COVID…With a Chance of Meatballs

Last February, my pantry was pristine and my near empty fridge looked like the “after” on Netflix’s The Home Edit. Pellegrino bottles were perfectly aligned with labels facing forwards, a few coconut yogurts sat in a row next to a carton of eggs, the crisper drawer held lemons and limes for my cocktails, and the door was stuffed with assorted condiments.

I had enjoyed the culinary arts since my days as a single gal in NYC, but after 20 years of rotating the same 10 dishes for dinner for my growing boys, (reserving a plate for my husband to microwave after his commute) cooking became more of a chore than a passion. Our neighborhood gourmet club had fizzled out due to lack of interest. I quit my job as head chef when we downsized to an apartment in NYC. It was time to let someone else do the cooking. Our empty nest was clean and sleek, devoid of children and ingredients. Most nights, we ordered in or went out.

All that changed in March when rumors of the pandemic began to spread and supermarket shelves emptied like they were filming this fall’s reboot of Supermarket Sweep. I unashamedly hauled my granny cart to Whole Foods to grab what was left — a 5-pound bag of rice, jars of generic sauce and some ground turkey. There wasn’t a frozen vegetable to be found, and I wondered aloud to the masked shopper next to me, “ Why are boxes of lasagna sheets the only pasta left on the shelves?” I wasn’t too worried — I thought the panic and stockpiling would be short-lived. I went home and made a pot of turkey meatballs for dinner and froze the leftovers just to be safe.

A few days later, my husband was feeling fatiqued. I hoped it was a winter cold. I washed my hands, tied a bandana around my face and went to gather more basics. I scored some jarred Italian tuna, a box of gluten-free pasta, bags of frozen ravioli and eggs. Then I hit the farmers market for winter vegetables, and turned them into a hearty soup for my husband and dropped off a container for our neighbor Nick, a single dad who was also feeling ill.

A visit to Urgent Care the next day had no definitive answers, as testing was scarce, but he was told to assume he had Covid-19. We began our quarantine, cancelling a trip to Florida for my Dad’s 95th birthday. Days later, I felt achy and started coughing. When I lost my sense of smell and my taste it was obvious we had Coronavirus. At least I felt secure that I had some food prepared, even though I was afraid to dig into my stock. Instacart had no timeslots. Neither of us could go out. Most restaurants were closed for delivery. I didn’t want my sons anywhere near us. I was anxious. But we needed nourishment so I defrosted the precious supplies and hungrily ate the meatballs.

My friend Nancy went to a local butcher shop and ordered me a package of ground turkey and some sliced chicken breasts that was sent up alone in the elevator. I threw on a mask to run down the hall to retrieve my treasure. I felt like I’d picked the winning door on Let’s Make a Deal when the elevator opened with my brown-paper wrapped bundle on the floor. It was my only connection with the outside world. Feeling better mentally and physically, I made another batch of meatballs, with the bonus of leftovers to stuff into the small freezer drawer.

Watching the frightening news of the spread of the virus, and being isolated from friends and family had me craving comfort food – something about eating a humble meal of meatballs drowning in tangy sauce and topped with parmesan cheese, reminded me of childhood, family and home. It evoked memories of my grandmother, Alice, in her cramped Queens kitchen, mixing and chopping meat without a measuring cup or YouTube. I could picture her chipped pots and could practically smell her onions browning, even though I actually smelled nothing due to the Anosmia from Covid. And just like my granny, making meatballs for me was stress-less. I didn’t need to make a long list of ingredients, follow a recipe or measure anything.

As I recovered, I rejoiced when a food delivery time slot opened. I ordered enough groceries to last a couple of weeks while we continued to quarantine, and without the ability to shop daily nothing was tossed. I always teased my mother about the tiny mystery packages of leftovers in her Florida freezer. Now, it was a personal contest to see what I could reuse and reconfigure into another meal so I wouldn’t have to venture outside. I made soups and salads with leftover vegetables and chicken parts and the surplus from Chinese take-out was saved to make fried rice. Stuck at home, I starting watching cooking and baking shows and searched the Internet for new recipes. I pulled out the old scrapbooks where I’d kept my favorite recipes with their pages smudged with drops of oil. Looking at my handwritten recipes for family favorites made me realize I missed the ritual and creative outlet I got from cooking. Prepping and cooking in my kitchen made the apartment finally feel like a home during the months of isolation.

As grocery stores re-opened I experimented with exotic dishes, adding more seasoning and salt to entice my dulled taste buds. It actually improved my dishes. I enjoyed having some structure in the day, creating meals for my husband and me as we spent so many hours trapped together. And every week, I made another batch of my favorite dinner – meatballs.

Once restaurants reopened over the summer, we ventured to outdoor dining. I wanted to support the local businesses and frankly, I began to tire of the obligation of everyday cooking again. Our freezer became depleted as we used up the frozen dinners and bags of Trader Joe’s shrimp, dumplings and veggies. My food insecurity disappeared too.

But now, almost a year later, it is cold and dreary again in the North East, indoor dining is not an option, and as predicted, cases are still spiking all over the country. People are posting triumphant photos receiving the new vaccines while others are desperate to score an appointment. We are low on the list. One last container of my homemade meatballs remains in the freezer, but I feel superstitious about eating it. Hopefully, we will get to a new normal by the summer. Until then…I’ll be in my kitchen. I predict Covid with a chance of meatballs.