Essay

In Isolation with Shikha Bafna

Location: Kolhapur, India

Like most grandmothers, my Dadi was suspicious of boys I liked and had made it her favourite agenda to feed me. In her eyes, I was like a person lost in the desert who had just returned home—I must be fed to compensate for all the meals I’d missed. I returned to India in the month of March, putting up with my grandmother like I always did when I wasn’t in Bombay.

My grandmother liked to cook. More than that, she liked cooking for others. That was her love language. We spent a lot of time together in the kitchen, where she’d sit on the countertop, look out the kitchen window to spy on neighbours, and cook. Often my grandfather would sit across the kitchen counter and shamelessly flirt with her. I’d spend my time working on assignments and designing graphics for clients on the kitchen table. She’d call me over to taste if anything needed more salt or ask me to grab something from one of the shelves. She would cup my face and kiss my cheeks. Say thank you. We coexisted like roommates turned best friends, both doing things we loved.

She’d wake up early in the morning, boil the milk, get a head start on breakfast, already deciding what to make for lunch. We made hummus, tahini, banoffee pie. Once, after seeing an advertisement on TV, I absentmindedly mentioned I was craving Hakka noodles. The next day, armed with a recipe she found on YouTube, she wrote down the ingredients and made me run to the market to get them. One of my aunts would often comment that I was a shameless child, making my grandmother cook for me when I could have done it myself. But how do you tell someone that their love language is wrong?

My grandmother passed away on a rainy July morning. Among the many other things, my grandfather and I lost was our appetites. The loss was heavy. Something I could not carry with me. So I let it sit around me and my grandmother’s kitchen, filling the empty house as the refrigerator hummed in the background.

I wasn’t hungry. But I needed sustenance and my grandmother’s relief. So for the first time, I cooked.


Where is the wheat kept? Where is the vermicelli you bought a month ago? Why did you leave me?


I cooked while my online classes played in the background. I cooked through my crying jags, at first angry at my grandmother for leaving, then crying again because I wouldn’t get to hold her ever again. I tore open milk packets, spilling a little no matter how careful I was. I boiled the milk, collected the cream that could be later used to make butter. I cleaned the kitchen counter every morning as she did. I cleaned it after every meal I prepared. I looked up easy recipes on Pinterest. I stuck a chart on my fridge that showed information on seasonal fruits and vegetables. I chopped the vegetables. I cut fruit diligently for myself every day.

I made ambitious trips to the supermarket. I bought ready-made batter for idlis and dosas. I bought cream and tetra packs of milk. I cried as the dosas burned on the stove. I made pumpkin soup. I made fried rice. I made curd rice. I made cacio e pepe with parmesan, much to the horror of my Italian friends. I cried through each dish. I cried as I ate garlic bread for breakfast and lunch because I couldn’t muster the energy to cook anything else.

While grief hung around, I never felt alone in the house. Loneliness did not creep in. The silence of the house was broken by mysterious industrial noises. Pipes creaking, footsteps on the above floor. Some days I was tempted to buy an ouija board from Amazon so I could ask my grandmother questions: where is the wheat kept? Where is the vermicelli you bought a month ago? Why did you leave me? The only thing that kept me going was that I knew I was in a place she loved. I was in a room where she did what she loved. I was doing the things she loved. I realised I was holding on to whatever I could find of her.

In India, when someone passes away, people who knew them give up something that that person loved. When my grandmother passed away, my grandfather gave up eating sweets. My aunt gave up mangoes. And yet, for me, this is a morbid way to remember someone. My grandmother would have hated it. She would have wanted us to have extra of something she loved, for her.

Grief is difficult to navigate. I am still heartbroken and there are days I still cry thinking of her. The only consolation is that as I cook through each meal, I know she is proud of me. More than anything she is relieved. To know my grandmother was to love her. There is no other way of putting it. To know that she loved me, that she wanted to cook for me, is a privilege nothing will ever measure up to.


By Shikha Bafna

Essay

In Isolation with Bridget Lutherborrow

Location: Melbourne, Australia

A friend and I once found a full block of Crunch chocolate abandoned on a footpath, untouched and ready to eat. Many people had probably passed it by, but we didn’t. My friend shoved it into her rucksack to eat later. That night at a gig in Bondi, we found a Polaroid of a dark-haired girl with ‘je t’aime’ pencilled on the back, a memento I still have.  

