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Falling in Love with Home Cooking Again

A restaurant critic muses about how the shutdown has changed his relationship to food.

In many Latin American cuisines, a sofrito is an aromatic base made from common herbs and vegetables — one you may either build slowly from cooking them in oil or find prepared in a jar. Depending on the country of origin and use, it may contain tomatoes, onions, culantro, bell peppers, and garlic. In Italy, a soffrito always starts with finely diced carrots, onion, and celery in the pot, cooked long enough and with enough olive oil to wilt and then slowly caramelize the vegetables.

Last week, I started a bacon-boosted soffrito this way in my heaviest pot over the lowest flame. I spent a mesmerizing half hour stirring and watching it shrivel and grow fragrant between eyefuls of something on Netflix. Then it was quick work to dump in canned tomatoes, soaked beans, herbs, and seasonings. I could have the dish ready in 30 minutes in the Instant Pot or in a couple-three hours on the stove if I had time. What else was I going to do? I had all the time in the world. These beans were the least Instagrammable but best tasting dish I’ve made since the pandemic started because I took the care to do them right. They were even better the next day when I poured them into a casserole, topped them with crushed saltines, and baked them until they bubbled.

The author in his kitchen   Photo: Provided

Such is the weird upside to this down-in-the-dumps new reality: My relationship with cooking has changed. During the first days of the catastrophe, when the horror was sinking in, I took advantage of the get-out-of-jail-free card it afforded — the one that allowed me to eat whatever the fuck I wanted without thinking about my blood labs. One night that was a quart of Cermak Fresh Market spicy avocado salsa with a bag of tortilla chips. Bourbon and branch figured in, too, I think. I began making weird but oddly satisfying dinners for my wife and me, like warm molasses cookies followed by oven-roasted and glazed Korean ribs. I ate a roasted butternut squash for breakfast one morning. I deep-fried scallops to serve with cheese and crackers.

But when our youngest grown daughter, Mary, returned for the duration, I again had a family to cook for, over and over, night after night. That felt like a small kind of blessing. I loved rediscovering the daily challenge of crafting a robust meal from whatever was around, whether that was leftover Chinese carryout rice, chicken thighs fished out of the freezer, or a fancy sachet of dried porcini that had somehow migrated to the cat food shelf in the pantry. I began revisiting the ambitious recipes I used to make in my twenties and early thirties when I really was a good cook — beignets, cardamom buns — and not the sloppy shortcut-taker I had become over the years. (Lemme tell you, cooking night after night for kids…)

Even with all this cooking, I’ve been ordering carryout and delivery nonstop since the shutdown went into effect. Not the sushi, pad Thai, and pizza of before, but as a show of support for favorite places and, let’s face it, a splurge. Now every day is treat yo’self. As the takeout containers have been piling up, I’ve noticed something interesting. This experience has fundamentally changed my relationship to the restaurants still open, whether they want it to or not. If in a year they and I still exist, I’ll forever think of their pandemic personalities — not how they were from the before times.

Au Cheval will bring to mind not the three-hour wait I once endured for burgers and bologna, but the cop standing guard outside the front door last week to keep the delivery drivers from congregating. At Alinea, forget those truffle explosions from way back when. I was among the thousands of Chicagoans who made that restaurant’s inaugural takeout meal a hot commodity — they actually had someone directing traffic in front of the restaurant — so that I could timestamp this strange moment in gastronomy. When I unwrapped our beef Wellingtons, they bore Alinea’s three Michelin stars emblazoned in pastry on them like Chanel’s interlocking Cs. This restaurant’s rare accolade from a French tire company is part of its brand, and it can be yours for the low price of $39.95. But I shouldn’t snark — it was the best carryout meal so far.

Mostly, though, I’ve been ordering from the small, independent restaurants I liked best before, because I want to give them all the support I can. I go to pick up my food and feel sick with worry about the people there. Are they grateful they still have jobs, resentful of the danger they find themselves in, or a bit of both? I think about the waiter at Kyōten who handed me a bag at arm’s length and told me not to use the soy sauce they included just in case. I think about the counter server at Pretty Cool Ice Cream who smiled at me from behind the plate window when I read the sign instructing me to order online before entering the shop.

I encounter these people daily, but what about the ghosts — the restaurant workers who have vanished from sight? Are they getting unemployment? Are they able to pay their rent? Are they scared about their immigration status? Are they angry with their former employers who chose to shut down rather than attempt carryout just to keep a few people on payroll?

On my last walk through Wicker Park before everything got so depressingly real, I stopped for a minute to watch a cook at Bonci tear up balls of fresh mozzarella into raggedy, milky shreds and scatter them over a pizza. It was a beautiful moment in my neighborhood. Now this branch of Bonci is closed. I thought about that pizzaiolo and tried to send him some energy two weeks later when I was standing in my kitchen hand shredding rather than slicing a ball of mozzarella. Like so many others, I am once again making pizza.

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