In Isolation with Sam van Zweden

Location: Melbourne, Australia

Ugly Delicious | One week in

I start watching David Chang’s Netflix food documentary Ugly Delicious with my friend Connor. We serialise it in Netflix Party, sitting behind the blue glow of our screens. In our separate houses, we’re both despairing.

In the sidebar we talk about how isolation has changed how we eat. We’re cooking more, trying more challenging things. At the same time, panic buying restricts what’s possible.

“When I can get yeast and flour again,” Connor says, “I’m making pizza bases.”

In a recent Guardian article, Bee Wilson explores the UK’s panic buying, a phenomenon which is more or less mirrored in Australia. Eggs are in short supply, pasta is scarce, and good luck finding a bag of flour. Of empty supermarket shelves, Wilson observes: “When you are not used to it, this sight does strange things to your insides.”

During World War II, psychologist Ancel Keys conducted an experiment using healthy conscientious objectors, who underwent a ‘semi-starvation’ diet. The restrictions on their intake had long-term effects on their attitudes toward food. One of these was aspirational: they talked a lot about the foods they couldn’t eat. They cut out food pictures and recipes from magazines; they planned fantasy dinner parties.

We watch Ugly Delicious. We can’t eat pizza, so we discuss the best pizzas we’ve eaten. The concept of highbrow pizzas, honesty in pizzas, whether you always want a nice pizza—the merits of Dominos. I want to try his pizza base, but it’ll be some time before we can do that, and so this imaginary dinner party is the best we can manage.

We’ve both got enough tuna and pasta to get us through two weeks without access to shops if it comes to that, but that’s not what we want. That’s not comfort food.

We’re not alone. I’ve seen the challenging things other people are making popping up in my Instagram feed. Some of us despair. Some of us start fermenting, or meal prepping, or growing our own.

Pastitsio | Two weeks in

The posts in my social feed range from those who seem to be ordering delivery food every night (who can afford this? Disparities in pay grades are suddenly obvious), to meal prepping, to those who ‘throw together’ what look like Melburnian brunch plates three times a day.

Before isolation, I enjoyed seeing people’s meals shared online. Now, I’m not so sure. It feels so much more complicated; compounded by all the ways it speaks to class, productivity, income, body anxieties, and so much else. I especially miss posts about group meals: the communal love-ins over a table of shared food. Now I can only think of the potential for infection created by shared cutlery and close seating. Where I used to take comfort, I now feel alienated.

On Saturday night, my friend Chloe drops over pastitsio that she’s cooked and distributed to her elderly relatives.

I wait out the front of my apartment block. As she crosses the road, we both burst into tears. Heavy, slow tears that plop onto our chests. Seeing each other—the physical reality, not just disembodied heads and voices and text—breaks open something inside me that I’ve been working weeks to dam. Normally with greetings, and with tears, there are hugs. With gifts there are hugs. But today there’s none of that. We laugh, though, too; shocked at our need to touch; the surprise by which our emotions have taken us both.

Chloe puts the pastitsio down on the retaining wall. She steps back and I pick it up. We wipe our tears and make some new ones while we talk about how our days have been. Shopping for groceries and having a cry afterwards; visiting elderly women with differing understandings of the pandemic and what’s okay at this time.

That night, separately, we both eat pastitsio. The fat in the sauce crackles as it heats in the microwave, and when I chew, little puffs of steam escape my mouth. Rich, creamy bechamel oozes over layered meat sauce and macaroni. What I wouldn’t give to have Chloe here with me, eating pastitsio together—but it is a comfort to know that she’s been kind and generous enough to think of me, and share her bake-up. Although we have to keep the distance between bodies, we can nourish them from that distance, still.

Kummerspeck | Four weeks in

I receive a text from a friend who’s come across the work kummerspeck and thought of me, because it’s related to food and has no direct English equivalent. The kind of thing I get a kick out of. Kummerspeck is a German word that literally translates as “grief bacon”—the weight gained as a result of comfort eating.

Four weeks in, ‘the COVID 19’ is already circulating as a phrase to describe the 19 kilos people expect to put on during isolation. In a world where we may die of a highly contagious respiratory illness, people are still expressing more concern about getting fat during isolation. The weight gain anxiety ramps up: ready-made calorie-controlled meal ads, which normally slow down coming into winter, return in uncomfortably high proportions. I can’t watch free-to-air television without seeing at least one in each break.

Eating in isolation is one of the last comforts I have access to. I turn my heater on, inching down under a heavy blanket. I tell my friends how much I miss them. On especially hard days, I send my friends baklava or donuts. Other days it’s enough to crack a row of chocolate from a block of chilled Cadbury Marble, waiting in the fridge for just such an emergency. Ordering delivery food once a week with my partner, it almost feels like we’ve busted out of the four walls of our apartment for just an hour.

Let the kummerspeck come, then; this is my last defence against all the panic, the loneliness and uncertainty of the world right now.

Appeltaart | Seven weeks in

After a while, my focus returns. Where it had fractured in the early weeks of lockdown, I’m now catching something of a rhythm: I can read again; I can cook. With supply levels returning slowly to normal, I can even plan a dish ahead of time.

In Clare Bowditch’s memoir Your Own Kind of Girl, I read about her mum’s appeltaart recipe. This is a familiar one: a Dutch deep-dish pie, made from crumbly shortcrust pastry and a filling of apples and not much else. Rather than following the recipe in the book, I call my own Dutch father and ask how he’d do it. He dictates a shortcrust recipe he’s used for years, and entreats me to commit the 3:2:1 ratio to memory.

Without a stand mixer, my wrists ache from rubbing butter into flour. It’s a relief to pat the bulky mass into a little pile to be refrigerated. Later, I roll the dough out, watching it flatten and expand. Sliced apples are layered, and in between I sprinkle sultanas and crushed Marie biscuits to soak up any excess moisture. Before placing the pie in the oven, I weave an intricate lattice on its top and brush it with egg.

The finished pie is so beautiful that I dream of making it for picnics, when I can share cutlery with my friends again. When we can reach into a shared container of food without anxiety. For now, this is my contribution to the feed: this perfectly formed pie; my very best effort at creating something beautiful that cannot be taken away.

By Sam van Zweden