The nadir of my enjoyment in cooking during the pandemic arrived in the middle of a fall weekday.
I couldn’t bear to step into the kitchen to chop or slice or stir or heat anything – I just wanted to feed myself with as little effort and thought as possible. While my husband set to making tuna salad, I declined his offer to share it.
I went to the pantry. I grabbed a tin of sardines. I took a small fork from the drawer. I sat back down at my computer and ate the tiny fish straight out of the can.
I had hit the point in my pandemic kitchen, captured so resonantly in a New Yorker essay last November titled “The Joylessness of Cooking,” when the act of cooking had lost all enjoyment.
Like so many others, I turned to the kitchen at the start of the COVID-19 lockdown last March to pass the time and give some structure to our new home life. The sourdough starter at the back of the fridge was neglected no longer. My kids and I joined a friend’s kids’ baking club on Zoom, delighting in the tastes and scents the baked goods brought to our palates. We wrote out the weekly dinner menu on the kitchen window in bright colours, designating Friday as pizza night indefinitely. And we took comfort in each other’s company; every day, we sat down to eat together as a family.
As spring turned to summer, food continued to be a source of diversion. Every day was picnic day, and we even started sharing mealtimes outside, at a distance, with small groups of family and friends.
But then summer gave way to fall, and winter lurked. Planning and preparing meals and snacks to sustain a family of four for months and months was taking its toll. Any delight I’d been able to find in a new recipe or a delicious meal built out of random pantry items had evaporated. My husband and I would meet listlessly in the kitchen on weekday afternoons, assess the contents of the fridge and cupboards and play a game of culinary chicken – whoever spoke first was on the hook to devise and cook a meal for the night.
But recently I rediscovered an honest joy in the kitchen unexpectedly – through a picture book. My eldest son, aged seven, snuck down from bedtime one night and asked, in the same tone he usually reserves for requests to eat candy for breakfast, whether we could make “vegetable, you-know” for dinner the next night.
“Vegetable, you-know,” turned out to be vegetable soup, just as the characters in Jillian Tamaki’s Our Little Kitchen make together.
The next night, my kids skipped after-virtual-school cartoons. Tamaki includes a recipe for vegetable soup in her book, and my kids insisted we follow it. They grabbed vegetable peelers and set about their work side by side, first peeling then chopping sweet potatoes, carrots and potatoes. I was assigned the onions and garlic.
Peels flew onto the counter and floor. The irregularly chopped vegetables splashed into the pot of broth. My sons shouted out lines from Tamaki’s book while they worked. Together, we made vegetable soup.
Our Little Kitchen is based on Tamaki’s experience volunteering at a community kitchen in Brooklyn, New York, where the food prepared each week varied depending on what was available. It was the feeling of working on a team that struck her as most engaging for a picture book.
“Even though this book has a social-justice context, I wanted first and foremost to capture the exhilarating feeling of being in a busy kitchen and working as a group,” Tamaki says.
Vegetable soup and apple crumble were staples of that kitchen, and Tamaki included vividly illustrated recipes of those dishes in her book in homage, reconnecting with fellow volunteers to make sure she had the methods just right. There are no measurements, just simply written steps and lively drawings – along with a reminder to ask an adult for help.
“I would have been okay with people just enjoying the concept, but secretly I did hope that it would spur some actual cooking,” Tamaki says.
I didn’t expect my kids to respond so enthusiastically to an illustrated recipe for vegetable soup, but I’m glad they did. Our pot of soup may not have taken the drudgery out of feeding a family through a pandemic winter, but it was an important reminder that there is joy to be found in the simplest of activities, even during these grey, grim days. It flickers ever so briefly, but it’s there.
My sons and I were lucky to find it in our kitchen. We worked as a team that night to perform the magic trick of transforming humble root vegetables into a velvety, warming soup. And we sat proudly to eat our delicious work together.
Plan your weekend with our Good Taste newsletter, offering wine advice and reviews, recipes, restaurant news and more. Sign up today.