If the old adage, "Cooking is love made visible," is true, then how do you show your love when you can’t be there in person?
In 2011, the first time my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, she found out the day I was moving from my home in Mumbai and I hadn’t yet lined up my next work plan in New York, where I was planning to return. So I flew right to her side. I could spend the weeks after her surgery with her in her home in Charleston, South Carolina, showing my love the best way I knew how — through cooking.
Five years later, her cancer came back. I was busy with a career in food media at that point. But more pressing, I was 34 weeks pregnant with my first child. There was never going to be an extended stay for me to putter around and cook and hover. I couldn’t channel all my fear and love into soups and stews to try to heal her back to health.
Or could I?
I flew down to Charleston anyway, checking in with the OB who had delivered me to make sure he would be around in case I went into labor. And I made a plan to stand in the kitchen as much as I could. I bought a boatload of new Tupperware, cleared out her freezer of all the old stuff she was never going to actually eat, and started cooking. I had never really considered freezing anything in my life, but at that moment, it was the only way to somehow be in multiple places at once, for as long as I needed to be. And luckily, the comforting soups and stews were all Freezer 101. I left Charleston feeling like I had left little pieces of myself in her freezer — ready to be there for her in some physical way even when I couldn’t truly be.
My son was born when she was visiting two weeks later — in town for both the baby shower she had insisted on and a second opinion from another doctor. We did the baby shower in the hospital (she wouldn’t hear of canceling it). We soaked in our quality time, and a few days later, she was back on a plane. Her first round of chemo ended up being eight days after he was born.
The freezer — this appliance I had previously ignored as a place solely for ice cream and gin — had stepped in and been a partner to me when I desperately needed one. All that love was ready and waiting for my mother whenever she needed it. It wasn’t dependent on my schedule or physical presence.
In the following years, I started to lean on my freezer more and more, testing its limits for what would and wouldn’t work. I graduated from soups and stews to one-pot meals and pastas and sauces and jams. I started cooking proteins straight from the freezer and playing around with appetizers and desserts. In the meantime, I wrote a book about potlucks, and carefully made note of which recipes could not only be made ahead and refrigerated, but also what could be frozen for weeks or even months down the line.
By the time COVID-19 hit, I had already begun writing the literal book on frozen food — my new cookbook "Modern Freezer Meals." But my now years-long fascination with my freezer couldn’t have been more essential to the moment. I cooked and froze meals for friends who were doctors and were separated from their families to keep them safe. I hoped that little touches of homemade meals could give them some human connection at a time when the only humans they saw were behind shields and masks.
But now, freezer food always feels like the right gift — no matter the circumstances. Even when I want to show my love by cooking for people who live nearby, I have started to get the feeling that a frozen meal might be preferable to a fresh one. When you had a new baby or were sick or just having a bad week, did you really want some meal sitting in your fridge as another item on your to-do list? Wasn’t it easier to instead have something homemade ready to go at any time?
A frozen meal is a gift to the people you love on their own schedule. It doesn’t require anything of them. It just waits to be useful until it is needed — that way, it always arrives at the perfect time.
Flowers are great and chocolates are always welcome. But when you want to give a gift that will make lives easier through food, turn to your freezer and it will love the ones you love just as much as you do.