You’ve probably played some version of the desert island game. If you were going to be stranded, what would you take along to make it more bearable? As a child, this game stressed me out.
I hated the idea of being cut off from something I might need. When asked, I always said the same thing: people. My family, or friends, it depended on the moment you caught me. But I knew then that what I most needed was company, community.
As the pandemic began to spread across the world, it felt like a real life version of that childhood game, but this time, people were exactly what I couldn’t take with me. My task was to isolate to remain safe, to keep the people I love safe.
But the urge to connect is strong, and for me, connection and love often look like food and drink. If you want to tell me you love me, make me a cocktail, take me to dinner, make me brunch.
While some people embraced quarantine baking projects, learning to make sourdough that sings, I turned my attention to martinis. I ordered vermouth for curbside pickup and began to dash bitters into a coupe glass of clear liquid in varying shades.
I seldom order martinis in restaurants, mostly because I didn’t know how to describe exactly how I liked them. I experimented with more or less vermouth, more aromatic gin, or less. I shook and I stirred. Finally, I knew what my perfect martini tasted like. I moved on to Manhattans.
One friend would text me when she was going to the grocery store, willing to take my shopping list along with her. When she delivered my groceries, we would stand for a few moments to talk, me on my porch, her in the middle of my front walk. On one of these visits, I left her a mason jar of the Manhattans I had just perfected.
The next time I saw her, she told me she had always found Manhattans too strong, unpleasant, but not this one. She asked for my recipe. She left me a jar of clear liquid with one curl of lemon peel. Her husband had made Vespers for my husband and I to share.
In the time before the pandemic, I had shared many cocktails with this couple, in restaurants and at home. We’ve done impromptu gin tastings after their little boy fell asleep. As my husband and I sipped our Vespers—that drink James Bond made a household name in Casino Royale—I could almost taste that community again. If I closed my eyes, it felt like we were all together.
I moved on to syrups, and when I started craving rhubarb, a friend offered to drop some on my porch. I washed and cut the ruby and green stalks and put them in a bag with some water and sugar, dropping it in when my sous vide water was warm enough. That syrup was a showy pink, drawing the eye, making you want to sip it. It tasted like spring.
I poured some into a little swing-top bottle and left it on the porch for my friend when she swung by next. A few weeks later, she returned it filled with grapefruit syrup.
But we didn’t only drink, we ate too, though at first I didn’t feel like cooking much. My brother and his girlfriend popped by with a dozen donuts, stopping to chat in the early spring sun.
For Easter, my parents made bacon waffles, wrapping them in foil and dropping them off for both my brother and me, along with syrup. We ate them all together over Zoom, savoring the same flavors at the same time, but from a distance, my baby waving wildly at the screen.
I made a big batch of Waldorf salad, a recipe I grew up eating regularly. I put some into a container and delivered it to my mom, standing in her yard, not wanting to get too close. I hoped that as she tasted the apples, the walnuts, those cubes of cheese and the dressing I had liberally curried, she would taste the love. When I was a kid, she had a metal spice jar in the kitchen which said “love.” Whenever we cooked anything, even scrambled eggs, I would open the top and shake a little in.
As the days wore on, I began to notice an important difference between my condition and the desert island I’d stressed so much about. When stranded on an island, there is no delivery.
I began to play with my high-powered blender, and soon everyone had soup in jars, little blended savory delights filled with the contents of my produce drawer, some stock, a few spices. I left them on doorsteps all over town.