by Robert P. Barsanti
In my early years on Nantucket, when cable was new, the movie theaters were closed, and the Internet was a rumor, dinner parties were an adult entertainment where you could talk to each other without shouting. We met on Thursday nights, when everyone was on-island and the chaos was coming to a close. Sarah and I made lasagnas, apple cakes, chowders, and any other page in the cookbook that is currently stained. Even in some tiny galley kitchens, tucked into guest houses and rental basements, Sarah and I made some nice meals.
Then we got old. We got married, had kids, found other jobs, moved off, and filled the time with digital diversions. Time raced away, followed by the Paw Patrol sirens.
But I still cook.
In our current slow motion apocalypse, The Whalers are far more likely to lose to the Vineyard than I am to feed stew to a table of guests. The hard season is upon us, with its winds, waves, and currents. In the dark and chilly air, we can’t have a party indoors. Worse still, should I decide to make a seafood lasagna for the family, the refrigerators that would keep the leftover lunches are closed. The muffins, the cookies, and the scones stay home and pile up on plates and in the freezer. As the kitchen fills with leftovers, the shopping trips slow and then stop. I have had to fold up my “Kiss the Cook” apron and leave my sourdough starter in the back of the refrigerator, behind the capers and the fish oil.
Nonetheless, in this time when we can’t expect help from anyone else, we need to find ways to help ourselves. No politician, no banker, no client will rescue us from the coming season: we cannot wait for saviors.
Moreover, we can’t save each other, as we once did. Can’t bring the casserole over to the sick people, can’t deliver party plates to the grieving, can’t leave candy at the hospital. Our own community is behind a mask, behind a door, at the end of road: the Cheers Bar is closed, and there is nowhere to go. The football games have been cancelled, the churches are on Zoom, and the tavern is dark. Our holidays have been wrapped in paper and put under the stairs. Halloween (the finest Nantucket holiday) has been put back in the box, Thanksgiving is unthinkably dangerous, and Stroll has been cancelled. The election, the economy, the disease move through our sky like storm fronts. We can stay outside and curse the sky, or we move inside, get into the kitchen, and cook. Even if I am the only one I nourish, I need to be fed. My hands need to eat more than my stomach.
Sarah Leah Chase (and my mother in law) remind me that you can’t cook from the living room. I have found, that, if I want to avoid fires or floods, I need to stay in the kitchen and ignore the rest of the house. Should I step in on Below Decks or a Patriots game, then something will get crispy or gray and the smoke alarm will go off. If I confine myself to the square feet of the kitchen and the blaze of the burners, everything will generally turn out all right (if you put extra sauce on it).
The world pulls us from the kitchen. The news, flashing and tweeting, sits exploding in the corner. In order for me to sleep through the night and smile through my morning, I need to stay focused in the kitchen. The world and national news has become, great, terrible, and stupefying. I am not arguing for ignorance. I care about the kids in cages at the border, about the protests in Seattle, about the melting ice in Greenland. But round-the-clock cable news, supplanted by instantaneous Internet news, can draw you into a low grade fever of outrage and frustration in the living room. I can’t bear witness to all of the horrors of the world AND make dinner.
In the coming season, we need to eat with our hands. We need to make, and build, and strengthen whatever we have inside us. We need to take hold of the tools that we have at hand, not at a distance, and use those tools to bake, to serve, to feed. Our hands make what our hearts need.
Editor’s Note: Several of Sarah Leah Chase’s cookbooks, including Nantucket Open-House Cookbook, Cold-Weather Cooking, and New England Open-House Cookbook are available at Mitchell’s Book Corner on Main Street and Nantucket Bookworks on Broad Street.