Cooking Your Way Through the Pandemic

Stanley Tucci
The Atlantic

I write this from my studio at the back of our garden in London, to which I have retreated for a few moments to be alone, as “alone” is not easily experienced these days. My wife, Felicity, and I have been sequestered here with our two small children, a boy 5, a girl 2; my three older children (whom I had with my late wife, Kate), a girl 18, boy/girl twins 20; and a girlfriend of theirs from university, who was unable to get to her parents overseas.

Cramming all these people with differing personalities, ages, needs, wants, etc. in a house for six weeks creates for an interesting dynamic. For the most part, things have been going very well, meaning no one has murdered anyone yet, although I am sure one of them is plotting my demise as I type this.

At first, I had grand plans for how we might pass the time in convivial and entertaining ways. I thought perhaps a rotating schedule of cooks for the nightly meal, followed by movies, games, or Bordeaux-fueled charades by the fire. Things didn’t quite work out that way. Instead, here’s what our typical day looks like.

7 a.m. GMT

Within moments of Felicity and I awakening, our 5-year-old is in our room. It’s not clear how he knows we’re awake. For all we know, he has a monitor like the one we use to listen to his 2-year-old sister. He waltzes over to my wife’s side of the bed, completely ignoring me as usual, and begins to chat with her about nothing and everything. (His usual topic is dragons, as he is obsessed with the book series How to Train Your Dragon and its various cinematic spin-offs.) Felicity and I head to the bathroom, and he follows and perches himself on the bidet to regale us with plot points from the novels and observations about the seemingly endless variety of dragons and their specific attributes. He will carry on this way more or less until sunset.

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After dressing, we head to his sister’s room, where she has been “singing” in her crib and perusing the shredded remains of her extensive Peppa Pig book collection. When she sees us enter, she inevitably covers her face with a book and pretends to be asleep. She thinks this is funny. She is right. I change her nappy and she kicks me in the groin a few times for my trouble.

We all head downstairs for breakfast. For me, this consists of a double espresso, orange juice, and a bowl of cereal with a banana and almond milk. I also choke down a handful of vitamins, including D3, K2, C, B12, curcumin powder, and joint supplements so my knees don’t crack like a melting glacier every time I bend down to pick up a rogue Lego. Felicity has her tea and the children have toast, cereal, fruit, the occasional egg, or whatever else their little hearts desire. Most of their food ends up on the floor anyway. This precipitates my first deep clean of the day.

8 a.m.

I tidy up their mess, empty the dishwashers (yes, we have two), scour the counters, wipe down the cabinets and their handles, and organize the contents of the fridge, discarding anything past its due date. I also sweep the floor, but after summoning considerable willpower decide to delay the mopping for after lunch.

As you might glean, I am a very tidy person. I actually like to clean, as I find it soothing. But I have gone a bit above and beyond during lockdown. The other day, it occurred to me that I might be able to strap a vacuum to my back like a leaf blower so that it could be with me at all times.

8:45 a.m.

Felicity and I do an online workout with a friend of ours who is a Pilates teacher. The night before, we asked one of the older children to come down this morning and babysit. Seconds before the class begins, the bleary-eyed designee emerges, face still swollen from sleep, and grunts a “Good morning” as we flee to the living room for a fitness-filled escape from reality. During this time, I think about what we might cook that evening for eight people yet again.

9:45 a.m.

When the session ends, Felicity and I go over what food items need to be restocked. With four people ages 18 to 20, the amount of food, beer, and wine consumed is staggering. If there is a shortage of avocados at the local stores, it’s because we’ve eaten them all. If there is no Kerrygold butter left in the United Kingdom, it’s because it’s either in our freezer or we ate it. All of it. Just fucking ate it. Probably without even spreading it on anything. I saw a neighbor hungrily eyeing our cat yesterday and it occurred to me that the woman probably hadn’t eaten meat in a week, because my gluttonous family had devoured all of the fucking beef, lamb, veal, chicken, oxtail, pork, rabbit, and game in Southwest London. Still gasping for breath from an unnecessarily grueling workout, I rummage through the fridge.

Given our short supplies, I decide to make something simple tonight: pasta alla Norma and sautéed lamb chops. I reckon that these two dishes should satisfy everyone’s palate and nutritional needs. However, I know that my middle daughter will eat only the pasta dish, as she is now a vegetarian. What timing.

PASTA ALLA NORMA

2 large eggplants—diced

2 large cloves of garlic—halved

A big glug of extra virgin olive oil

About 15 cups of marinara sauce*

A handful of basil—roughly chopped

A handful of grated ricotta salata or pecorino

1 lb of rigatoni, ziti, or thick spaghetti

In a very large frying pan, fry the garlic in some of the oil for about two minutes. Add the eggplant and cook over medium heat for about 15 minutes, until it is slightly golden. Salt to taste. When the eggplant is cooked, add the marinara sauce and cook together for about five minutes. Drain the pasta, reserving ½ cup of the water. Stir the reserved pasta water into the pan mixture and sprinkle with the basil. Remove four cups of the sauce and put it into a serving bowl. Put the pasta into the pan with the remainder of the sauce and gently stir it all together. Serve and sprinkle with grated ricotta salata or pecorino.

