The power of a meal shared, while separated

For many of us, one of the natural consequences of this past year of quarantine has been the need to cook less food. Once the shutdown took effect, all food media outlets — including The Times with our How To Boil Water series — promptly pivoted to providing recipes for one or two people. With families separated and dinner parties being a thing of the past, cooking large batches of food to share was now unnecessary, even dangerous. But as someone who has a pathological inability to cook small meals, it was the one part of our new world I couldn’t adapt to.

Growing up in a Southern family, big meals were the norm. Every meal for my nuclear family of four provided enough food for eight. Each Sunday, when we drove to my grandmother’s rural home for post-church lunch, there was enough fried chicken, collard greens, cornbread and layer cakes on the banquet-style table to feed the congregation we’d just left. Serving a surplus of food was the way we showed love to one another, especially when vocalizing it was not our strong suit. Having more than enough was a generous act; having too little conveyed almost a moral failing.

In my adult life before the pandemic, this tradition stayed with me. When having only another couple over for dinner, I’d make more food than the four of us could finish in three meals each. My partner always pleaded with me to make less, both to save money and because our tiny fridge could hold only so many leftovers. But doing so seemed antithetical to the type of gregarious hospitality I had been raised in.

When the pandemic hit, though, my outlet for the excess food suddenly hit an impediment. In the shock of the transition, I cooked less for about a month but then quickly ricocheted back to my default of needing to cook for a party as an outlet for the stress. Many professional bakers and cooks in L.A. and across the U.S. also did this, scraping together small pop-ups and new businesses to get their food to paying customers. It was in an effort not only to make money, of course, but to scratch the itch for putting their love and creativity into a medium that feeds and nourishes those who needed it the most.

But instead of cooking a lot and then simply eating the leftovers — something I can’t do and plan to speak with my therapist about one day — I devised a new solution that worked with my ethos of showing love through food: Bringing the extras as meals to my friends. Several of my friends lived alone, didn’t like cooking or had lost jobs because of the pandemic, so bringing them food helped not only me but also helped them in a practical, necessary way — it was both fuel and fellowship but without the religious associations.

Instead of bringing my friends a sad plastic container of leftovers, though, I’d make “homemade takeout,” packing up the food in foil containers intended to be fully-cooked or warmed in the oven or microwave so the dishes were at their prime, not reconstituted versions that saw their best lives days prior. That big pork roast, three-tiered layer cake or pan of roasted squash quarters? They all found a home with my friends who would never have made that food for themselves.

This aspect of giving food is not new, of course. During my own upbringing in Mississippi, large meals were often gifted to our friends and families in times of distress or need. If there was a death in a family or someone you knew had been in a car accident or had an extended stay in the hospital, you delivered large trays of food — lasagna, pot roast, macaroni and cheese and any number of one-pan baked casseroles. These dishes could be portioned, rewarmed and eaten for several meals, so the recipient was taken care of for days on end.

Even good times can come with challenging circumstances. Moving into a home where the kitchen wasn’t operational was the prime opportunity to give a meal to friends so they didn’t need to rely on fast food for a week. And any family with a newborn can attest to the power that a lovingly-prepared meal brings to new moms or couples faced with sleepless nights and isolation that can feel like a prison. It’s just one less thing to worry about.

That small act can bring exponentially larger amounts of joy to anyone in this pandemic — a collective life trauma hitting everyone at the same time, and in mostly the same ways, with endless amounts of stress. But when so much is so bad all the time, it’s easy to forget how something as seemingly small as a gifted meal brought the greatest relief in past tough times. And in our state of adversity, it’s an act that allows us to bestow a tactile, impactful gesture of friendship and love while we must, still, remain apart.