By: Ria Prasad
Simply put, it was an unhealthy obsession- literally. I was eating out three times a week, and that too predominantly fast food meals. Marking periods two and three were beginning to take a toll on me mentally, and at the end of a long day of school or exhausting practice nothing felt more gratifying than a fried chicken sandwich. I wasn’t just paying for a cheap deliciously greasy chicken sandwich, I was paying for the sensory experience of a fizzy root beer, the sight of the shiny golden potato wedges, with a spread of condiments (most of which never even touched a fry), and the crunch of the batter fried chicken. Looking back at it I can describe the experience as if it were a dream worth remembering, but at the time it was nothing more than mere convenience. Rarely did I stop to appreciate the flavors in my mouth, by the time I paused to admire my waffle fries I was already done with my meal, itching to get back to work. No cooking, no dishes, instant gratification.
Then March 13th, 2020 hits.
I had to cut myself off from all fast food. With so many rumors spreading about the virus and few being clarified I didn’t feel comfortable continuing my daily regime.
For the first few months it felt like a staycation. I was baking and trying new recipes everyday. It felt strange to spend that much time in the kitchen, I had forgotten what it was like to comfortably peruse through the spice cabinets and scan the shelves of my pantry at my own pace. I had nowhere to go, nothing to do, so I could spend time cooking as a recreation, not out of necessity. Sometimes it was just me with my music, endlessly peeling cloves of garlic as if it were therapy. Other days it was a family activity. More music, more garlic, and the comfort of laughter and generations of family recipes. Some days it would end in the discovery of a new go to recipe such as my Gigi Hadid pasta (now a weekly staple) or the crispy Asian style chilli potato fries. Other days it would end in a small family feud over which side dish to make, or what beverage to pair the food with. A few of the days the recipes would go horribly wrong such as my hand at homemade churros, or the overspiced carrot cake.
Like every vacation this one too came to an end, even if it was just a staycation. With time, the spring break feeling faded and AP season began to settle in. Once more I found myself with not enough hours in a day. The issue was that I couldn’t revert back to my old eating habits. It was late April, cases were still skyrocketing, and I had no idea what the conditions were inside the Taco Bell kitchen, or whether or not COVID-19 could even be transmitted via food. Indulging in my paranoia I persisted in finding a healthy balance between having my Costco microwavable ramen and making my Gigi Hadid pasta (a weekly staple is an understatement). No matter how much I enjoyed cooking and experimenting with new recipes I was still missing the weekend outings to my favorite Indian restaurant or the quick stops to Chipotle.
Second week of May APs end, and as a “you survived” present my mom put together a homemade meal of all of my favorite dishes from my favorite Medditeranean restaurant, NafNaf, back in Chicago. The gesture itself was extremely touching but I wasn’t expecting the food to satisfy my craving, no matter how well it was prepared. Homemade food can taste delicious in it’s own way but it will never taste exactly like the original- or so I thought. I piled up my plate with the crispy fried falafels, slow pulled chicken shawarma, garlic tzatziki, and freshly shallow fried sliced potato thins.
Maybe it was the fact that I hadn’t been to NafNaf in over 6 months, or maybe it was because I was famished, but the way the flavors in my plate came together that day opened the door to a number of homemade restaurant dupes. Chipotle’s burrito bowls, In-N-Out’s Animal Style fries, and even my favorite pizza from Nomad in Princeton, those few months nothing was off the table. If it could be made in a restaurant kitchen it could be made in our kitchen too. Over the the next few months that became our motto of sorts, we all started to live by it.
On July 4th while I sat in the back of my dad’s car as we drove to the nearest Popeyes, I was justifying to myself that it was about time. It was about time for me to let go of my paranoia. COVID does not get transmitted via food, nor surfaces, and I can’t make fried chicken at home anyw- it doesn’t matter we are already here.
Once I broke my takeout fast that day I didn’t fall back into old habits. In fact rarely do we get takeout anymore, unless it’s something that the four of us can’t concoct in our own kitchen such as fried chicken or sushi. Whether you call it paranoia or mere oblivion to science, some part of me accepted that I couldn’t get COVID from takeout a long long time ago. I was having so much fun spending time in the kitchen with my family and having long dinner table conversations during meals that I had started to enjoy putting on this facade of being COVID conscious.
While the world was falling apart I was cooped up in my kitchen growing accustomed to cooking the art form, not the cooking that’s a daily chore. I was beginning to savor my meals and the time spent making them, an experience too invaluable for me to give up. Admitting I believe in the science of COVID would mean takeout was a viable dinner option, and I was not yet ready to allow my taste buds to be numbed again.
It all sounds overly selfish but coming from the girl who remembers just about every meal she’s had since the start of a global pandemic, enough so to narrate her eating habits from the last nine months, I can definitely attest to the fact that my takeout isolation was one of the most successful performances I’ve put on.