10:30 a.m.

After doing some homeschooling with the 5-year-old, Felicity heads upstairs to shower and begin her remote workday from our bedroom. She is a literary agent and carries out her endless meetings via Zoom. With the exception of finishing voice-over work from my studio for a CNN series I recently completed, I have very little to do these days, as film and TV production have shut down. As far as I know, this has never happened since somebody first called “Action!” more than 100 years ago.

So I do the laundry and play with the kids—often made-up games such as Mean King, in which I affect a very posh British accent and they come to me to “pay their taxes” and then “steal” them back when I “take a nap.” I like this game because I get to sit on my “throne,” an Eero Saarinen womb chair, the most comfortable seating device ever designed. I try to drag the game out for as long as possible so I don’t have to get up, but the 2-year-old is beginning to reek and I realize that I have been neglectful in my nappy-changing duties.

When this wrestling match has ended and she has accused everyone in the house (besides herself) of pooping, I change them both out of their pajamas and into the outfit of the day. Although the 5-year-old can dress himself, today he insists that he is incapable of doing so. I therefore talk him through each stage while the 2-year-old hurtles herself through the room, screaming with laughter and jeering at me. I finally catch her, body-slam her to the sofa, and stuff her into her first of many outfits of the day, like sausage meat into a casing. My glasses are nowhere to be found, and therefore I can’t see well enough to work the minuscule fucking buttons on children’s clothing, so I leave part of her outfit undone, hoping Felicity won’t notice. (She doesn’t. But I do and it plagues me for the rest of the day.)

11 a.m.

Once the children are dressed, I usher them into the garden, where they bounce on the trampoline and beg me to allow them to play with the hose. Sometimes I will bounce or “wrestle” with them for a bit, and this makes them very happy. It has the same effect on me as well. After a while, I finally relent and allow them some water play, with a hose, buckets, and a miniature plastic kitchen set.

With the kids sufficiently distracted, I head inside and begin cooking, keeping an eye on them from the kitchen window. I first decide to make chicken stock with leftover carcasses.

SIMPLE CHICKEN STOCK

1 chicken carcass and a whole chicken without breast meat, or two of each

10 mixed peppercorns

1 yellow onion—cut in half, skin on

1 red onion—cut in half, skin on

2 cloves of garlic—skin on

2 celery stalks—quartered

2 carrots—quartered

A handful of parsley

2 bay leaves

A fair amount of salt

1 sprig of rosemary

2 sprigs of thyme

Break down the chicken, place in a stockpot, and cover with water. Bring to a boil and skim off the scum that rises to the top. Add the other ingredients and cook slightly covered for as long as you want, at least two hours. Strain through a sieve into some sort of vessel and refrigerate or put into freezer bags and freeze.

12:15 p.m.

The older generation of children awakens. They enter the kitchen and make quick work of an entire loaf of bread, two pints of cherry tomatoes, four avocados, six eggs, two pints of blueberries, four bananas, 20 rashers of bacon, one liter of almond milk, six Nespresso pods, and a liter of orange juice before retreating to the TV room or their bedrooms, where they tell me they are doing their schoolwork. I believe them, even if I don’t. Felicity comes down and serves the little ones lunch after I have changed their waterlogged clothes. I am off to clean a bathroom or two, do some more laundry, or vacuum something that I just vacuumed three hours before.

1:45 p.m.

Felicity puts the 2-year-old down for her nap, the 5-year-old listens to his audiobook, and I make marinara and prep the eggplant for the pasta alla Norma.

3 p.m.

When all is prepped and the kitchen is cleaned once again, it is my intention to write something, read, or catch up on emails. Instead I pick up the New York Times crossword puzzle to clear my head, and promptly fall asleep.

3:30 p.m.

I awaken with spittle on my chin and too few clues answered. Glancing at my watch, I rush upstairs to awaken the 2-year-old from her nap. When I arrive, Felicity is already changing her while doing a conference call. I know she wants to give me a dirty look but she is a much better person than that. I take the child, finish the diapering, redress her, and head downstairs. I give both children a snack and we play together in the garden. We bounce on the trampoline, do chalk drawings on the patio, look for slugs, and maybe do some drawing or painting. It is at once lovely and exhausting. We are laughing one moment and the next someone is weeping and I am adjudicating, saying things such as:

“Let her have it for a few minutes and then you can have it.”

“What’s a few?”

“A few is three.”

