Precarity. The word appeared over and over in newspaper articles I read earlier this year. One story in a major media outlet used it twice in the same paragraph. So I looked it up, and anthropologists use precarity to describe a persistent state of insecurity. I’d never thought of “precarious” in its noun form but after repeatedly seeing “precarity,” I realized that our 2020 situation wasn’t about to subside quickly.
As the COVID-19 case and death counts mounted, a number of people in my immediate circle died from other causes. A once hale-and-hearty neighbor suddenly succumbed to cancer and we never got to say goodbye. Cancer also defeated a 46-year-old cousin. A heart attack likely took the life of a longtime friend. I wasn’t close to my cousin and hadn’t seen my friend in years but I felt a huge loss.
When Kat Kinsman, a colleague and senior editor at Food and Wine magazine, announced her mother’s COVID-related death on Twitter, emptiness filled my heart. I never met Kat’s mom but the passing of strangers, friends, colleagues and family members contributed to this year’s aggregate sense of grief.
Death seemed everywhere, and I took to the kitchen searching for strategies and solutions.
Related: Coronavirus & Your Well-Being
In mid-March, our community of Santa Cruz, California, was among the nation’s first to announce a shelter-in-place order. As shoppers stripped the shelves of frozen pizza, boxed pasta and eggs, I headed to the produce department, where there was plenty of cabbage. It’s unsexy, but it’s a long-lifer vegetable that keeps super well, I explained to my husband as I selected two giant heads. In reality, I had my mom and grandma in my mind.
You may not think of cabbage as a go-to Vietnamese veggie, but it figures prominently in classics such as herbaceous goi bap cai ga, a cabbage, chicken and mint salad, and homey bap cai xao trung, stir-fried cabbage with egg, pepper and fish sauce. I grew up watching, helping and eventually recording my mom’s recipes in some of my cookbooks.
Dad once explained that because cabbage is a cool-weather crop, it was precious and enjoyed special status at the Vietnamese table. He recalled his mother carefully tending cabbage heads in their family garden, covering each one with a cooking pot to encourage their leaves to curl in Vietnam’s tropical climate.
Turns out I’m not alone in seeking nostalgic comfort foods. A July 2020 national survey of 2,000 respondents (age 18 to 55+) about American eating habits during the pandemic revealed much about what we’re eating and cooking. Their data showed that people are enjoying at least five comfort-food meals per week, with two-thirds (67%) saying they’d give up alcohol rather than their go-to comfort food (ditto for giving up social media for a favorite indulgent meal).
The top reasons why comfort food attracts? Survey respondents shared that it’s because the food tastes good (48%), is satisfying (43%), delivers happiness (41%), is something positive to anticipate (39%) and comforts during times of uncertainty (38%).
“Eating comfort foods releases a lot of dopamine and other types of feel-good hormones and chemicals,” explained Tiffany Nowell, Ph.D., assistant professor and clinical psychologist at the University of Alabama in Birmingham.
Food involves multiple senses, and people tend to choose favorite recipes with an emphasis on nostalgia—a positive, idealized past that may or may not have been personally experienced, researchers stated in a 2005 study in Advances in Consumer Research. Recipes symbolize ritual, familial legacy and self.
Additionally, food can strongly evoke emotion, particularly through smells. “Where we metabolize smell in the brain is very closely linked to where we metabolize memories,” Nowell says.
Smells come into the nose to the olfactory bulb, which is connected to the hippocampus and amygdala—parts of the limbic system, a major player in processing emotions and memories, among other things. Sight, sound and touch don’t traverse such direct paths to the brain. That explains why the cooking smells I’ve picked up during my evening walks in our neighborhood spark warm, cozy feelings!
The July survey also highlighted that Americans are cooking more, spending 30 more minutes per day cooking in 2020 than in 2019. People are doing more online searches for recipes, and men are twice as likely to share their food photos on social media than women.
