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A kitchen full of silver linings

A kitchen full of silver linings
Stuck at home, with time on my hands. (Photo: Neil McMahon)

This week a Facebook Memory reminded me of the single silver lining I should take away from two years of isolation: the joy I found in endless hours in the kitchen. But my experience of the pandemic years was different to most.

Some things are best forgotten, but the modern world doesn’t give us much choice in the matter of choosing which they are. Remember you will, whether you like it or not, and into this basket of things past that we’d rather not live through again even in hindsight we can toss the pandemic years.

The worst of it is over now, or at least we hope it is, but the malady lingers on in the mind, aided and abetted by our frenemies at Facebook, who insist on reminding us every day of highlights and lowlights from our pasts. And I’ve found that this year it has become 2020’s time to shine in the Memories tab, with a bunch of 2021 flashbacks also making their presence felt.

Melbourne’s run of lockdowns and curfews forced its residents behind closed doors and in need of distraction. (Photo: Pixabay)

This occurred to me in recent days as the flashbacks hit my feed, reminding me that one year ago this very week my home town of Melbourne was coming to the end of Lockdown No 6. This was the lockdown during which we were awarded the dubious crown of Most Locked Down City In The World, a series of city-wide closures dating back to March 2020.

And when Melbourne did lockdowns, it jumped in with both feet. For some of these extended periods of pandemic isolation, we were also subject to a curfew that made it illegal to leave home between 9pm and 4am. These were, needless to say, extremely strange and difficult days indeed.

A small illustration. Just the other day, I was discussing the end of the TV show Ted Lasso with someone and I realised that my main memory of the last episode was not how much I loved the show (and I really did love it) – it was that I watched it at a friend’s houses and broke curfew driving home after it finished. A stressful drive it was, consumed with the unlikely hope that if I explained why I was out after 9pm a friendly police officer might sympathise. I got home unhindered, but explaining this scenario to future generations will take some creative patience.

It’s a trivial symbol of a very trying time, a time that had nothing good to recommend it.

Or did it?

This week another Facebook Memory popped up and it reminded me of the single silver lining I should take away from those two years of isolation: the joy I found in endless hours in the kitchen, unpressured by demands on my time or other stresses that often render cooking a chore to be squeezed in, rather than a pleasure to be savoured at length. I can safely say now that I am a different and better cook after lockdown than I was before it, and that was all thanks to the government making me stay at home.

Like the Ted Lasso curfew story, explaining this to future generations is going to require some imagination, but if the last two years are to exist as anything other than a seemingly endless blur divorced from time and meaning, we need to stop and appreciate the little blessings.

I should note here that my experience of the pandemic years was different to most.

In October 2020 I nearly lost my life in an accidental fire that (literally) burnt the house down, so my reference points of these past three years are divided into Before and After Covid and Before and After Near Death Experience. The main practical effect of the two things combined was that my post-fire health issues forced me to give up alcohol. This made lockdowns a different experience for me than for most people I knew, who on their own admission were becoming day drinkers – anything to make the endless days of lockdown and curfew pass by more easily.

For me, those long days stretched out forever without any prospect of artificial enhancement. There was no cheeky lunchtime glass of wine on the horizon, or a 5pm gin and tonic that for some was soon creeping ever earlier in the afternoon. And so, in the absence of anything else to do, I threw myself quite deliberately into the kitchen as a distraction and a form of therapy – a daily project that was both creative and educational and came with the bonus of a (mostly) delicious reward at the end of it.

Conquering cuisines … Mexican was among the challenges. (Photo: Pixabay)

There were speed bumps. One week I noticed that there was a boom in online cooking classes, as chefs and restaurants searched for ways to make money during the brutal days of enforced closures. 

I signed up for a Mexican cooking class, which came with the attractive option of the restaurant delivering you the box of ingredients you would need for the Zoom lessons. This was all well and good – until I found the ingredients box included a bottle of tequila. Sensibly, this Mexican cooking class included a cocktail-making session. I had to stare long and hard at that tequila bottle before deciding I could enjoy the lessons just as much sober. And I did.

Knead to know… baking bread became a weekly habit to break the monotony. (Photo: Pixabay)

I expanded my kitchen horizons to wherever my fancies landed on a particular day. I started baking my own bread. Making my own pizza dough. Baking my own pies. Getting my hands wet to make my own pasta. 

For a time in Melbourne, an online community sprung up of people who would make pancakes every Sunday – a communal activity dubbed Solidarity Pancakes, the solidarity being with the health workers on the Covid frontlines. It was a joy, as we discovered the number of variations on the humble pancake across many cultures and cuisines. It was a simple thing, but every Sunday morning it brought strangers together.

Shelf life … cookbooks and TV shows brought culinary inspiration. (Photo: Neil McMahon)

I made friends with amateur home cooks like me, and professional chefs and food writers who shared their passion and wisdom. I learned much. I ate my way through Nigella Lawson’s books and TV shows (and will be forever grateful that her Old Fashioned White Sandwich Loaf became a weekly staple in my kitchen). 

I was introduced to the delights to be had in learning from Samin Nosrat, whose Netflix series and book Salt Fat Acid Heat became a bible of education and inspiration on the foundations of all cooking. That led me to a similarly eye-opening publication: Ratio, a book by Michael Ruhlman, whose one-word title sums up its purpose and content. It literally explains the science of the required ratios we use every day in cooking without ever thinking much about it, and meets the billing on the cover: “When you know a ratio, it’s not like knowing a single recipe. It’s instantly knowing a thousand.” Masterchef alumni Alice Zaslavsky’s wonderful and encyclopaedic In Praise Of Veg threatened for a time to turn this carnivore green.

A Mexican online cooking class brought some tequila-related challenges. (Photo: Neil McMahon)

These books and authors and TV shows became teachers, companions and friends, and looking back on this period is now to understand that the kitchen is a place for learning lessons not just about food, but about ourselves and the ways we make places for it in our lives. 

Lockdown gave me, at least, the gift of learning that there is freedom to be found in living the bits of life that are right in front of you even when other things have been taken away. DM/TGIFood

Neil McMahon is a Melbourne-based writer and author who in an earlier incarnation covered events in South Africa as a correspondent and columnist in Cape Town.

Follow Neil on Instagram @neildmcmahon

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