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How solo cooks are managing in the pandemic — without resorting to cereal for dinner

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I did not attend the virtual lasagna party plastered all over my social media a few weeks back. Neither did Candice Springer, Richard Lee or Valen West.

Tayari Jones, a novelist in Atlanta, has no intention of making the layered pasta dish. “So many of those foods that I’m seeing in articles and things for this batch cooking, for these big dishes, they’re special occasion foods, and that’s fine if you’re with a big family,” she said. “You have all the lasagna just one time. Or, you bake this really elaborate cake this one time. But if I’m alone with a cake, that’s not good.”

That’s probably how you imagine those of us who are quarantining alone, though: in bed with an entire cake or hunched over our kitchen sinks with a bowl of cereal.

If you imagine us at all.

While the U.S. Census Bureau estimated there were upward of 35 million single-person households in this country in 2018, many food media seem to be operating under the assumption that everyone is responsible for feeding a family of four.

I talked to a few of my comrades in solo sheltering to find out how we’re managing. No, most of us are not making lasagna, but we are cooking, and we’re doing all right for ourselves.

Based in Union City, N.J., Leigh-Ann Martin, 35, an executive assistant at a biopharma company, has been avoiding casseroles of any kind and the “heavy rice dishes and soups” she grew up eating in Trinidad. “I need to stay positive, and in the past, eating rich foods all time didn’t do any good for my mood.”

In Boston’s Brighton neighborhood, Springer, 33, who works at the city’s WBUR public radio station, has been craving her mom’s cooking: linguine with clam sauce, a riff on Portuguese jagacida with kielbasa in place of linguiça, meatloaf. She’s texting her mother for the recipes, which make her feel closer to a family she can’t visit.


(Sol Cotti for The Washington Post)

Previously, she adhered to a monthly $100 limit on her grocery expenditures. Now, she’s shelling out $170 every two weeks when she walks 12 minutes to the nearest store with her own small shopping cart. “I buy whatever I can fit in the cart, because it’s all I can manage to get back home,” she explained over email. “This hasn’t allowed me the freedom to cook or eat whatever I want as much anymore.”

Novelist Jones, 49, has been responding to the idiosyncrasies — or errors — inherent to online shopping in Atlanta. “I cook whatever they give me,” she said. “If there is an edible item in my house, I will cook that sucker. I will search the Internet. I will do whatever has to be done. I cannot waste food in this climate.” Too many lemons? She preserved some in salt and froze the juice of the rest in ice cube trays. 100 bulbs of garlic? She roasted some of the heads whole, squeezed out the softened cloves to use in soups, and preserved the rest of the raw cloves in vinegar.

She’s actively maintaining what she calls her “food archive,” or the assortment of leftovers in her freezer. There is the “cooking and freezing phase,” followed by the defrosting phase.

Lea Addington, the 28-year-old Detroit-based chef who founded LIT Vegan Kitchen to provide culinary education and wellness consulting for plant-based eaters, isn’t “really into leftovers,” or “wasn’t before the quarantine,” she said. When she does have them, she leverages them to barter for things she needs. A container of quinoa scored her a loan of gym equipment for a month, and she traded other food with a friend to secure some cookie dough for her freezer. Funnily enough, she does not share them with her cousin, with whom she’s been cohabitating during the outbreak. The two have been living together as though alone: Addington’s cousin, an omnivore who contracted the coronavirus and was isolated in her room for weeks, eats (and shops) very differently from her vegan relative.

Richard Lee was delighted when one of his neighbors shared her shipment of Vidalia onions from Georgia with the rest of the building’s remaining tenants. For the past few years, he’d been taking almost all his meals at the diner downstairs from his apartment in Midtown Manhattan in New York City. Now, the 70-year-old artist and interior designer cooks every meal — a limited rotation of pasta with meat sauce, grilled cheese, eggs or tuna with beans and one of those onions. He is not ordering in at all after discovering a regular-sized pizza with sausage and extra cheese from the place down the street is $30.

A few blocks north on the Upper East Side, Betty Halbreich wouldn’t dare order in. The personal shopper has made it 92 years without ever having done so. “I’m embarrassed to order for one,” she admitted. After four-plus decades of living alone, she has “it down to a certain pattern,” she said. “I have a tray and I have a cloth on it, and a cloth napkin and I prepare dinner.” The only difference, under quarantine, is her reluctance to shop for groceries. Even though she’s uneasy asking friends and neighbors to buy things for her, she’s forced to, and as appreciative as she is, she hates not being able to select her produce herself.

