Illustrations by Hawnuh Lee.
So much happened this year. We processed massive global crises while adapting to abrupt shifts in even the most granular aspects of our personal routines. We grieved, we supported others, we took action for positive change, and we coped in whatever ways we could. With all of the urgent and life-altering events of 2020, it stands to reason that much of our focus would be channeled towards meeting baseline needs — literally fortifying our bodies to get through the year.
What and how we eat tends to reflect what’s happening in the world around us. Our habits around food can provide insight into how we’re processing our environments, both individually and on a global scale. When we asked the Closed Loop community what nourishing themselves looked like this year, some prominent themes appeared. It seems that while we all experienced 2020 differently, we shared some comestible commonalities.
Many of us quickly (and understandably!) burned out on cooking for ourselves at home every day, and leaned on simple, efficient recipes, and grab-and-go snacks. ‘Go,’ in this case, often referring to the trip from the kitchen to the living room. A few recipes that always satisfied were on consistent rotation to stave off fatigue from deciding what to eat at every meal.
Moj Iguni, CLC’s resident sustainable small biz expert, made cinnamon apple oatmeal almost every morning. “It was a simple, healthy, and quick way to start the day with a substantial breakfast,” she says.
Julia Borland, a Northwestern University student who spent the fall working on a farm in Illinois, made tofu her mainstay — frying it, baking it, tossing it in salads, and simmering it in curry. Living with the other farm apprentices, she’d often be cooking dinner for eight. Curries especially “were filling and warmed the soul,” she says, “and perfect for making in a big batch.”
The role food played in our lives as a source of comfort and pleasure became more crucial than ever. Meals and snacks enjoyed alone or with housemates sustained not just our bodies but our sense of stability — a rare predictable and fulfilling experience in a time of otherwise complete uncertainty. Prepping the lunches we used to bring to the office helped us hold onto consistency, and food we ate as kids brought back feelings of warmth and safety.
Moji discovered a sweet ritual for soothing the soul: “The process of seeding a pomegranate while watching television or zoning out has been incredibly calming.”
Maya Oren, a creative director in Washington D.C, came up with her own recipe for almost vegan Levain look-alike cookies: “I mean, cookies are the ultimate comfort food and I just can’t get over their texture and flavor combo.”
Food also served as a means of connecting to family and friends we couldn’t physically share a table with — whether it was making recipes together over Zoom or cooking a dish we associate with loved ones.
Madison Trapkin, an editor in Cambridge, MA, had Priya Krishna’s Saag Feta on repeat, and got to share the tasty dish with her mom long-distance style: “My mom got me Priya’s cookbook for Christmas last year, but I’d already owned it for months so I told her she should keep it and that she’d love the recipes,” she says. “Now we call each other whenever we’ve made something from it.”
Maddy Stein, an account manager in Chicago, mastered challah making, and dropped off loaves for her local friends and family: “My favorite part of baking challah is sharing it with others,” she says. “It was a way for me to express love for people I care about.”
While many of our usual sources of joy were upended by the pandemic, delicious food was something to look forward to and savor. We relied on time-tested favorites — the candy we’d buy at a movie theater, meals we’d ask our parents to make for special occasions, the Trader Joe’s snack item we typically saved for weekends… If ever there was a time to indulge in all the feel-good treats, it was definitely 2020.
Daphne K. Jenkins, a holistic nutritionist, educator, and artist in Portland found solace and delight in gummy snacks: “I have such sweet memories of enjoying gummy bears and chocolate covered gummy bears in middle and high school,” she says. “When stay home directives went into effect, I turned to comforting foods associated with happy, fun memories… Sour Patch Kids, Annie’s Sour Bunnies, I even found me some gummy Smurfs!”
Mandy Lancia, a marketing director in Chicago, developed a fun weekly dinner habit: ”My husband and I purchased a pizza oven this summer so we could have a creative activity to do from the balcony of our apartment,” she says. “Doing something new was important for our mental state — learning how to use the oven, trying out dough recipes, using new ingredients — it’s so simple, but it’s something we look forward to every week.”