Another time, a little drunk, hazily walking home on a Sydney evening, I found two unopened beers in a plastic bag on the street, still dangling from their four pack. I opened one as I walked home. The other I sipped on at a late-night writers’ festival event a few days later, tired and sticky, surrounded by friends. The fuzz of warm beer filled my limbs.

A world full of unexpected prizes, things that could land in my lap at any time, seems so far away in the winter of 2020, when I barely dare look strangers in the eyes, far less hold a piece of fruit in the grocery shop for a moment to contemplate if it is the one I want. I don’t even pick up a loose five dollars when I find one on the street.

My love for found food and drink is unusual to some, but by my reckoning if it’s packaged, sealed and still in use-by, it’s probably safe to consume. I’m lucky to not be afraid to eat food that I find because I’m used to having food that’s safe to eat. But I also ate that block of Crunch because at the time—on a student budget—even the price of a chocolate bar was something to be carefully considered.

Whether it’s in the supermarket or on the footpath, there is always a chance someone has tampered with something. Every piece of food we eat passes through many hands. At the supermarket, strawberries have been known to contain needles. Caramilk has been recalled for having traces of plastic. And yet, people don’t ask as many questions about the journey their food has taken. It is easy to take items from the shelf without much thought or emotion. It feels sterile and transactional, but there is comfort in the presumed reliability.

Does it bother you that you don’t know who has touched the orange you found on the street? Or can you consider it as good fortune, as something that fell right in your lap?


Finding a mango placed gently on a ledge and taking it home like a new baby feels like plenty.


I thought a lot about random found food during the pandemic. My love for foraging is not the same. Fig season hit right around March and I didn’t end up picking as many as usual, not sure how much I needed to clean my food, my apartment, or my hands. This year’s mushroom season was plentiful, and fell during the break between lockdowns, so I hauled baskets of saffron milk caps home for frying and pickling. But olive season passed me by while the second lockdown was in place. On my daily walks, I passed buckets of citrus and herbs, free, untouched. I longed for the days when it felt safe to eat something I found on the street.

It’s easy to romanticise foraging. There’s something about the practice that makes the world feel more abundant. But to me, pinching little meringue mushrooms from an abandoned high tea at the NGV feels just as bountiful. Finding a mango placed gently on a ledge and taking it home like a new baby feels like plenty.

During the pandemic, I saw people sending each other cakes, cheese and cocktails from local businesses, trying to spark the feeling of connection. I’ve had time to cook more purposefully, finding joy in caring for my food and myself. At the same time, references to weight, dieting, and eating habits have punctuated work Zoom meetings. I’ve felt more stuck with myself, more in my body, than usual.

For me, the highs of homemade focaccia and lows of work fat jokes are part of the same fixation. My love of food goes hand in hand with fear and regulation. I love to cook because I love to eat and create, but also because my relationship with food has often been about control. When I cook, I have control. Perhaps this is why foraging and found food are such a delight to me—I am at the mercy of the seasons and happenstance. I’m still stuck in my body, but it feels part of a bigger, messy thing.

I don’t yet know what this time will do to us or what will be left to hold on to. What I will focus on is one moment, as lockdown lifted, when I came across a basket of kumquats on a neighbour’s fence, with a note describing how the peel is sweet but the inside bitter, and instructions on making tea. I took four from the pile and let them rest in my palm, bright skins warm from the sun, fragrant when held to my briefly unmasked face. I took them home and placed them in the fruit bowl, thinking nothing much of it, but that they might taste good with gin. Perhaps all it would take for me to feel healed is to find a stranger’s lost Curly Wurly at my feet.


By Bridget Lutherborrow

Essay

In Isolation with Erika Veurink

Location: New York City, USA

Crate of Oranges


Today when the oranges arrived from Florida or California, the boys opened the crate with butter knives. They slid the perforated edges through the packing tape and smiled at the sight of the colour.

We are quarantined in Brooklyn. Our days feel like holes we crawl in and out of. I am their nanny and they repeat back to me, “for the coronavirus, you’re our family.” I know I’m lucky. My refrigerator is plastered in their drawings, photobooth strips of our outings. My work is my joy. Outside, the virus tears through the city. We watch the pigeons land and lift out the window. The boys and I build forts big enough to forget our fear.

There are reasons to be afraid. There are unseen, airborne enemies. The crash of empire is as local as the avenue out my window. Pounding protests and resilient cow bells and screaming infants. Catastrophe is a symphony. There is no hiding, no touching. There are nights I feel relief in nightmares.

