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Cookalongs brought the world (and friends) into my kitchen, 1 meal at a time

In praise of the Zoom cookalong.
TODAY illustration / @bourbonbarbarella/Instagram

How much do we all hate Zoom meetings now? Honestly, it’s almost become triggering to sign into the video chat site, reminding me of the early fear-filled days of the pandemic when we all turned to online “happy hours.”

But one saving grace of video hangout sessions has been the best thing to come out of the pandemic, for me anyway. I’m talking about the Zoom cookalong.

When my husband and I stopped getting restaurant meals cold turkey back in March, we turned to cooking at home as entertainment and solace. My income from our two Airbnbs had evaporated overnight so there was no spending money — and in the very early days we were afraid of going almost anywhere, entrusting our health and safety to unseen people preparing food.

But oh, did we miss people. Our Victorian, normally a bustling place full of friends and flowing with bourbon, went silent.

Then came drinking with friends, those evenings (and let’s be honest, afternoons) staring at each other’s tiny faces on screen as we all tried to process what was happening. But that’s not sustainable, and we all had to eat. Soon we were cooking. With friends, with family, and best of all, with people who lived hundreds or thousands of miles away.

Before COVID-19 we thought we were keeping up with our long distance friends through social media, but the turn to live (so to speak) interaction showed us how much we’d been missing. We’d prop the laptop up on the kitchen island — the one that used to have friends elbows’ leaned upon it — pour a wine or bourbon, and get busy cooking. Sometimes we’d cook independently, maybe with a theme like pizza night, but as our worlds contracted and we needed ever more ways to shift our focus from the falling sky, we began much more elaborate sessions.

A friend in Spain sparked the cookalong fervor. Julen was our tour guide last fall in the San Sebastian region of Spain, our last trip before lockdown (now a time that seemed like a beautiful dream), and had introduced us to Basque cuisine. Along with friends from New York and Austria that we’d made during our travels, we gathered as best we could the ingredients Julen listed for us, and — across three countries and four cities — spent a Sunday afternoon cutting and stirring, drinking and laughing. Was it the golden afternoon we’d spent preparing a feast in one of the gastronomic clubs of the Basque region? Of course not.

But we were together. Tantalizing smells — smells like the old days — filled our kitchens. Once in a while we’d pause our preparations to lean toward the screen and just smile at one another. Julen would occasionally break into song and dance. And when evening fell in Spain, he brought us outside with him on his laptop to join his neighbors in cheering for their frontline workers. And? We had a most delicious meal (and leftovers!) to sustain us through the dark days.

Other friends took it to new levels. Stacey and Shelby, consummate foodie friends in Florida, mapped out an epic, multi-course, Mexican dinner. I used one of our carefully allotted grocery shopping trips to load up at a Latin market, buying masa, a tortilla press, and fresh goods to make our feast. Going all out for the night I donned the pink cowboy hat and boots I’d bought — when we used to be able to jet off to other countries — in Guadalajara and poured margaritas. From their outdoor kitchen in Florida our friends led us and a dozen other folks from around the country in making a soul-soothing dinner of homemade guac, shrimp tacos with also homemade tortillas (really, we marveled, why did it take a pandemic to try these?), and salsa (likewise from scratch). The session went for hours, with everyone taking laptops to dining tables to fall upon the fruits of our labors. I hated signing off that night, losing that spark of connection that helped us feel that somehow things would be OK.

Companies were quick to tune into this trend, with sites like Goldbelly getting into the game. The platform that delivers meal kits and ingredients from restaurants around the country was already bringing travel-starved diners a taste of the cities we couldn’t visit. Then they turned the meal prep into a party. My husband and niece (who moved in with us during the pandemic) joined Iron Chef and Top Chef winner, and founder of Girl & the Goat, Stephanie Izard, for a cookalong. Aromas from Asia filled our kitchen as the high energy chef showed us (and other fans scattered across the country) how to make potstickers, slap noodles and a smashed cucumber salad. Trying our hands at something new, taking the idea of a cooking show and making it interactive, and sitting down to a meal that felt like something straight out of our travels was the best therapy.

It doesn’t really matter what we cook, as long as we’re together, even if it’s just together by Zoom.

We haven’t hosted our own session yet, as we’ve turned back to outdoor restaurant dining and small, socially distanced gatherings. But with winter coming and numbers spiking, the specter of long, dark nights with no human interaction looms.

This time will be different. We’re seasoned at lockdown, beyond tired of … all of this, but resigned to the long haul. The slightly frantic, novel feel of all of it is behind us. But the need to sustain our connections is stronger than ever. We’re hungry for each other, drawn like magnets to friends and family. If (and honestly, when) we find ourselves trapped indoors again, now we know at least one way to cope, to nurture those threads of connection. Maybe we’ll do a long afternoon of French cooking in honor of my beloved favorite destination in this, the first year I haven’t visited my heart’s home in umpteen years. Or maybe find a handful of scattered friends to learn a new cuisine together. It doesn’t really matter what we cook, as long as we’re together, even if it’s just together by Zoom.