It started back in March. Our son Ben was returned to us from college; our daughter Birdy was Zooming into school as a high-school junior; my massage-therapist husband could not work. I was myself swamped with deadlines, but then, also, obsessed with making dinner. I tend to exaggerate, but in this case, obsessed is not too strong a word. I woke up thinking about dinner: What should I make? What do we still have? Can I pop out in a mask to borrow an onion from a neighbor? (Or maybe this was before masks, even.) Will I be able to get more rice if I use this last package? Will buttery polenta make everybody feel happy, like a consolation prize for these stolen days of their lives?
I chopped onions with a kind of joyful heaviness in my heart. Like being in love inside of a fallout shelter. I cued Spotify to Alicia Keys, and cried when “Good Job” came on.
We were confused and afraid and deeply sad. We were also very lucky and very happy to have our Ben home. I felt like we were hanging by a thread, and like the thread was made of dinner. Every day the evening meal was a holy event.
In my last Marshall’s run before lockdown I’d bought a dented tin of truffle oil with a red clearance sticker on it. Ben is a total foodie, and he and I had always wanted to have truffle oil in the house. (Truffle fries! Truffle mashed potatoes! Truffle everything!) He got busy. He put it on scrambled eggs and popcorn and, yes, mashed potatoes. And he invented his signature early-pandemic late-night snack: truffled ramen with garlic, hot pepper flakes, and parmesan. We ate it almost every night, and it was delicious. The earthy funk of truffle is always going to remind me of those days, the dark evenings growing lighter as normal life receded and something else took its place.
Ben can cook, some. He’d made dinner once a week for a while as a young teenager and still, now, even though he’s 20, I feel like he’s some kind of prodigy because seven years ago he learned to make macaroni and cheese. In other words: maybe this was an opportunity? I asked him if he’d cook dinner weekly again — to pick up some skills and give me a break from my consumingly fretful meal-making — and he was game.
Full disclosure: I did not make him cook only with lentils (like I do) or use up the elderly rutabaga or the chard stems I’d put back in the drawer after stripping off their leaves to add to the lentils. I indulged in his cheerful craving for expensive ingredients (squid, shrimp, chicken) and his inclination to bring 2 quarts of oil to a rolling boil in the Dutch oven. And OH MY GOD! We ate so well. He made Rhode Island Calamari and Honey-Walnut Shrimp and roast chicken. He made mojitos and amaretto sours. He needed tons of help. “Is this even helpful to you?” he asked one night, as I showed him how to use the candy thermometer for deep frying. “I mean, you’re basically in here the whole time I’m cooking!” And I could hardly answer. “This is so helpful to me,” I said. I didn’t say: you being home with us; someone besides me having an idea for a meal; this time with you, you teaching me how to listen to Anderson Paak and Vulfpeck, and me teaching you what I know best, which is cooking. Me teaching you to pull a rabbit out of a hat, and the hat is the kitchen, and the rabbit is caring for the people you love. “Really, really helpful,” I added.
The moral of this story is: help your kids learn to cook, and then you won’t have to make dinner every single freckling night for the rest of your life or for the whole entire next month, whichever lasts longer. Also: then the kids will know how to cook.
I recommend starting with how to roast a chicken, in service of which I offer an excerpt from my new book, How To Be A Person: 65 Hugely Useful, Super-Important Skills to Learn before You're Grown Up.
How To Be A Person is available now.