Instagram: @eatahfoodtt

And find Jamie Schler at:
Twitter: @lifesafeast

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