I’ve never considered myself much of a chef. Growing up, I only knew how to prepare the basics. From making Bisquick pancakes with my dad on Sunday mornings to rolling Brazilian brigadeiro chocolates with my mom in the middle of the night, I learned to cherish the time I spent cooking with my family, even if we were making the simplest of items.
My family has exposed me to a blend of Brazilian, American and Jewish cuisines, and I am always actively exploring new dishes and trying all the food that new places have to offer.
Over the summer of 2017, I started @foodworldeats, an Instagram account where I began collecting photos and documenting the foods I ate along my travels. From foot-long pizzas to Belgian waffles and extravagant milkshakes, @foodworldeats has been a great outlet for me to showcase my passions for food, photography and travel. While it has been great to publicize all of the amazing food from these “foodie adventures,” it became particularly challenging to continue the account when the pandemic hit last March.
I remember standing in Whole Foods roughly a year ago, panicking and needing to catch my breath amid the supermarket frenzy. I remember staring at the empty shelves with no meat or eggs, watching customers shove their way for the last box of pasta and seeing piles of carts in ravaged aisles. It felt like a scene straight out of the science fiction novel Life As We Knew It.
I went home that day with very few items, but one of them was instant coffee so that I could participate in the popularized “whipped coffee” trend. When I got to my kitchen, I pulled out a whisk and mixed the instant coffee with sugar and hot water for 20 minutes until it reached a fluffy consistency, and then I poured the dalgona coffee over milk and served it; while I didn’t know it at the time, this simple recipe would be my first of many quarantine cooking and baking endeavors.
From that moment on, I became excited every time I heard about a new recipe, and I constantly pushed myself out of my comfort zone with new ingredients and techniques. In terms of cooking, I began exploring a variety of pasta dishes: spaghetti carbonara, fusilli alfredo and penne vodka — the latter being a vivid whirlwind of a memory because I almost burnt down my kitchen from the vodka flames. From the ups and downs of my adventures, I quickly learned that cooking takes a lot of discipline, patience and precision.
I also began baking, learning how to mix wet ingredients with dry ingredients, and in no time, I was preparing easy classics like banana bread but also making more complex items like cinnamon crumb coffee cake, flourless peanut-butter muffins and my all-time favorite: Levain-Bakery-style chocolate chip cookies.
As we approached the summer, I saw myself making countless cakes for my family members’ birthdays. While my capabilities were initially limited to making a simple one-layer vanilla cake, by the end of the summer, I was mounting a three-layer chocolate buttermilk cake with Oreo buttercream frosting. I soon realized that, as long as I give myself the time and patience to grow and learn, I am able to achieve anything I set my mind to.
When Hopkins announced that we would be online in the fall, my positive attitude began to falter. Nevertheless, on a phone call with my grandma, she said to me, “At least you’ll have plenty of opportunities to cook now.” And she wasn’t wrong.
Throughout the fall, I found myself cooking during many of my study breaks; whether it was sesame chicken, cinnamon rolls and even potato latkes during finals week for Hanukkah, cooking gave me a way to release all of the stress from online classes in a practical and productive manner. It also provided me with new opportunities to meet people over Zoom and exchange recipes. Through the Hopkins Hillel community, I learned an amazing challah recipe, which I began baking on a weekly basis for Shabbat, and because I loved it so much, I even began to distribute my challahs to my friends and family.
As I reflect on all of these memories from the past year of cooking and baking, I think about how different my life would have been if there had never been this pandemic. I would have graduated high school and started college normally, I would have in-person classes rather than Zoom classes and I would be able to eat out at restaurants and see friends and family in a normal manner. However, I would not have spent this much time in the kitchen, I would not have developed my current cooking and baking skills and I probably wouldn’t even be writing this right now.
Cooking has given me a new outlet to express my creativity, it has provided me with a greater appreciation for the preparation of food and it has given me the opportunity to display homemade content on @foodworldeats. My point is, we cannot control what happens in the world; we can only control how we react and respond. We could choose to sit around and wallow in a puddle of our own frustrations, or we can take action and make something beautiful out of the unexpected.
Cooking connects us with our loved ones, whether it’s a smile across the kitchen counter, a photo they send of their most recent creations or the recipes they leave behind. From my aunt’s delicious brisket recipe at our Thanksgiving table in Long Island to my great-grandmother’s passed-down salad recipe at my grandparents’ apartment in Rio de Janeiro, I have learned that food transcends any given location and time. Cooking and eating meals are ultimately about the people we spend our time with. Food is about love, and that’s all that matters.
Gabriel Lesser is a freshman from Westchester, N.Y. studying Neuroscience and Romance Languages. His column explores his memories along with his current reflections and the lessons that he has learned.