The crate of oranges came through a restaurant supplier. It is the size of the smaller of the boys. Acquiring food has become an act of creativity (it feels like living itself is an artistic pursuit). As I pull the lid off, I’m struck.

These wrinkled oranges with reaching stems are still growing.

The three of us carry the crate to the kitchen table. I peel the fruit for me and the boy who will eat them and we get back to school. When I tell T on the phone that night, he tells me those oranges—those wildly hopeful things, all the way from California—are him.

Loaf of bread


Today I am too grief-stricken to leave my bed. A friend who loves me like a mother sends food to my apartment: an iced coffee, a dark chocolate cake, French bread. I slice into the loaf, coat it in butter and land it on the skillet. Even toast is an act of resilience. I leave it on the counter table, retreat to my bed, into the sea of blankets.

If T could have died so abruptly, then everything feels immediately important. I try again: taking the toast to the table with a napkin and knife. I imagine hunger. I project the feeling of needing sustenance. I eat the bread. I fall asleep. I dream about the sourdough starter T left on his windowsill.

So much, in sadness, is wasted.

Box of fruit


Today a package arrived from my mother in Iowa. I called her the night I found out about his suicide. I was hysterical, speaking without words. She said she was coming to get me. My best friend called her and told her to stay, saying she would take care of things. All day, my best friend calls to be sure I am eating. Her voice is a steadiness to me.

The box has air holes. I imagine it holding a live bird. But it’s just unripened apples and pears in a perfectly aligned grid. The leaves are attached. The note says she’s sorry. I leave them on my window until the pears topple and bruise on the floor. The apples seem too loud. I eat them in thin slices, quietly, as I re-read every email T ever sent me.

Grapefruit


Today is the same as the day before. I know the one after will be similar. I walk to work. I pass three or four people. We all wear masks. I am driven home. I watch movies projected on my white wall big enough to slip into. I fall asleep before anyone in California has even sat down for dinner. The light out the windows is blue.

When everyone claps for the essential workers at seven o’clock, I stick my head out the window. I am lost in something. No, I am a part of something. I slice a grapefruit seven ways and leave the peelings in a mug until the morning.

Most weekends, I walk the graveyard or into the centre of the park where the swans swim. I walk past the Camperdown Elm. I lay in the centre of the lawn—only green, only me.

I walk as long as it takes for me to be lost. Then, I navigate home with the voice of the map system in my ear. It feels like homecoming, the way she tells me to turn, the way I listen.

Farro


Today someone is cooking for me. He leans over the stove, reaching for the salt, chopping thyme on the cutting board. He moves without hesitation. I sit on the bench next to my table with one feeling, that if hunger is a language, I am willing to be its student.

The farro softens in the pot. He works, mostly, as I attend a reading online at the kitchen table. I am listening, the best that I can. I write down the words of the poet in my notebook. When I look up, he looks over. I try to take it in stride but the feeling is spreading over every surface in the apartment.

He brings me sage and rosemary from his garden. I buy flowers from the outdoor stand that just reopened. We are in a garden, it seems. The dirty dishes he cleans are proof of something. Everything I feel toward him seems experimental in its newness. I am too close to call it love. The clapping starts at seven. He and I lean out the window together. There are reasons to be afraid. But now, there are breakfasts on the beach, sunny afternoons in the country, picnics in the car. Crackling candles and something simmering and the thrill of the doorbell—this wildly hopeful thing. There are nights I feel relief.


By Erika Veurink

Essay

In Isolation with Hannah-Rose Yee

Location: Sydney, Australia

Sometimes, more often than I should admit really, I would have chips for dinner. Crisps is what they call them in England, where the brands have jokey names and MSG-laced flavours like Worcestershire Sauce and Pickled Onion, top notes so acidic they could strip the paint from your walls or, at the very least, the roof of your mouth.

I would have chips—sorry, crisps—for dinner when I got home so late that the tiny curry takeaway was already closed, or when there wasn’t any food in the fridge, or when it was so cold that my draughty kitchen felt like a scene from the really bad part of The Revenant (all of it! Ha ha!), and it was just easier to get into bed with a packet of Monster Munch and call it a night.

