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How cooking together (virtually) keeps my family connected

It’s not just eating together; it’s the chatter and buzz that surrounds the preparation of the meal. It is life together although apart.
Courtesy of the author

I love to cook for other people, but I hate cooking with other people. I'm a control freak in the kitchen — yes, I'm the type of person who really means it when I turn down help from dinner guests (even cleanup help).

The exception is with my family. Over the years, we've developed and perfected a harmonious cooking routine: Mom assigns tasks and does the bulk of the actual cooking, my brother, Nick, and I complete most of the prep work (like chopping and making sauces and salads) and Dad keeps our wine glasses full (the most important job). We try our best to stick to our standing Sunday appointment to make a meal together.

My mom and me, back when we could be in the same kitchen.
My mom and me, back when we could be in the same kitchen.Courtesy of the author

"It's like a classic kitchen structure," Nick observed to me over text. "Head chef, sous chefs and sommelier."

Until a few months ago, when Nick moved to Boston for a medical fellowship, we all lived within walking distance of each other in Harlem, New York, which made this weekly plan possible. My parents and I still live within a couple blocks of each other. (I always joke that I can smell what my mom is cooking from my apartment.)

But now, for obvious coronavirus-related reasons, we haven't been able to cook together in the same space. It's been over a month since we've all seen each other. I've been so lucky in many ways during this time. I am relatively healthy (I had very mild symptoms of what was most likely COVID-19), have a steady income and a safe place to quarantine with a wonderful partner. And yet it's still been difficult, like it is for so many others, to be isolated from the people I love.

My family, from left to right: My dad, Jeff, my mom, Yuki, me, my partner, Aidan, and my brother, Nick.
My family, from left to right: My dad, Jeff, my mom, Yuki, me, my partner, Aidan, and my brother, Nick.Courtesy of the author

"As health care workers, our daily lives are busy dealing with the pandemic," my mom told me over text. (She and my dad are both doctors.) "But when it’s time for dinner, it feels so sad and lonely that we can’t get together to cook and enjoy each other’s company."

So, a few weeks ago, we decided to hold every Sunday to cook together — but, you know, apart — virtually. And it's made life in quarantine just a little more bearable.

"Deciding to make that first virtual Sunday family dinner together was the best thing that’s happened to me since this pandemic started," my mom said. "When we said, 'Let’s all make Bolognese!' that first Sunday, I felt a spark in my heart and joy for the first time in a long time."

What this means, in practice, is that we all decide on a dish to cook and make our own versions of it, using different recipes, since we don't all have the exact same ingredients.

Bolognese prep!
Bolognese prep!Courtesy of the author

We choose dishes that take a while — lots of low-and-slow simmering — so it's like we're spending the entire day together. We plan to start around the same time and eat at a designated time, and throughout the course of the day, we'll send each other progress photos, comparing the thickness of our respective sauces, FaceTiming into each others' kitchens periodically to chat as we chop the same vegetables.

We didn't intend for it to become competitive, but it instantly became competitive when my mom started cooking before my brother and I on the very first dish we decided to make together. She sent a video of her sautéing her sofrito for the Bolognese at 11 a.m., writing, "Starting early."

To which I responded, naturally, that she was cheating. (I was still in bed.)

"I'm making a lasagna so that takes longer," she wrote. She's always going above and beyond. My partner Aidan and I went with eliche (large fusilli) and Nick went with casarecce, but Mom, of course, had to go the extra mile with lasagna, making a bechamel and using (probably) 19 different types of cheese.

So, I used the only advantage I had access to: fish sauce, the ultimate flavor booster. She accused me of cheating as well. (Fair.)

Of course, she ended up "winning." She always wins. She taught us everything we know about cooking — and through this virtual ritual, she can continue to school us.

We don't just cook together — we eat together, too.
We don't just cook together — we eat together, too.Courtesy of the author

"As much as this virus has isolated us, I believe it has pushed us to finding meaning in the dark," Nick told me. "The sounds of the kitchen are part of our family culture. Now, more than ever, I appreciate and cherish this idea."

This past weekend, we took on our most ambitious cooking project thus far: katsu kare aka breaded cutlets (usually pork, sometimes chicken) in Japanese curry, one of my all-time favorite childhood comfort foods.

It's ambitious because it really involves three recipes: (1) curry roux, which we usually buy in pre-made blocks, (2) the vegetable-heavy base of the curry to which we add the roux and (3) the pork or chicken cutlets. Plus rice.

Mom's early morning radish-pickling in action.
Mom's early morning radish-pickling in action.Courtesy of the author

At 11 a.m. on the dot, my overachieving mother started making the roux. And before we could accuse her of cheating, she qualified it with: "We're going for a walk later. So just prepping."

And then she had the audacity to make her own radish pickles. This prompted my brother to do the same. A family of overachievers.

Nick's beet, daikon radish and carrot pickles (would make a great iPhone background).
Nick's beet, daikon radish and carrot pickles (would make a great iPhone background).Courtesy of the author

I used store-bought radish pickles that have been in my fridge for a questionable amount of months. Like Ina Garten always says, "Store-bought is fine." My mom contested this claim: "Not nearly as good." (Ina, we're awaiting your response.)

We all made the same roux and similar curry bases but decided to try out different katsu (cutlet) preparations. Mom and Dad went grilled, Nick went fried and Aidan and I went baked.

They all looked amazing. Ours tasted amazing. The first bite transported me right back to my childhood a la Anton Ego in "Ratatouille." But it was clear that, with his perfectly golden-brown cutlets, Nick — not Mom! — had won this round. So, the only thing that can beat Mom is frying. Frying always wins.

Fortunately, my mom isn't a sore loser. She graciously congratulated my brother and excitedly asked us what we should make next.

"It’s the one anchor in my life that keeps me sane," my mom said. "Knowing that, come Sunday, we’re going to cook together, see one another’s faces, spend time together laughing and tasting and enjoying being with one another. It's the best comfort food a mother could ask for."

Please note my brother's mid-bite face.
Please note my brother's mid-bite face.Courtesy of the author

"It gives me a great feeling of social connectedness at a time of distancing," my dad told me over text. "Our family has always connected over food and wine. It’s not just eating together; it’s the bonding, chatter and buzz that surrounds the preparation of the meal. It culminates in the conversation about what we just made and its successes and shortcomings. It is life together although apart."

For Easter this Sunday, we're thinking of making either lamb tagine or lamb biryani. Unfortunately, my brother will be working in the hospital, so he can't participate, but we'll make up for it with a less intensive dish during the week. Maybe a simple roasted chicken with olives. Or canned tuna pasta with capers. Whatever we've got.