HSAS in the Kitchen: Cooking During Quarantine

By Noa Yolkut, Grade 10, Entertainment/Features Editor

As America transitioned into a “pandemic lifestyle” last March, many people began to learn a skill they never had time for before: cooking. Some stuck with “trending” foods, like whipped coffee, sourdough bread, or homemade seitan. Others remained in the kitchen over the last year, branching out to find the recipes they love to make and love to eat. Several students at the High School of American Studies spent the bulk of their quarantine cooking and baking.

Some students spent time in the kitchen before last March, like Victoria Lee, a senior at HSAS. “I've always liked baking, and I now had a lot more time on my hands to try recipes I usually wouldn't be able to,” she said. Lee believes her baked goods have gotten much better since quarantine began. Many people turned to cooking early on in the pandemic as a means to relieve stress. Following a recipe requires lots of focus, which can help take the mind off of looming uncertainties. Some psychologists even found that baking combats anxiety and depression. For Nora Kohnhorst, a senior, baking sourdough bread “became meditative and relaxing” as she continued to practice, learn, and improve.

Now that schoolwork can be assigned at any time of the day, anticipating and finishing tasks can be worrisome and difficult. Katia Chapin, a junior, found that cooking helps her deal with stress. “I tend to feel calmer when I'm cooking because cooking forces me to be away from school things completely for at least an hour,” she said. Although watching Netflix and hanging out with friends are good ways to de-stress, cooking and baking require a different level of concentration and serve as a welcome distraction from homework.

Cooking traditional dishes has helped several students feel more connected to their culture during the last few months. With more breaks in their days, teenagers can try and make their own modern spins on the recipes their grandmothers perfected decades ago. “Challah is pretty important in Jewish culture,” said Agatha German, a sophomore of Ashkenazi Jewish and Russian descent. “I haven't been able to see my grandma in over a year since she lives in Israel, so baking these is my way of getting closer with her.”

Additionally, German realized that traditional baking does not necessarily need a purpose. “I've also baked some Russian desserts with my mom like sharlotka. It's almost like a vanilla cake with apples in it, and we've been making it together for almost seven years. It doesn't represent anything in Russian culture, it's just fun to make.”

In uncertain times, making foods we know and love adds some consistency to the unknown. “I'm Ukrainian, and Ukrainians go all out for Christmas Eve dinner and make twelve courses, all with symbols dating back to when they were pagans,” said Chapin, who has, like many, had to adapt her family traditions to fit the pandemic lifestyle. “Usually, we visit family for the holidays, and it's pretty easy to get all twelve courses [done] with many pairs of hands, but this year we obviously didn’t travel, so I made the dishes with my sister and my parents. It was a little chaotic because we each made three courses in two days with limited stove, fridge, and counter space, but we pulled off all twelve, and it was really grounding to eat the Christmas-specific dishes on Christmas as if nothing was wrong, after a year of inconsistency.”

HSAS students have also spent time learning and perfecting new recipes. Lee has baked danish rings on the 21st of each month since July, German creates challah and pasta from scratch, Chapin has cooked North African meatballs, and Kohnhorst now makes 25 sourdough loaves a week to sell to friends and family.

Although these wonderful chefs have adopted this quarantine ‘fad’ as their own, other teens, and people of all ages across America, still consider themselves ‘bad cooks.’ But often, people who claim to be ‘bad cooks’ really just do not know how to begin. “Cooking takes patience and is all about trial and error,” said German. “My best piece of advice would be to stick to the recipe exactly and not substitute ingredients until you've mastered the recipe as it was written. One of the easiest and most delicious dishes is baked sweet potato fries with garlic and herbs!”

Chapin noted that “after a while, you'll realize how much wiggle room you have in cooking if you know very generally how it works.” For her, chili is a quick, easy, and delicious dish to make. Looking through a beginner’s cookbook can be a great way to find recipes for people who prefer to have directions on paper, but the internet’s infinite cookbook has recipes for millions of dishes. Still, if complicated recipes are not your thing, Lee says, “learn how to make eggs or something.”