This was the before times, when I lived in London in a very small three bedroom flat dropped somewhere in the bit between Dalston (markets, always awake), De Beauvoir Town (pubs, Kit Harington getting coffee in implausibly tight jeans) and Newington Green (strollers, fruit stores). I lived with a chef from one of London’s best restaurants, who came home so late he would often have chips for dinner too, and a girl who worked at a bank and ate out for almost every meal. Which meant that when I wasn’t having chips for dinner I could stand in our tiny kitchen uninterrupted and cook whatever I wanted. This was usually spaghetti or, when it was really cold, which worked out to be approximately six months of the year, a very spicy minestrone soup that I would cover in pecorino and parsley and eat curled up on my end of the sofa. It was another time, another country. You know how it is.

I’ve been back in Australia for six months now and it’s been six months since I’ve had chips (crisps?) for dinner. I came back because my visa was expiring and coronavirus very much wasn’t and I didn’t want to be stranded overseas on my own. Also—I came back because I wanted to be with my family. Sometimes I say something else, another tossed away excuse, but that’s the truth: I wanted to come home.

It doesn’t mean that I don’t miss London, or the life I had there, because I do, achingly and almost every day. But back in March, when everything was being uprooted, I felt like I was living in a house of cards. So I came home to a real house, made from bricks and mortar, back with my parents in Sydney where I was born and raised. For six months I’ve been in our home, a place rooted in memory and history and strange Yee family traditions. It’s so familiar that I could walk through it with my eyes closed and never bump into a single thing.

The way it works at home is that I do all the cooking. Forget what I said about the chips, I’m actually alright in the kitchen. My mum taught me. When we were kids she did everything and she did it well, like an Australian Nigella Lawson: elaborate birthday cakes in the shape of pirate ships and fairytale castles, eight-course Chinese New Year dinners, favourite dishes on special occasions, and also any day of the week ending in a Y. But she doesn’t cook much anymore and my dad, bless him, can only really do a stir-fry. So most days it’s me in front of the stove, cooking for the three of us, making meals that we will eat, knees touching, crowded around one end of our dining table.


No dessert for dad, unless it’s pavlova, in which case no dessert for anyone except dad.


In London I lived selfishly. I got used to cooking for one: chips for dinner, the spiciest takeaway eaten straight from the container, the secret meals that you only eat when you’re on your own, things that live in bowls, drowning in everything salty and wrong. I was feeding myself and catering only to my tastes, I had a pantry full of things that only I would ever want to eat. Here, at home, I am no longer an island unto myself. It’s a good lesson to learn, especially now that I am [redacted] years old.

I have to remember that my mum doesn’t like pork, unless it’s bacon, and then she likes it a lot, but only when it’s in a pasta sauce, never when it’s on its own and served alongside a fried egg, then it’s just the egg and a slice of toast, please. (No scrambled eggs. She doesn’t like them. Boiled eggs are OK though, either served runny with toast soldiers or so done you could bounce them against the wall. Nothing in between.) Dad doesn’t eat sauce. He likes things plain and simple. Honest. No spices. But then—lots of pepper. Do you think he has enough pepper? He doesn’t. Keep grinding. No carrots for dad. No watermelon for mum. No dessert for dad, unless it’s pavlova, in which case no dessert for anyone except dad. Cut mum the smallest pieces of meat and the largest helpings of broccoli, Brussels sprouts and roast potatoes. Dad, who I have never witnessed drink a drop my entire life, has cultivated this habit during lockdown of nursing tiny little half-beers that come in bottles not dissimilar to Tabasco in size and shape. They’re ridiculous. He loves them. Pour one out for him.

At first, I found all this endless emotional catering thoroughly exhausting. “I feel like I’m running a restaurant,” I sniffed at my mum. (You can imagine how that went down with the woman who spent almost three decades cooking for her children.) Then, I saw it for what it was: the togetherness that I had craved when I was alone in London eating chips—sorry, crisps—for dinner.

The thing is—this is the warm, soupy, stomach-hugging thing—I like standing in front of the stove. I feel solid here. Scaffolded. Checked and balanced. I like cooking for my mum and dad, two people who have known me for every ordinary and extraordinary second of my life. I like thinking about what they want to eat and making it for them and putting it in front of them, sometimes sullenly, sometimes exasperatedly, but mostly with flourish and plenty of care. I like reaching for chilli flakes and then silently putting them back. I like pulling out arborio rice to make cheesy risotto, again. I like knowing that everything in this kitchen exists to feed my parents and make them feel full. Content. I like being the one to give them that feeling. I even like it—I pretend that I don’t, but I really, really do—when my mum pops her head into the kitchen and asks: “What’s for dinner?”


