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How the Pandemic Turned Me Into Something I'm Not

And why I'm so glad it did

A bowl of cooked chicken next to a pan of stir fried vegetables

Ted Cavanaugh/The Licensing Project

If my friends want to order in, they dial me first.

I have the scoop on whose salmon travels well and which Caesar is too soggy after 10 minutes on the road. I'm also the source for the best local baker of biscotti and killer chicken parm.

When I have friends over, the first question they ask is, “Where are you getting it from?” — as if my stove and oven have been designated cook-free zones by the federal government.

Under ordinary circumstances, not cooking can still mean eating well.

But now that the coronavirus has hit, my non-cooking has stopped being such a joke. Though on weekends my husband and I order meals to help keep favorite restaurants afloat, the weekdays call for a different skill set.

I need to turn myself into a cook.

To me cooking feels like diving. When I was a kid, skilled swimming instructors from all over the tristate area and Pennsylvania worked with me from the side of the pool. “Position your arms. Head down. Breathe in. Relax.”

Before I hit the water, I'd lift my head and come up sputtering like a whale whose spout was clogged with angst. Or I'd stay in the “ready” position, afraid to move.

I have remained by the side of the pool in the kitchen. I do everything that leads up to cooking but not the actual cooking. I talk about food. I read recipes. I even shop for ingredients. Then I stall and let someone else do it.

I tell my friend Amy, who loves to cook, that I don't have the motor skills to cook and that I'm such a perfectionist, there's simply no point unless I can be Danny Meyer.

My reluctance has a history. In my mom's kitchen, I was frequently pushed aside for making a mess on the kitchen counters. Eggs rarely made a smooth transition from my hands into the batter for the chicken cutlet.

I'm also temperamentally predisposed to disregard directions. It's one thing to be a creative cook if you're practiced. But I've learned culinary lessons the hard way. Cinnamon is not the same as allspice even if they're kind of the same color. Making a pear tart without a 9-inch pie pan or, for that matter, any pie pan is never a good thing.

Yesterday, I disciplined myself and actually followed a recipe. I took the salmon filets that were as difficult to procure in this crazy time as Petrossian Royal Ossetra Caviar and coated them with the apricot jam, soy sauce and hot pepper mixture that the recipe called for.

I had trouble doing what the recipe said, separating the salmon from its skin — my knife skills are as terrible as my knives, many of which date back to my first wedding, in 1987. It didn't matter. When I served the dish to my family, the salmon emerged translucent, the way the recipe said it was supposed to, and kind of perfect.

"This is actually good, Mom,” said my son, who is now living with us.

Could I use this damned virus as a way to rehabilitate my reputation as the mom whose kids can't name a single favorite home-cooked meal?

Today's goal is meat loaf for dinner and jelly cookies from a recipe that has been sitting in my kitchen taunting me from the start of this damned quarantine. I'm optimistic.

Maybe I should also be anxious. Earlier today, when I read the phrase “turn it with tons” in an online post about how to char broccoli, I had no idea what “tons” stood for. It was only after I looked at my about-to-burn broccoli in the oven that I realized that “tons” was “tongs,” as in “turn it with tongs.”

If I turned it with tongs without burning myself, do I qualify as a real cook?

It's a tough decision to remain a non-cook during this unprecedented time. And maybe there is a lesson in that. This is a time to listen to The Daily in the bathtub — and when you're done, scramble Persian-inspired eggs with fresh dates and chili. In the case of a pandemic, pick up a spatula.

Disrupt Aging