My apartment building in Washington Heights, Nuevayol, has not had gas during this entire pandemic, and it looks like this will last for another long stretch of months. This means: no oven and no stove. The hotplate given to us by management is crappy by dormroom standards—the HI-MED-LOW markings scratched off within a day so… good luck getting that fried egg yolk perfectly over-easy! My husband bought an Instapot and is adept at lentils and rice dishes. With our sous vide wand, he makes a tender medium-rare salmon. We also have a toaster oven and microwave.
But this is not how arroz y habichuelas is made. And my arroz y habichuelas is damn-ass deelish. Too good to waste time humble bragging: I will fuck you up with that budget bowl of glimmering grains. At the end of a writing day, after sitting quietly for eight hours, I have loved nothing more than putting my caldero over medium high flame, toasting the olive oil, pouring the raw hard grains into the pot… Every step of the ritual has soothed me, since I was a child and had no clue how to do it, but only witnessed my abuela and then mami work their humble magic.
Dancing there at the stovetop (the rice comes out best when Shiela E.’s on volume 11), my body rejuvenates and the rambunctious cute ghosts of matriarchs past sidle up and join my stirring. Titi Ginny had the best arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas). Mom slayed at pegao (crispy burnt rice). Abuela’s plain-jane arroz blanco was my fave carbo-load.
For me, food is location. It’s the GPS circle pinging: You are here. These months have me feeling lost at sea.
There are other food rituals which might fill the void. Writing in a bar and eavesdropping on the potty-mouthed locals, or tuning them out and enjoying the simple cadence of neighbors’ voices while I tap away at my laptop. Abandoning the quiet confines of my writing studio for a happy hour glass of wine around the corner loosens the midday cobwebs from my imagination. Or walking an hour to Harlem to get cafecito and bagels with my homegirl Maria as we discuss the books we want to write, and then are in the middle of writing, and then are finished writing! Or taking the B train to the Lower East Side, the halfway point between me and my wise homegirl Amy, where we meet for croissants or french fries—cheap snacks that buy us a few hours of seated table time.
But now the local bars are shuttered temporarily or are out of business all together. And Maria’s favorite cafe is outdoor only—and nooo bagel is worth NYC’s January crosswinds slicing through your puffer. Even the hour-long walk to Harlem has become masked, and so my breath can’t bust free in the way that makes walking so rejuvenating after a morning of sedentary work. And getting on the subway for a mere croissant? A craven act of germ warfare.
There are 11 floors in my building and true confession: I have taken the food friendships closest to home for granted. Oftentimes I have texted Jennifer upstairs: Hurry down, I have enough dinner to feed your whole family! As we sloshed out whatever half-filled Cabernet she had on hand, and because there weren’t enough chairs for our two families combined, we’d be perched on tables, sofas, and the countertop, yukking it up and serving ourselves seconds. Oftentimes Lori, from the 2nd floor, has knocked on my door and brought me Philly cheesesteak flavored potato chips or roast chicken flavored candy canes because she has the triptych spirit of gifter, novelty shopper, and gross-out prankster. The first time Vanessa, my Dominican hermana who lived directly below me, showed up at dinnertime and pulled up a chair? She was mad skeptical at the first few bites: “I’ve never had Puerto Rican food this healthy…” Throwing shade and complimenting me all at once. Girl went back for seconds. When neighbors knock unannounced and the on-hand food or booze becomes the improvised catering menu? Well, a hundred of those small memories add up to… a life. And gat damn am I blessed, because I’ve had a hundred of em… and a great one.
But in the absence of these stupid, humble, ridiculous rituals, food has become a pragmatic matter. A logistic task on the to-do list, completed thrice daily. Food as nourishment alone? It’s dismal, it’s bleak. Honestly, these days I often feel bloated, greasy and gross, without the lingering laughter to make that overeat worthwhile.
At its best, food is togetherness. I’ve lost that.
This story is part of ELLE’s Lost and Found: One Year in Quarantine. Click here to read all the stories in this package.
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