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

Essay

In Isolation with Tyree Barnette & family

Location: Sydney, Australia

Every trip to our local grocery store was a scavenger hunt. After waiting in line for entry, I navigated the congested isles with a narrow shopping list to satisfy some uniquely challenging palates at home.

My three-year-old son, Hampton, was growing curious about trying new foods. I hoped to add some weight to his slender frame. A product of an induced birth, Hampton arrived tall and skinny, his viny legs entangled in each other while his long arms wrapped around his torso. He looked like a tree root made of flesh. His hair went from thin whispers to a thick, light-brown golden crown.      

I stopped to read the ingredients of some muesli bars, knowing that it could cost me toilet paper, paper towels, or disinfectant spray in another aisle. Everyone around me was voracious, stockpiling household items as if the world outside was disintegrating.

But caution was key. Anything with more than traces of peanut butter would give Hampton an anaphylactic reaction. We’d discovered his allergy when he was one year old and had a taste of peanut butter on his lips from a sandwich. Less than a half hour later, a child health nurse was in our apartment after his lip swelled and he began coughing.  

My other son, one-year-old Miles, had been born a little thicker than Hampton and nearly as tall at birth. His was a calmer, natural water birth. The first few months saw his thighs and stomach swell and a bushel of deep black hair rolled out of his head. But then, his rapid growth plateaued. During a regular check-up with a nurse, he was deemed underweight for his age.

Afterwards, I replayed all the times he’d shown no interest in eating. I’d tried oatmeal, yogurt, applesauce, rice, spaghetti, and hash browns—all foods we’d tried with his brother. But with Miles, our routine was that we would try to feed him, he’d chew up and spit out the food, I’d clean it up, and we’d resign to breastfeeding. We had yet to find what I thought of as his gateway meal: the first thing he really liked which would open the door to other food.

I doubted I would find such a thing during a pandemic.

Luckily, most of our typical go-to items for further trial and error were still on shelves when I reached them: ramen noodles, frozen hash browns, fruit, smooth almond butter, apple juice, and microwave popcorn. A few other healthier options completed my shopping list and I returned home to experiment.

My wife Tracina is by far the better cook out of the two of us. She treated me to homemade shepherd’s pies when we first started dating back in Raleigh, North Carolina. It was the first dish she cooked for me. Later there was steak and eggs, spaghetti bolognese, shrimp tacos, and stews when the weather turned cold. We were married for barely a year before she accepted a job in clinical research halfway across the world.


Every trip to our local grocery store was a scavenger hunt.


When I got home, Tracina took out the hamburger patties and balled them up in her fingers before liberally sprinkling salt, pepper, garlic powder, cayenne, and onion powder—we always found that meat in Australia needed a bit of extra seasoning for our taste. Then, she reformed these thoroughly seasoned patties into thick disks for the grill, along with some carrots and asparagus.  

“No, Hampton!” I warned when he tried to turn over a hamburger prematurely. “We flip it once when it’s ready or it’ll dry out.”

When he got bored watching me poke at the sizzling meat, he wandered off to open the screen door for Miles, who came trotting outside, smiling and pigeon-toed.

Minutes later, Hampton finally got his moment to flip the fat, darkened patties, now thoroughly sizzling in their own yellowed juices. I scooped up the limp vegetables into a baking pan to cool. I had little hope the kids would actually eat the veggies—but we had to keep trying.

For added motivation for the kids, we formed an ‘eating circle’ since our villa doesn’t have a kitchen table. Instead, we gathered around each other, sitting on wicker bar stools, Miles and Hampton in their highchairs. Facing them, we cheered them on, encouraging them as they ate.

To guarantee the boys would eat something, Tracina dropped some frozen French fries into a deep fryer while I sat a hamburger patty inside a plump brioche bun. I gave it a squirt of ketchup, then cut it into bite-size pieces.

Hampton went first, picking up a piece of meat and bun with his thin fingers, turning it around curiously with a grin, and then cautiously biting into it. A few drops of ketchup fell onto his shirt. He nodded his head excitedly, food peeking out from his teeth.

“It’s so good!” he said, smacking and taking another bite. I hoped that seeing him enjoy the food would motivate his brother.  

Miles bounced a little in his highchair. He leaned forward, his little mouth opening with a popping sound. I guided a piece of burger just past the eight teeth he had to rest on his tongue. He worked the food around his puffy caramel-coloured jaws, deciding how to eat it. Then, after a few chews, Miles smiled and laughed, bits of bread flying from his mouth. He swallowed and scooted in his highchair for more.

Tracina clapped enthusiastically from across the bar as Miles finished a few more bites of the burger. I tried to sneak in a carrot too. He spat it out.

When they’d finished, I cleaned their mouths of grease and ketchup and gave them each Sippy cups of watered-down apple juice.

This was a breakthrough. I gave both boys a Tim Tam for dessert, a favourite in our house. Hampton demolished his while Miles ate half, gleefully sucking the chocolate before biting into it.

In all that time in isolation, we shared dozens of meals and taught our kids how to eat. In return, they taught us patience. My grocery list grew as the kids slowly embraced new foods and different flavours. Another small victory: they started looking forward to our eating circles and helped arrange their highchairs.  

We are still working on the vegetables.


By Tyree Barnette

Essay

In Isolation with Lana Guineay

Location: Adelaide, Australia

The white muslin dress is already dry on the clothesline. Blue-green leaves of eucalyptus trees sway in the summer breeze. It’s hot. Summer in Adelaide includes at least one searing heatwave, the outback northerlies not biting but something worse—the deadweight of inescapable heat, sinking into your marrow. It makes things fuzzy. In the car, the door handle and seatbelt clasp burn my fingers. The asphalt horizon shimmers. Things that once seemed so important lose their vigour. I stay inside in the air conditioning, windows blinded against the glare, eating cherries cold from the fridge, and wish for a cool change.