By Hannah-Rose Yee

Essay

In Isolation with Victoria Hannan

Location: Melbourne, Australia

I moved house in March, just before it all happened. I’m a few doors up from a McDonald’s, a never-ending stream of cars circling the drive-through. To the east, the creek. Just south, a whole street lined with bars and restaurants. It’s a few weeks in before I realise that if this goes on for as long as they say (ninety days, six months, forever), I might never get to visit them. They might close down, cease to exist. What is the point of living in this neighbourhood if not for the bars, for the restaurants?

I quietly panic and fill the freezer with food: a hastily, shoddily made bolognese, vegetable chilli, cooked kale, chicken stock. What happens if I can’t get to the shops? If there’s no food left when I can? What if I’m too sick?

In the first few weeks, I fall asleep watching cooking videos. There is something soothing about them: the methodical building of a meal, the generic American voices, that there are no surprises. At the start of every video they tell you what they’re going to make and then they make it. Every video, a definite thing.

I stop thinking about buying anything other than food and wine, seedlings which I plant in my garden (in neat rows, then water, wait). I don’t need new clothes, I text to friends. I don’t need anything except for everyone to be okay. Later, I buy three jumpers, some slippers, thick socks, two pairs of jeans.

I spend hours making focaccia and when I pull it out of the oven, I feel good, proud, smug even, for a few minutes, but it’s going to take more than that dimpled, salty crust to fix this. I stuff it full of cheese, salami, sun-dried tomatoes like it’s 2002,  dip a chunk in a swirl of olive oil and vinegar like I’m at a suburban Italian restaurant. (What I wouldn’t give to be at a suburban Italian restaurant, ordering spaghetti carbonara with extra scoops of powdery parmesan, garlic bread, a bottle of sangiovese to share with my friends.)


There’s a pocket in the back of my running shorts meant for keys but it fits three figs, in a squeeze.


Most mornings, I run a few kilometres around the same back streets, passing bright pink front-yard roses, a covered-up car on which three cats sit with their backs to the road. I run past a basket of bay leaves (Free bay leaves, the note says. Should I disinfect them? I google how long does the virus live on bay leaves. No one knows). I jog holding a stem of them for the last few hundred metres home. Now they hang on the inside of the pantry door, drying, crisping, the tips of their leaves curling like the edges of an old poster. One is plucked for stewed fruit, another ground down in a spice mix for roasted sweet potatoes.

I find a fig tree in an alley lined with back fences. It dangles low, its fruit mostly untouched by birds, unseen by neighbourhood walkers. There’s a pocket in the back of my running shorts meant for keys but it fits three figs, in a squeeze. I roast them in honey and the magenta syrup sticks to the pan in a pattern that looks like clouds.

A few streets away there are three woody-trunked, rough-leafed lemon verbena bushes I can reach from the footpath. I pick a few leaves at a time from one; next time, another. I put them in boiling water for tea. A few weeks later, I fill my fig pocket with leaves from all three and make a simple syrup to drink like cordial—soda water, a squeeze of lime, vodka if you need it (I do).

By July, I’m harvesting handfuls of butter- and oak-leaf lettuce from the garden. I wash the dirt from their folds. Something’s eating my cavolo nero so I cut little butterfly shapes out of cardboard and tape them to sticks to scare away the moths. It doesn’t work. Soon, the dark green leaves resemble Swiss cheese. I leave it in the ground, decide to let the bugs have it.

Our lemon tree fruits, its roots busting and breaking up the concrete pavers. The biggest, ripest lemon hangs on a branch that dangles over the fence above our neighbour’s yard. One evening as the sky darkens, I hit it with a spade and it swings but doesn’t fall. As the days pass, I watch the fruit around it change colour. I stand on a chair and perch on the black-rock sides of the barbecue, reaching in between thorned branches to pick them; we preserve them in jars, use the zest in risotto. After two weeks of watching the big, ripe one get bigger and riper, I look at our basket of lemons atop the fridge and decide that the neighbours can have it. I hope they squeeze half in a hot toddy, the other over pasta. Even if they let it rot on the ground, it doesn’t matter.

Now that we’re past the ninety days, that the six months approaches, I’m looking at this neighbourhood differently. I care less about the bars, the restaurants; they’ll come and go as they always have. As I put on my mask to drop a bag of freshly-picked lettuce and bouquets of homegrown coriander and parsley at the door of a friend who lives across the road, I think about all the neighbourhood has to offer, all that it provides. It’s not what I expected, but then nothing ever is.


By Victoria Hannan