Her daughter, Kathy, 71, executive director of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation in New York City, decamped for her small farmhouse on the North Fork of Long Island and has realized she “would be a good person to stock a bomb shelter,” she said in an email. Shopping for groceries “is no longer pleasurable; it breeds anxiety.” She shops every three weeks, with intermittent visits to the farmers market for greens. She plans her list out carefully, based on things she likes and ideas for future meals. Without the incentive of guests, she’s cooking with “less gusto” than before and preparing less-elaborate fare: turkey soup with vegetables, apple and fennel salad, hummus, pizza from store-bought dough.


(Sol Cotti for The Washington Post)

Meanwhile, in Dubuque, Iowa, her son, Henry Kohring, 31, an engineer at John Deere, makes his own pizza dough. He keeps it simple, too, but believes in doing as much from scratch as possible for the sake of cost-efficiency. “I would brag about how much money I saved on something before I bragged about a fancy meal,” he said. “If I can buy the 25-pound bag of flour for $10 and use it to make 50 loaves of bread at 50 cents each, then I’d brag about that.” (This would explain his bread machine.) But when he’s pressed for time — and the price is right — he’s equally comfortable opening up a can of chili or box of Kraft mac and cheese or picking up a burrito.

Sisters Christina and Kim Ku live less than 30 minutes away from each other in New York’s Queens borough, but their strategies for feeding themselves couldn’t be farther apart. Christina, 37, a freelance computer graphics artist who’s out of work, is a proud weekend meal-planner. “I don’t like to spend time thinking about what to eat every day, and if I make a big batch of something tasty, I can eat it every day for a week, no complaints,” she conveyed over email. “I’ve mostly settled into a routine of cooking two big pots of food, one for lunch and one for dinner, one sauce and one soup or carb dish.”

Kim is not interested in planning. Problem solving and curiosity guide whatever culinary strategy the 36-year-old product designer has, and thanks to the farm subscription she joined to cut back on shopping, she has plenty of motivation. “Sometimes, they just give you a box of random vegetables, and I feel that I’m such a novice, I can’t recognize half of them,” she said, then added that the “whimsy” she seeks as a cook “comes from the joy of finding out what something is.”

A 50-something author and journalist in Los Angeles, Lynell George believes cooking for oneself is vital to maintaining mental wellness and encourages others who live alone to go to “the trouble” to cook for themselves, even if they don’t have other mouths to feed. “It’s important to remind people that, hey you’re worth ‘that trouble,’ and it really isn’t trouble at all. Treat yourself with worth,” she encouraged in an email.

That hasn’t been easy for Valen West, 46, a restaurant owner in San Francisco — and not just because, despite her years working in a restaurant, she was in the front of house and, as a result, is “clueless in the kitchen.” It’s also because, as she’s observed, “being in isolation and having unlimited time to self-analyze who you truly are will bring the demons to the surface.”

Although she’s committed to cooking all her meals and spends money only on food, she ends up in a “stare-off” with her fridge, she said via email. “I still don’t know. What do I feel like eating? … I can only rearrange the few food items I have so many times where I’m trying to trick my mind but cannot trick my palate.” Her fear of wasting food and her refusal to stand in line limit what she buys, and, therefore, what she can cook.

In Bothell, Wash., Steven Vertel, 57, a supply chain manager for an Internet retail company, does not suffer from West’s culinary equivalent of writer’s block; he sees cooking as a creative outlet. But he is also mindful of both food waste and palate fatigue. He makes more than he knows he’ll eat in one night so he can have it for another meal or two. “I’m not trying to cook for a whole week or have things to freeze beyond that. I don’t have a lot of space in my kitchen,” he said. Plus, he adds, “after the second day, I’ve lost interest in it.” Apparently, there is one exception to that rule: lasagna. He cooked one and made five meals of it.

As for me, I’ve continued to conduct what I call my “kitchen experiments.” One of the more successful of these is a recipe that affords all of the flavors and gooey-cheesed comfort of lasagna with little effort for those of us who are sequestered in solitude and don’t want five meals’ worth of a hefty pasta casserole. It’s a frittata that’s full of spinach, ricotta, mozzarella and Parmesan, and covered with tomato sauce. It’s intended to serve one, with leftovers for another meal, maybe two. But it can probably feed up to three. (You can always scale it up and put it in a bigger pan if you’ve got the standard foursome, or then-some.)

If anyone wants to make a party of it, I’ll be there — virtually, of course.

Druckman is author of “Kitchen Remix: 75 Recipes for Making the Most of Your Ingredients” (Clarkson Potter, 2020).

More from Voraciously:

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5 trusty recipes that get dinner on the table in 40 minutes or less

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