Waiting on line to go to the grocery store earlier this week felt like preparing for battle. The store was only allowing 50 people in at a time, including employees, so prospective shoppers waited patiently, estimating a six-foot distance between us, until we were beckoned inside. We weren’t timed, but it was implied we were to get in and get out as fast as possible. My partner and I had made a list, so we thought this would be easy. But once in, we were confronted with the fact that a bunch of stuff we wanted was nowhere to be found. There was no yeast, no corn tortillas, and no whole chickens. The sausages we like were gone, and the only kind of cottage cheese was double-cream. None of this was an emergency — we still walked away with food — but it was a reminder that sometimes we had to keep on our toes and improvise.
And it made watching Guy’s Grocery Games later that night pretty compelling.
Guy’s Grocery Games on Food Network is basically Supermarket Sweep meets Chopped. Chef contestants are given a directive — make a popular regional food using one ingredient from each aisle, or make something using only frozen foods —and have half an hour to both “shop” and cook. Chefs have to work with things like frozen spinach when they haven’t budgeted for fresh, and must thicken soups with baby food or ground rice cakes if there’s no flour. But unlike Chopped, where chefs can blame a limited pantry and a basket of ingredients designed to fuck them over, the contestants on Grocery Games choose what they’re working with. Sure, under better circumstances they would have done something differently, but they had to figure out how to make do.
This isn’t exactly a unique way for a cooking competition show to work. Basically any chef-based reality TV tests them by asking them to improvise with ridiculous rules. We all know that these chefs, in their own kitchen with their own ingredients, could make a hundred incredible things. That’s not the point here. These are not ideal conditions. The point is to prove that you can feed people well when you have limits.
It’s not just that watching people race around a grocery store, flinging whatever they can find into their carts, feels slightly more like a documentary in a time when nobody can find canned beans anymore. It may have started that way, but I found my thought patterns from the grocery store replicated on screen. Without corn tortillas, I realized we still had enough atta flour to make roti for some taco-esque dishes we wanted to cook. We could use baby carrots to flavor stock. We chopped second-day roast chicken, tossed it with basmati, gravy and half a bag of frozen peas, and called it “French fried rice,” and honestly it was good. As the days go on, my partner and I are getting used to making substitutions and inventing new things, because weeks (or months) of pasta with tomato sauce would test our sanity.
Part of the draw is Guy’s Grocery Games gives me some good ideas. I could totally bread chicken with the dregs of a potato chip bag, and I keep forgetting that anything is soup if you puree it enough. But what sets “Triple-G” apart is Guy himself. On Chopped, Ted Allen is funny but aloof. On Top Chef, Tom Colicchio is terrifying. The judges on Guy’s Grocery Games may have the same critiques as on any competition show, but Guy Fieri is just there to make friends. He shoots the shit, he roasts the chefs a little, but as always, he’s having a blast.
When you’re stuck at home and trying to make new, interesting, and foremost edible things every night, unbridled enthusiasm is the kind of energy you want. I don’t need to be upset that I couldn’t make something the right way. I need to be thrilled that I’m making something at all, that day after day I’m feeding myself, and that often it’s actually satisfying. I don’t want Tom Colicchio in my head telling me I shouldn’t even be attempting risotto if I don’t have the proper fresh herbs. I want Guy Fieri’s voice saying “damn, go for it!” and slapping me on the back in encouragement.
I’m relatively privileged when it comes to existing in this crisis. I have work, and it’s work I can do from home. I have a spouse to keep me company, no pre-existing health conditions, and a grocery store two blocks from my apartment. The hardest things I face (besides the looming fear that everyone I love will die) are boredom and the guilt that I’m not doing enough with my “free” time. But cooking is enough, even when it’s not ideal, even when it’s done under weird conditions. Use peanut butter instead of tahini. Use ketchup when you run out of tomato paste. Guy Fieri will be there to cheer you on.