When the stove in my Brooklyn apartment started to leak gas last year, the gas company sent a technician, a burly man with a sunburned scalp, who told me that the whole building could have gone up in flames any time I scrambled eggs. “Lucky for you,” he said, “you get to eat pizza until this gets fixed.” I didn’t admit that, in the year I had lived there, I had only used the stove once, to heat up a can of soup. After the gas line got shut off, the stove sat broken for months. I made a few calls to an appliance repair store, but never followed through with their requests to order new parts that would have cost me fifty bucks on top of a service fee. I wasn’t aching to use the stove anyway. It was a good excuse to continue eating at my favorite diner almost every night after work. I had become such a regular that the owner invited me to his house for Easter and tried setting me up with a woman who ate breakfast at the counter every weekend.
Before I moved to Brooklyn, I lived in the upper Manhattan neighborhood Morningside Heights, sharing a three-bedroom railroad apartment with two roommates who loved to cook. They planned whole afternoons around the construction of a Bolognese or a ham soup, smells of their creations filling the hall and creeping under my closed bedroom door. I joined them in eating their delicious meals, offering bottles of wine in return. One of my roommates, C., grew up in Germany, raised by parents who survived World War II. At times, C. told me, food had been so scarce for them during the war, they resorted to eating sawdust. Every Thursday and Sunday, C. walked to the Columbia University farmer’s market, where she bought eggs from an Amish man and vegetables from a young woman sporting Carhartt and a nose ring. She never wasted a scrap of food, saving items that retained particular meaning for her, including an empty container of cherry tomatoes that for some reason reminded her of a friend who died in the nineties.
My other roommate, T., remains one of my best friends. As students in Columbia’s MFA program, T. and I became part of a group of poets who explored the university area’s rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Our favorite spot was a now-defunct dive bar near 125th Street, where the bouncer always greeted us with an exclamation: “The poets!” The men’s room had no door on it and one of the bartenders’ boyfriends would sit on a stool through her shift every night, glowering at the construction workers who hit on her. As my friendship with T. grew in the shared confines of our cramped apartment, and in the late-night hours at the bar, I felt myself becoming the hard freight whenever culinary topics broached in conversation. An only child of two parents who worked full time, T. spent most of his early years at his grandmother’s house, making meals for the both of them. Throughout high school and college, he fed his friends in various punk communities, becoming an improviser who cooks with confidence and warmth, a trait I could recognize from my own upbringing.
Although my parents separated when I was in third grade, and my father from then on was largely absent, and my mother worked long, draining days, I always had my maternal grandparents around—all my life, they lived with us. When I tell people that I grew up in a Greek family, their knee-jerk responses often regard food. My grandmother kept a disintegrating cookbook that had belonged to her mother, a first-generation American who continued to read and write in Greek. In the back pages of her cookbook, my great-grandmother’s handwriting remains faintly etched in the pencil she used to adapt the book’s recipes. I never helped my grandmother cook these dishes, except for the occasional chopped onion for a pastitsio, and only then because of her superstition that certain meals were cursed unless the whole family played a role in preparing them. It was the same superstition that forced each of us to taste at least a little frosting from any birthday cake.
Domestic roles were gendered in my upbringing, no doubt, but on top of that, it was the implicit understanding that a firstborn son was the most privileged person in the house. I ate first, ate the most, and cleaned up the least. For most of my life, whenever smells of food wafted from the kitchen, I was usually in another room, reading. As I got older and moved to New York, I started to label this dichotomy between literature and the kitchen as a sacrifice of my craft, justifying it in spite of the fact that many of my poet friends cooked with passion. During Sunday workshops, they shared macaroni salads, pastrami sandwiches, and pies they prepared the day before, while I tried to make up for my culinary inadequacy by overcompensating my effort in editing their poems. I knew that if I ever put my mind to it, I could learn how to cook like them, but there was something deeply cut and petrified inside me that kept me from attempting it until a crisis forced me to.
When New York shut down to quarantine, and all “non-essential businesses” started to close, I rushed to prepare for the long haul. I knew I couldn’t sustain myself only on Jason Isbell songs and Rilke poems, and it wasn’t clear that the diner would remain open for take-out or delivery. Needing to devise ways of feeding myself, I lugged a large toaster oven about three-quarters of a mile from a UPS drop zone. I ordered an electric hot plate, which I placed over one of the useless burners on my stove. Starting small, I heated up cans of soup and grilled veggie Boca Burgers. It was exhilarating to meet a sudden societal shift with new methods of self-preservation. I went through cartons of oatmeal, boxes of spaghetti, and tubs of peach yogurt, reassured that I could gradually incorporate more sophisticated meals into my regimen. Hunkered down with a stockpile of unread books and the good fortune of a full-time job that continued to pay my salary, I accepted the fact that my imminent future could contain these things and little else.
