It was a few days before shelter-in-place began and I needed to get out of my apartment. I strolled across the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan, through the West Village, and stepped into Los Mariscos, still noisy and packed as ever just days before the city shut down.
I felt better, crammed between two wide-shouldered men — both of them well into their third and fourth tequila flights — at the restaurant’s bar. I watched as three cooks stood working hip-to-hip in the open kitchen, flattening golf balls of masa, and laying them on the griddle. I drank something strong and sweet and when my glass was almost empty and there wasn’t much coming through the straw but air, the bartender slid a small glass of mezcal in front of me, eye-openingly smoky. An hour passed before I realized I’d neglected to order any ceviche. The din of music blaring from the overhead speakers and the crowd — myself included — growing louder with each drink, was all-consuming; I was mesmerized by the cooks, turning out plate after plate of beautiful food.
I had no idea that sitting in the middle of a busy restaurant and watching food stream out of the kitchen would soon be a luxury I could only dream about.
Four months after that meal at Los Mariscos, as restaurants slowly begin to reopen, I’m not ready to be in anyone’s dining room but my own — the risk imposed on waitstaff and cooks still feels far too high. Instead, I relive these scenes in my head, wondering if I’ll ever go back to a restaurant without mentally measuring the space between me and the next person at the bar. I’ve found comfort in cooking for myself during the eerily quiet evenings of shelter-in-place, but the bursts of normalcy I find in making each meal also remind me that everything I love most happens in isolation. The comfort in my cooking dissipates as my plate empties.
Recently, though, a new friend has been keeping me company as I cook, eat, clean, and repeat: Yemisi Odusanya, a YouTube food blogger in Lagos, Nigeria. Her videos play in the background as I go about my day. We’ve never met, and Odusanya doesn’t know me from her thousands of other fans, but as she explains the proper way to boil kpomo — cow skin — I perk up.
Cocooned beneath blankets on my couch, shoveling popcorn into my mouth, I listen in rapt silence as she explains from her kitchen that boiling the cow skin will help rid it of its funky aroma. Next, egusi seeds need to be blended before crayfish powder is added to the mixture. But first, Odusanya — or Sisi Yemmie, as she’s known by her fans — peels each melon seed herself. “Sometimes they have been peeled by dirty fingers, and there’s no way to clean it,” she tells her audience of half a million viewers. In her own quarantine, 7,800 miles from my own, Odusanya’s warmth fills my kitchen as she stirs a pot and tells stories about her two young children.
All of Odusanya’s chopping and peeling and blending is done in the name of making an egusi soup, layered with palm oil, goat meat, smoked fish she painstakingly debones, the precious cow skin, and the blended egusi paste. The final dish is a deep shade of yellow, so thick it’s more porridge than soup. It’s glorious. And I have no plans to make it. More than anything, this is why Sisi Yemmie’s videos are so comforting. For 10 minutes and 52 seconds, the time it takes Odusanya to bring together her egusi soup on camera, I’m transported by a joy that largely slipped away when restaurants first closed. Like crisped Los Mariscos tortillas and the lightly seasoned slivers of fish and avocado that top them, Odusanya’s soup is something I could never quite recreate. I watch in admiration as she cooks, knowing I’ll never quite be able to imitate the expert motion of her hands, and the careful seasoning of each dish.
The calm that washes over me as I watch a cook move masterfully through their work isn’t new, but it feels more precious now.
One early, pre-pandemic morning, on a trip to Fei Long Market, a Chinese grocery store and food court in Brooklyn, I stood in front of a large window with a styrofoam box of roast duck in one hand and a container of rice in the other, mesmerized by a line of cooks filling and cinching dumplings at hyper-speed. I wasn’t thinking about what I was going to cook at home that evening, or how I could replicate the lacquer on the roast duck, its skin a deep mahogany. Squeezed together with strangers at a cafeteria table a few minutes later, forking aside chilis to get at the fish I ordered on a whim, my mouth tingled and went numb as the Sichuan pepper took hold.
I walked away from meals like these immensely grateful that a cook, a waiter, a restaurant owner remembered my face, or paused in the rush of incoming orders to wave hello from the kitchen. There was joy in being cooked for that went beyond the immediate satisfaction of a meal being placed in front of me, fully realized. To sit in a familiar restaurant was to be part of a tiny community, a neighborhood hub, a gathering place that remained seemingly unchanged as each season gave way to the next.
Now, I prop my phone against a coffee cup and watch Odusanya cook as I arrange takeout on my nicest plates, hoping to spark a familiar feeling. I’m not so concerned with trying to reproduce her recipes, instead I’m more intent on queuing up another video, and another. Because in isolation, there’s something to be said for watching others cook, a relic of a past life I’m not sure when, if ever, I’ll fully recover. I’m grateful beyond words that there are people like Sisi Yemmie, who care enough to cook for us, to make us feel seen, to remind us of the pleasures of eating and cooking together — even when doing so isn’t actually possible.
At the start of every video, Odusanya greets her viewers. It’s a line I’ve come to know so well that I sometimes find myself playing it back in my head. “Welcome back to my kitchen,” she says as she starts another day in her home, and as I start another day in mine.