Cooking up a Storm Amid a Global Pandemic
By Natasha Tynes
A year ago, I was diagnosed with severe anxiety. This didn’t come as a major surprise to me since I have always had anxious epoxides growing up, combined with the fact that 2019 was one of the toughest years I have ever endured. When COVID-19 hit, and the stay-at-home orders were enforced, I found myself home with three bored children and a husband who worked nonstop. As a writer with flexible working hours, I transitioned into the de-facto childcare provider. I also became the teacher, the entertainer, the tech support, the chef, and the mediator when the kids, out of boredom and frustrations, bickered and wrestled and threw stuff at each other. This scenario was bound to be a minefield for someone who suffers from anxiety.
When the quarantine started, I realized early on that I had two choices, I would either sink into depression and stay up all night hyperventilating from panic attacks, or I would find something to lose myself into in the midst of the chaos.
As I assumed my role as the executive chef who prepared three meals a day for five people, along with many, many snacks, cooking gradually became my escape, my shelter from the storm.
Gradually, I found myself retreating to the kitchen every few hours to try a new dish. I rediscovered my childhood dishes from my home country of Jordan, and I made dishes I have never tried before but always adored as a child. I made Mouhalbieh (a milk pudding with pistachio nuts), Ouzi balls, Nescafe cake, Fssouliah (Green beans and beef stew), and many more.
I scouted Amazon for “exotic” products like orange blossom, rose water, and dried garbanzo beans. I followed Instagram food influencers and stayed up late at night watching their Instagram stories and saving their IGTV videos. I posted pictures of my creations on social media and shared my recipes with friends who celebrated my culinary achievements.
I dusted off some of my rarely-used kitchen gadgets like my rice cooker; my Instant Pot found them a permanent spot on my kitchen counter, and I put them to good use. I invested in some tools like a garlic press, a wooden pepper grinder, and a kitchen scale. I went all in.
I expanded my cooking comfort zone and made dishes that hailed from cultures different than mine. I got creative and researched and implemented. I even prepared oatmeal in jars and made breakfast quesadillas.
I would flip the news channels and hear about COVID 19 cases rising and watch videos about those who had fallen ill and succumbed to the disease. I would freeze in terror, worried about my family and how we would survive this pandemic both mentally and physically.
Rushing to the kitchen and losing myself within the spices and the pages of my many, many cookbooks eased my anxiety and made me forget (even briefly) about the pending danger outside. I invited my kids to join me in the kitchen. My eight-year twins ignored me and went back to their tablets, while the toddler accompanied me as I chopped, grilled, boiled, and browsed my spice cabinet. He mixed, sprinkled, and tasted. It was a free and fun activity that didn’t require a Zoom meeting ID number!
The kids being kids, liked some of the dishes and complained about others, but overall, they were satisfied, with full bellies and only whined about how they missed McDonald's French fries a few times.
Culinary star Julia Child once said, “The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking, you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.” What the hell was really what kept me going during this time of extreme anxiety. Can I make this complex Middle Eastern dessert for the first time? Yeah, what the hell. Shall I try this new chicken enchilada recipe even though it is a bit spicy? Yeah, what the hell!
It has been what the hell in the kitchen for me for the past three months, and the meals have kept coming. I have been far from perfect. I burnt some items and over-spiced others. I put out dinner with dry chicken and over-sweetened some dessert, but you know, what the hell. My time at the kitchen has given me joy and eased my troubled mind, so let’s get cooking.
Natasha Tynes was born in Amman, Jordan. She has worked as a journalist in the Middle East and the United States for over two decades. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Esquire Middle East, Elle, and Aljazeera.