After several weeks of a carb-heavy, vegetarian diet, I missed my usual iron and protein. It had also been that long since I drank any alcohol. While my new diet had purified me of excesses and put me in touch with some habits of my vegan friends, I wanted to challenge myself, so I ordered a bulk delivery from the meat company Omaha Steaks. I was nervous about cooking meat, having done so only as an auxiliary set of hands at communal barbecues. I tend to ruminate about food-borne illnesses and parasites, perhaps a holdover from public hysteria about Mad Cow Disease when I was a boy. For periods of weeks, while a scare propagated in the news, my mother would buy me McDonald’s Happy Meals, hamburgers minus the beef. As COVID-19 spread, there were reports that workers at meat-packing plants were hit especially hard, and I wondered if I had made a mistake in placing the order. It arrived early one morning in a Styrofoam box, sealed like a treasure chest. Inside, frozen by dry ice, were vacuum-packed filet mignons, sirloins, and beef franks. My building is a two-hundred-year-old walk-up, and among other inconveniences, my apartment lacks a buzzer for delivery people to press. I taped a sign to my building’s front door that said, “Dear FedEx – Please leave package for 3R on doorstep. I NEED IT.”
The feeling of privation that swept through America in the early weeks of the COVID crisis caused a lot of people to hoard protective gear, goods and groceries, tapping into the survivalist mentality that lives in the country’s subconscious. With a packed mini-fridge and a freezer stocked with frozen meat, I was a version of myself I had not met before. My first attempt at cooking one of the Omaha Steaks, my sister talked me through the steps over the phone, reminding me not to use too much butter. I screwed it up in this regard—smoke filled my apartment, triggering a beeping alarm that prompted an elderly woman who lives on the first floor to check to make sure I was home. The eye-watering smell of it lingered in my kitchen for the better part of a day, even with the windows open. Despite the smoke, I managed to cook the filet mignon to an ideal medium temperature, double-checked by a thermometer I ordered online. I smiled from ear to ear while eating it, remembering how, when my family used to barbecue in our backyard, my grandfather would bring a portable TV outside, twisting the antennae until the static disappeared, so we could watch the NBA playoffs while T-bones smoked on the grill.
The last four months under quarantine have gone on like this, me attempting through trial and error to teach myself the steps of making comfort food on an electric hot plate, while lazy sounds of a quiet city drift through my open window. After what seemed like an eternity, sometime in late April, I decided to order delivery from the diner. My friend, one of the regular servers, showed up in her car, wearing a makeshift mask, and hooked the plastic delivery bag over my building’s front doorknob. I waited until she left, not wanting to incite a face-to-face conversation, and brought the bag upstairs to re-plate the chicken souvlaki sandwich I ordered. The ritual of inviting outside items into my quarantined home had become a source of stress, but in this instance, I was eager to dig into the familiar meal I had eaten so many times at the diner’s counter. I was also in for a nice surprise. The owner of the diner, who had invited me to his house for Easter and who tried marrying me off to another regular, had put a few beers in the bag along with my food. It was the first alcohol I would have during lockdown. This small comfort was enough to make me feel normal in a way I hadn’t since I was able meet my friends for drinks. Most of them have scattered—returning to their childhood homes in other states, staying with partners in the suburbs—and it will be months before any group of us can safely meet again. While poetry has always been my primary method for coping with solitude, I feel now that I am more able to access the associative, disinhibited flow of creativity when I pay attention to the mundane needs in my life that I tend to ignore.
Cooking requires a patience that I used to squash in myself, and it relieves a pressure in a part of my mind that had always festered. I’m not making anything that calls for a round of applause—just some steak, just some spaghetti—but as I cook my staples, I am reminded of the thousands of times my mother and grandmother made them for me, and I feel a warmth that reflects the transition of that care into my own hands. From my Brooklyn kitchen, I can see the eastern skyline of Manhattan, the glowing spire of the Empire State Building and high-rise apartments facing the East River. In the last few months, I have often looked at this view of the city, listening to podcasts through my earbuds while water curls and rises in its boil or fat spits off a burger patty in a puddle of Pam cooking spray. I think of my old apartment in Morningside Heights, C.’s cans of Nivea and her cats whose yowls sounded like pathetic human cries for help. The walls are paneled with large armoires where her dresses and coats from Europe dangle above pairs of heels she never wears. In the midst of the quarantine, she is probably still going to the farmer’s market on Thursdays and Sundays, furtively selecting her red potatoes and her ethically raised chicken breast. When I was a kid, my grandfather, the man of the house, usually did the shopping, and prepared a standard dinner for himself, a meal that one of his doctors approved after his several heart and stomach operations: spaghetti with Newman’s Own marinara, Greek salad, and a single glass of red wine. He made that dinner for himself nearly every night for twenty-five years. Yesterday, I took stock of the items in my refrigerator, and realized that, like C., I was saving an unnecessary container: an empty jar of Newman’s Own.
Michael Juliani is a poet, editor, and writer from Pasadena, California. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in outlets such as Sixth Finch, CutBank, Tammy, Prelude, Pigeon Pages, NECK, Washington Square Review and the Los Angeles Times. He has an MFA in poetry from Columbia University, and he lives in Brooklyn, New York.