Adelaide is an orderly city, one of planned grids of streets laid over Tarntanya, the open grassy plain home to hundreds of generations of Kaurna people. Today’s city is dictated by compass points, and its seasons are likewise predictable. Wilderness here is tamed into a ‘green belt’ of parklands circling the city, parklands that seem vast and gold by day, and turn dark and unwelcoming at night. There are stories of attacks. Adelaide’s too sunlit to be gothic, but it’s there anyway at times, that feeling of darkness in a place designed by a man named Light.

Cicadas shrill through my summer breakfast: pink frosted cake and fresh figs. I eat with a fork over the kitchen counter. I will continue this isolated summer of staying inside well into the next season, and the next, though I don’t know it yet. I’ve been sick—it matters very much with what—and I’m staying in place not just because temperatures are over 40C, but because I no longer trust my body.

One of the last public things I do before lockdown is visit the neurologist, who suggests an elimination diet to help ease my symptoms: certain fresh fruit, vegetables, meat. On the ride home I clutch the paper verboten list, and it is long and full of my favourite foods.

I’m inert, but the city has continued on around me with its summer art festivals, tourists flocking despite growing fears of a virus they say is coming here soon. One of the first confirmed cases is a viola player in town for the Adelaide Festival—he misses his concert, isolated in hospital.

Soon the players and the audiences are gone, leaving wide stretches of yellow grass where spiegeltents have been alive with dancing, singing, music for the last month. The smell of festive foods linger—deep fried oil, the sweet airiness of fairy floss, the tang of plastic-cupped mojitos and stale beer—then vanish with the jovial air.

March is over. By April we are a city in lockdown, though a gentle one, and as the heat finally lifts I stay at home, and like all food-lovers I ask: what will we eat?


The lemon tree has a golden year, bearing endless bright waxy fruit, which we squeeze, zest and slice, serve up in big dollops of tangy lemon curd.


What we eat is this:

Home delivered groceries by the boxful: spinach curls in bouquets, fluffy-haired carrots, plastic-wrapped bread, long fingers of cucumbers, ripe tomatoes.

Curries and pies and ratatouille and pasta made from the pantry staples Mat stocked up on at the local Indian grocery and greengrocer: cans of beans, tomatoes, and lentils, rows of homemade passata, plump sacks of rice I pat like a middle-aged stomach.

Fruity olive oil given to us by Mat’s family in the Riverland, making my fingers slick as I pour from the huge unwieldy jug into pans, pots, over salads.

Between my restrictive diet and the pandemic, we eat more seasonally, more locally, more consciously. As shelves in chain supermarkets empty of toilet paper, beans, tinned food and pasta, we’re prompted to ask: where, exactly, has our food come from?

Autumn comes in stops and starts. Icy mornings, warm afternoons. A cold snap gives me chilblains, though I still have tan lines on my shoulders. I can see the Adelaide Hills from our raised garden over my coffee (now decaf) in the morning, their gentle peaks nested in lilac clouds as their crops ripen and fruit. The orchards yield tiny sundowner apples, blushed with the first colours of autumn, and crunchy Packham pears. I make simple apple pie and eat it with fresh cream; the pears we slice into salads, poach in spiced syrup, and eat straight out of the jar.

The Central Markets are closed, but when Le Deux Coqs offers home delivery, I impulsively order glazed fruit tarts, golden buttery croissants and flans, crème brûlée, petite canelé, peaked lemon meringue pies. When the cardboard boxes arrive, I realise I’ve ordered much more than we can eat at its best, yet it feels opulent, a gesture of protection. I slice the tarts and leave them on the doorsteps of neighbours and friends.

By my birthday in May, we can have four people in the house with social distancing. M.F.K. Fisher once said that the perfect number of guests for a dinner party is six, but allowed that “three or four people sometimes attain perfection either in public or in private, but they must be very congenial”. And so we have a congenial dinner with mountains of Afghan food from Parwana. Though it’s sad when we pick up the plastic bags from the restaurant—lights off, tables upturned—we make a cheering spread on our dining table; platters of food and winking candles. The mantu dumplings and creamy banjaan borani topped with sweet tomato sauce, yoghurt and mint is so abundant, so mouth-wateringly good, the company so welcome after months of isolation, that the dinner feels like the answer to a prayer.

Winter comes, and with it we eat roasted beetroot and sweet potato; stacks of dimpled oranges on the kitchen countertop. My knitted jumpers take days and days to dry, our sheets so cold to the touch they feel wet. Our vegetable patch begins to produce: we toss salads with tiny, peppery radishes, cos lettuce, and tender baby spinach clipped from their neat rows. The lemon tree has a golden year, bearing endless bright waxy fruit, which we squeeze, zest and slice, serve up in big dollops of tangy lemon curd.

By July, restaurants and pubs are open again, but there’s a worrying outbreak in Melbourne. Our neighbour city returns to lockdown for another six weeks, people scrambling over the state border before it too is closed.

Midwinter solstice comes and goes, and though I don’t feel it yet, the days are getting longer and spring will arrive just as predictably as its predecessors. The garden will know it first. I greet one of our resident magpies —hello general, how’s your wife?— and look for the first signs of nesting. I watch the silverbeet leaves in the dark earth of the veggie patch. And then just like that, the signs appear. On our walk down by the river, I see the first batch of ducklings, early this year; and the first almond blossoms, the cottony buds reaching into the sky.


By Lana Guineay