As people explore, and experiment in their home kitchens, they’re also revisiting family and classic recipes for dishes that recall joyful times (cue spaghetti and meatballs, mashed potatoes and cookies). EatingWell has particularly experienced a 2020 surge in interest in “just like Grandma’s” recipes, like these cozy casseroles, chicken recipes and one-pot recipes. Such family recipes, passed down through generations, conjure up the notion of an idealized grandmother who practiced tried-and-true, minimal-fuss, seasonal cooking. Heirloom recipes offer nostalgic appeal that runs deep, and have even proven to increase restaurant revenues, according to Unilever Foods in New Zealand and TheFork.
In 2020, a combination of not being able to dine at restaurants, stress and the need to cook at home directed people to desire not just comfort food but also the savors that Grandma brought to the table. Even the Parisian edition of Vogue agrees that Grandma’s old-school cooking is rocking these days!
“Nostalgia is different. Everything is so uncertain right now that people are looking for anything that is certain or consistent,” Nowell explains. “You know you can always rely on Grandma's cooking because you know what it looks like, feels like and tastes like. Thinking back to positive memories is a coping mechanism and it promotes resilience in people. You're less likely to develop depression and anxiety.”
But I never met my grandmothers and only know them through stern portraits at my parent’s home plus their stories.
Grandmotherly love is special, as they get to spoil us rotten but never have to punish. “The lovely thing about Grandma is Grandma was taught by her Grandma how to cook. When you go back and go back to make something, it's like a direct link to the past, to a time when things were better, even if they weren't,” Nowell says.
So is cooking like Grandma, even if she’s not related to you, healthy?
Home cooking, in general, is a great coping mechanism, Nowell says, especially this year when social contact is greatly curbed. “When I talk to patients about what kind of positive activities they’ve been engaged in recently, I always throw in cooking. What are you making for dinner? Who's the cook in your family? Do you hang out?”
Renovating my kitchen this year involved shuffling things around, and I found that I couldn’t part with certain gifts from my mom—mid-century Dansk cookware, vintage Pyrex casseroles, and Royal Wessex dishware—things she and my dad acquired at yard sales and thrift stores. Being refugees from Vietnam, our family heirlooms reflect our experience of coming to and settling in America. I don’t have much from my grandmothers but I do from my mother, who turned 86 this year.
Mom still cooks with some Farberware that she picked up in the 1970s. Missing her kitchen, which I haven’t physically visited since last December, I jumped at the chance to road-test a 120th anniversary limited edition set. With the brand’s iconic curves, the pots and pans charmed. There are only 4 pieces (excluding lids), and they’re all super-useful sizes and shapes.
“Given our consumer’s approach to cooking, with an emphasis on family mealtime, we chose essential elements that are likely to be used frequently, if not daily,” wrote Steve Jones, vice president of marketing, via email.
Modernized with a thick bottom that’s ready for induction and finished in subtly sparkly colors, the cookware was a definite upgrade from what my mom has.
“We wanted to celebrate the iconic look of Farberware—which for many brand loyalists is epitomized in the Farberware Classic stainless-steel collection that continues to be offered— while also giving it a modern twist,” Jones explained. “We chose two colors—Aqua and Pewter—to provide cooks with one option that’s cheerful and bright, and a little bit retro, and another hue that’s more neutral, timeless and elegant.”
Through regular usage, my husband and I were surprised by how well the pans performed. Moreover, their appearance in our kitchen put smiles on our faces. I have spent my adulthood collecting high-end, fancy cookware, and it took a pandemic to remind me of the simple joys of my mother’s kitchen, how she made do through tough times.
After California’s lockdown began, I called my mom to chat, and she expressed bewilderment as to why people were stocking up on toilet paper. When we fled Vietnam in 1975, she brought a few family photos, some precious jewelry and her notebook of recipes. With very little, she had hope back then as now. She reminded me to remain hopeful too. That’s a key to surviving precarity.