“Three minutes?”

“Yes, three minutes. And then you can have it.”

“Will you time it?”

“Yes, I will time it.”

I do indeed “time it,” but the 2-year-old screams when whatever object they both covet gets taken from her. Play begins anew but then the spat starts all over again.

4:30 p.m.

I look at my watch and will it to be 5 p.m. Cocktail time.

4:45 p.m.

I acquiesce and make a Negroni.

A NEGRONI UP

Double shot of gin

1 shot of Campari

1 shot of good sweet vermouth

Place ingredients in a shaker filled with ice and shake. Pour into a coupe. Garnish with half of an orange slice. Drink.

5 p.m.

The older children have now come downstairs to eat an entire fucking meal before dinner. Thankfully, as penance, two of them take the little ones up for their bath. Felicity enters the kitchen and begs for a Negroni. I gladly make her one, as I hate to drink alone, although I have been known to make near-daily exceptions. And anyway, one is never really drinking alone. Someone else is drinking somewhere. We prepare the children’s dinner: lamb chops, rice, and string beans. I switch to white wine and thank Christ it is evening.

LAMB CHOPS—RECIPE FOR FOUR ADULTS

10 to 12 lamb chops, salted an hour before using

3 cloves of garlic—halved

A bit of fresh rosemary

A bit of fresh thyme

A splash of white wine

A glug of EVOO

In a cast-iron pan, splash a tiny bit of the oil and add the garlic. Cook at a low heat for about three minutes. Remove the garlic and set aside. Turn the heat up to medium-high and sear the lamb chops for about two to three minutes on each side, until they are browned. You may do this in two batches. Remove the lamb chops from the pan and set them aside on a platter. Add a splash of white wine to the pan, and perhaps a little water, and deglaze. Return the garlic to the pan along with the herbs. Cook for maybe a minute. Pour over the lamb chops and tent with foil for five minutes.

6 p.m.

The little ones eat their meal, which at times requires us to coax, plead, or threaten, spewing old chestnuts such as:

“There will be no dessert for you, young man. Do you think dragons leave food on their plates?”

“Dragons don’t use plates.”

“I know they don’t use plates, I know that. I’m just saying … could you please just finish it?”

After their meal is eaten, sort of, the little ones are allowed to watch a bit of television. Dragons for him, Peppa Pig for her. (There is no question that my wife and I, along with many parents, wish the creators of that irritating animated swine a slow death, but they are so rich, they have probably purchased immortality. And yet at the same time, said pig allows us respite for half an hour or so every day. May God bless those creators.)

While the little kids are immersed, I begin to make any culinary preparations for the next “sitting.”

TV time has ended and we usher the little ones to bed. The 2-year-old is usually screaming between gulps of her bottle because she has had to leave her beloved, pink, porcine pal. After settling her into her cot, we then take turns reading about dragons to the 5-year-old, who proceeds to tell us he’s hungry, so we begrudgingly make him some toast and say something like, “I told you to eat your dinner. This is the last time.”

And it is. Until tomorrow.

7:45 p.m.

Felicity and I cook dinner for ourselves and the four other human locusts, and eat standing around the kitchen island because we can’t be bothered to set the table anymore. We eat, drink wine, and comment on the food, but this past week we barely spoke with one another. This makes me sad, as I know it’s because we are all lost in our own anxieties. I am sure that the 20-year-olds are thinking about whether their year abroad will happen at all; my 18-year-old is lost in worried wonder as to how universities will decide who gets accepted and who doesn’t without anyone having taken exams. Felicity is worried about her assistant being furloughed, if her parents are all right, and a thousand other things. I wonder if my very social parents are really practicing social distancing, what jobs will be available when this is over, and know already that I most likely will have to be away for a while working on one of them to fill the coffers.

But no matter how frustrated we all are with the situation, I know we can’t help but think how lucky we are to have one another, a roof over our heads, food in our bellies, and no symptoms of illness. Only a couple of miles away in any direction there are hospitals chock-full of ill and dying patients who are being attended to by overworked and overwhelmed National Health Service doctors, nurses, and support staff. Other than sending checks and raising money for charities and the NHS by making videos at home, we are helpless to do anything for fear of infection. As we eat in silence, we are all hoping this will end soon without too much more suffering, that our leaders will get at least one thing right along the way, and that the next time we are all sequestered together it is by choice.

9:15 p.m.

The kitchen has been cleaned by group effort and we head our separate ways: the kids to the TV room, my wife and I to the sitting room to read. In a short while, I’ll climb the stairs and head to bed, knees creaking, as I plan tomorrow night’s meal. Chicken cutlets for the little kids, mushroom risotto for the rest of us. Recipes in the next installment.


* Buy The Tucci Cookbook for the marinara recipe. My percentage of the profits will go to the Food Bank for New York City.