Cooking During COVID-19: Family Meals And Fantasies Of Future Dinner Parties
As billions of people around the world face stay-at-home orders because of COVID-19, family dinners — and breakfasts and lunches — are resurgent. Former New York Times food editor Sam Sifton calls the shift to family meals one of the "precious few good things" happening as a result of the pandemic.
"A lot of us are really experiencing the joys of eating together with family regularly," he says. "For me, it's been kind of joyful amid all the sorrow."
Sifton was recently promoted to be The Times' assistant managing editor, overseeing its culture and lifestyle coverage, but he continues to write about food and its role in helping people cope with the isolation of the pandemic. His new cookbook, See You on Sunday, was inspired by the idea that regularly gathering and feeding friends and family is psychologically and spiritually nourishing.
"We're gathering for the purpose of sustenance, for the purpose of an almost literal communion," he says. "If you do that regularly enough, you'll see a change in your relationship to both the cooking and the people — and perhaps see a change in yourself and how you regard the world."
Sifton emphasizes that now is not the time for dinner parties. Instead, he's staying home, enjoying meals with his own nuclear family — and fantasizing about the other side of the pandemic, when he can safely host a big Sunday dinner. His ideal post-coronavirus feast? A giant pot of steamed clams.
"Everyone crowded together around it when it's done, shoulders touching and people reaching over one another to get at the drawn butter and tearing off pieces of bread to dip into the broth," he says. "That's gonna be joyous when that happens."
On how people are cooking both adventurously and pragmatically during the pandemic
This may be a time to be more adventurous. It's also, conversely, a time to be simple. At The New York Times and NYT Cooking (our recipe site and app), we're seeing that play out in real time in what people are searching for and what people are asking us about. You see people, on the one hand, trying to perfect their sourdough bread-making skills, and on the other asking for what the simplest, easiest way to get a can of beans on the table to feed the family is.
And I think that's kind of neat, actually, that we can hold these two things in our minds at once. These projects that we'll try and execute over the course of hours and days and then also: How am I going to do this fast and quick and cheap and with what's available? And I hope we can deliver answers to both.
On improvising with limited pantry items
I think it depends what's in the pantry. ... I'm not like a lot of my colleagues [who] are a true chef. I'm a pretty good cook and I can follow any recipe you throw at me. I could work for a chef, but I can't kind of close my eyes and conjure up amazing combinations and flavors as someone like [food columnist] Melissa Clark can do for The New York Times. Instead, I rely on these jarred magical potions — which range from peanut butter, to pickled chilies, to soy sauce, to maple syrup — to deliver notes of flavor on top of whatever plain-Jane things happen to be in the bottom of the refrigerator crisper. ... And sometimes it doesn't work.
On being open to substitutions
I think that many people — me included — write recipes, because if you follow them, you will get the result that I got and that I want you to get. But if you substitute along the way, you may end up with something that you like — and that's even better. We joke about this a lot at The Times ... about people who say, "I tried the chicken, but I didn't have chicken, so I used sardines, and this is a terrible recipe." Your mileage may vary. But using the spices that you have or the flavors that you have on hand is more than perfectly all right. It's welcome. It's what we ought to do. It's in the nature of cooking often and being confident about what it is you're doing.
On the versatility of tinned fish
I'm loving the tinned fish right now. There's so many different things that you can do with those critters. If they're anchovies, I would use them like a condiment. They add this kind of salty umami pop to everything. I like sardines on crackers with a little mayonnaise and a little hot sauce. ... With tuna, there's so much you can do, particularly if the tuna is of good quality, then it can kind of stand on its own. If it's not, if it's just supermarket canned tuna, it's still pretty great. You mix it into a tuna salad with a little mayo, maybe with some curry powder if you have some going, a curried tuna salad is really terrific. ...
I find those canned fishes of all varieties to be hugely helpful in the manner of bringing variety to your diet and also a lot of good taste. I bet you, if you look deep enough, there may be a can of minced clams in the back [of the cupboard], and add that to a tomato sauce and spaghetti dinner is all the better this time for that addition.
On shopping infrequently because of the virus, and looking for ingredients that stretch
I think that we should be getting out to shop as little as possible. I think social distancing means ... that we shouldn't all be crowding into the store every night as if we were living in an imaginary Paris to pick up our daily baguette and a couple of duck legs for dinner. Life isn't like that right now. I try to go as infrequently as possible to the market to stock up, and when I do, I try not to shop like a panicky person. But I do want meals that stretch. If I can find a pork shoulder that can become four meals over the course of a week, well, that's great. If I can land starches and grains to put next to those various pork dishes, I'm happy. ...
We're cooking with a lot of cabbage right now. I think that's because I like cabbage for its ability to be many things, including once you get rid of those outer leaves ... you've got all that tender, fresh, clean, perfect cabbage flesh inside that makes a beautiful, crunchy, raw deliciousness thing on your plate at a time when sometimes fresh vegetables are few and far between.
On how the pandemic has impacted the restaurant industry
Our reporters are laser-focused right now on this issue, and they came back to the paper with a report ... that suggested that it would not be insane to think that 70% of independent restaurants in the United States could be closed by the coronavirus pandemic. And that's a staggering number. The size of the restaurant industry in the United States — the restaurant industry outside of the fast food industry — is gigantic. And it has ripple effects across the country with small farms, with larger farms, with fishermen, with wine salesmen, with all manner of related businesses that are going to suffer.
We had a story that spoke ... with a woman whose business is providing flowers for restaurants. That's gone. You think of the laundry services — gone. It's really scary. ... If a restaurant can't make payroll, it can't make rent. How long can they stay socially isolated and return in the same form? Everything is gonna be different on the other side of this — everything.
On the importance of communal eating — even if it's just at home with your family
I wrote a book saying invite as many people [as you can], and you can always welcome the stranger. I believe that passionately. But that's not something that we can do right now. But I warrant that my argument holds true for those of us who are stuck at home right now: that it's not always easy to put that meal on the table at night these days, because it happens every single night.
But there's something about the repetition. There is something about the practice of doing it that I think is going to bring a measure of something good to those who can see it for what it is: which is an act of giving to others — that the making of the food is important, because you are serving others, even if the person you are serving is super annoying right now because you've been living with them for four weeks.
Sam Briger and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.