Cooking in Quarantine: An American Chef in Italy Shares How Getting Creative in the Kitchen Is Helping Her Cope
This is what my new normal looks like—and what I'm cooking.
Just two weeks ago, the idea of quarantine was almost laughable. I live amongst Italians in Reggio Emilia—a province in northern Italy—who felt concerned, but thought the novel coronavirus was just another minutiae exploited by the media. Surely, it would pass.
So, I went about my day-to-day, and even proceeded to go to a doctor's visit in Bergamo—a city I didn't yet know was thought to be the most overrun with COVID-19 in all of Italy. And then the restaurant where I work as head cook reluctantly told me that I could no longer do so for the next fortnight, considering my possible exposure to the "infected Bergamo air." From one day into the next, as quickly as a passing train, Reggio Emilia went on full lockdown—I didn't have time to think, let alone buy a plane ticket home to New York. Those two weeks of isolation became one month and, as of today, a guaranteed one and a half.
For the first few days of quarantine, I couldn't fully process what was about to happen. No one could. We would look into each other's eyes over the blue hue of our face masks, desperate for answers. And then, the streets—once bustling with laughing locals clinging their cocktails—went silent.
My roommate, Grace, and I chase the sunlight around the apartment all day, something we have down to a science. From 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., the sunlight hits the bathroom window. From the kitchen, you can see the two of us tandem on the windowsill. From 2:30 p.m. until sundown, the light dances between the laundry room and my bedroom, giving us the perfect window to make lunch.
Some days are more challenging than others. I occupy a lot of my time cleaning our apartment and exercising—but mostly, I am back in the kitchen. Working at the restaurant reduced my creativity level at home to a minimum; whenever I would cook, I was exhausted and had no desire to create. More time at home, however, means more time to cook. I started getting waves of inspiration. Grace and I joke about what kind of wacky meal we will make each day, with whatever we have available (we are only permitted to leave our homes to go to the grocery store or the pharmacy, with a written document stating where we are headed; I try to take as many trips as I can).
With work at a complete standstill, I started a fun show called "Cooking in Quarantine," where I prepare meals with whatever I have in the kitchen. I feel inspiration coming at me from all angles of the quiet apartment—I make everything from kale balls, injera, and anchovy frittata to homemade goat cheese and ostrich burgers. I'm convinced, too, that by the end of this I will have mastered the art of sourdough. There's something astoundingly therapeutic about kneading dough—and cooking in general.
Although I adore jazz music and dancing while cooking, I've found myself embracing the silence of this quarantine—listening to the symphony of preparing a meal. The soft taps of the knife against the cutting board as I chop an onion. The first release of the flame to light the right corner burner. The sizzling of the vegetables dancing around the pot while I sprinkle them with fresh herbs and spices.
I have always known and loved these sounds, but they are resonating with me more now than they ever have before. They bring back memories of my parents cooking a meal; this keeps me grounded. Through each stir of my sauce, I can practically hear them saying, "It's going to be okay, my sweetie." I find myself accidentally recreating dishes that my mother and father used to refer to as "depression food," which were simple meals that their parents made out of necessity during the Great Depression, shortly after migrating to America—like a potato and cabbage soup (that I used to snub my nose at when I was little) that is now on its third re-boil.
For me, one of the most challenging parts of this quarantine has been understanding how everything changed in an instant—how everything has since frozen in time, with no end in sight. I do what I can to occupy my time, but when I stop, even for a moment, fear rushes over me. The thought of people in other parts of the world still prancing around parks, going to gatherings with friends, or even just sitting on a bench in the sun weighs heavily on me. If they could see me now, eating lunch on top of my washing machine just to feel the light, would they start taking this virus seriously? Would they stop believing that this quarantine is something that will never impact them?
I think one of the most honorable things we can do as human beings is to accept that there are things in this world that are bigger than us. Our lifestyles have reached such an extreme level of excess that it often blinds us from moral responsibility—but this time, please stay home. Get a bunch of books, puzzles, and a rolling pin. Take yourself out of your comfort zone within your own space. Connect with people you've been meaning to call for a while.
Most importantly, remember that the entire world is, for one of the first times in history, united together. In the beginning, Grace and I were mapping out our quarantine activities when I heard the faint sound of a trumpet just down the street. I quickly began to assemble my saxophone (which, if it hadn't been for the case, would have been covered in dust from lack of use). I could see the sun setting over the buildings in front of me as I threw one leg outside the window, dangling down the side of the building. A musical call and response ensued—and then I began to sing at the top of my lungs. The energy filled the streets like a parade and I understood, right then, that we are all going through this together. Not just as a city or a country, but as a planet. And for that, I'm sure, "andrà tutto bene"—everything will be okay.
Alyssa D'Adamo is a chef and creative professional from New York currently living and working as a video producer in Reggio Emilia, Italy, to promote and protect Italian food around the world, while simultaneously defining what it means to eat and live well.