Taris Hoffman, an actor and writer in Chicago, made the most of her work from home setup: “Lime chips and mango salsa are my favorite, but they’re not an on-the-go snack, and I’m always on the go,” she says. “Now that I’m at home so often I can just take a second to sit and enjoy the sweet, spicy, and sour goodness.”
Our relationships with cooking and eating shifted beyond just the types of food we prepared. For some, dramatically altered schedules, work environments, social obligations, etc. functioned as an opportunity to let go of rigidity around our diets — focusing less on restrictions and planning ahead, and more on listening intuitively to our bodies. Of course, experiencing changes in our routines and bodies can also be quite stressful, especially when those might have been some of the few things we felt we had a modicum of control over this year.
Maya says: “Food became a necessity for me more than a leisure activity. I found myself falling into a rhythm. I ate when I was hungry, and whatever I was called to eat. The meals were old favorites or frankly, whatever was available that week at the grocery store. I became less harsh with my normal stringency for variety.”
Madison says: “As someone who had an eating disorder during college, this year has been especially challenging as my clothes have started to fit differently (or not at all), and the foods I find comfort in cause anxiety at the exact same time. This year has been challenging in many ways, and finding tenderness and understanding for my body has been one of the hardest parts.”
CLC writer and event producer Kaitlyn Chock says: “I’ve done an absolutely terrible job feeding myself nutrient-dense food this pandemic, which is probably awful for my already compromised immune system. But the year has been a big, big project in learning to give myself grace.”
The work it took to nourish and care for ourselves this year, simply so we could function properly as human beings, often felt like a full time job. The need to consume calories at regular intervals throughout the day felt akin to having a phone with a faulty battery. Without the convenience of regular desk lunch orders or dinners out with friends, most of us were washing a lot more dishes, and being confronted with too many veg scraps for even the heartiest of soup stocks. With that, though, also came the accrual of new cooking skills and techniques — some out of necessity and others just for fun. You may not have perfected your sourdough boule or started making all your plant milk from scratch, but I’d venture to guess you’re savvier in the kitchen than you were last January.
Taris lives with her family, and staying home made them all better chefs than they thought they could be: “We used to eat out four to five days a week. Now it’s one to two, and for the first few months of the pandemic, we weren’t at all. We have so many more recipes in our rotation that are much more adventurous, and I am a way better cook than I was a few months ago.”
Julia’s farm living situation meant she had to approach cooking differently than she ever had before: “Making group dinners for 8 people motivated me to go out of my comfort zone and cook filling, warming, tasty vegan meals,” she says. “We also baked lots of sourdough bread!”
Mandy hopped on the sourdough train too: “While I have confidence in my cooking skills, I’ve never been a confident baker until recently,” she says. “Having a baking routine and making it zero waste (with sourdough crackers) has brought me some peace.”
Of course, sometimes even pouring a bowl of cereal sounds too arduous, and we’ve got to hold space for that as well.
A few tips from Kaitlyn: “If you don’t have the energy to cook but have the budget to order takeout, go for it. Support your local business. If takeout is beyond your reach right now, are there frozen meals you can keep stashed in the freezer? If there’s a day you have more energy, maybe you could do some easy meal prep. The most important thing you can do is meet your basic needs however you can, and do your absolute best not to berate yourself for failing to meet some standard you set before this global apocalypse.”
It should go without saying, but all of these experiences, and any others you might have had, are equally valid and justified. There is no imperative to find a silver lining to this hellstorm of a year, and it’s also okay to acknowledge beauty in any positive outcomes you did encounter. Whatever 2021 brings, I hope we all take extra care to keep our bodies and souls nourished, indulge generously in food that makes us feel good, and continue connecting with one another through our shared need for sustenance and pursuit of deliciousness.