Before our date, I told him that if it weren’t for all this, I’d invite him over for dinner. Normally, I don’t know if I would’ve had the nerve. A home-cooked meal runs the risk of being an agonizingly drawn-out first-date nightmare: the excruciatingly awkward pauses in conversation, the too-late sense that a second date might not be in the cards, the realization that there are still three courses to come. But given that the pandemic ruled it out entirely, the offer felt like a safe, albeit empty, expression of interest.
Cooking has always been how I convey what I can’t quite put into words. When a long-distance boyfriend mentioned how much he loved the shakshuka at a local restaurant, I promised to make the dish myself on my next visit: In the middle of a torrential downpour, I ran 10 blocks to a grocery store where there were no shopping carts, and balanced eggs, canned tomatoes, and a block of feta in my soaking arms as I maneuvered to the checkout. For another man another year, I cooked an entire meal revolving around sweet potatoes, a nod to our first date, when we’d sat in a dimly lit wine bar laughing about how much we both loved them.
In the best of these relationships, the grand gesture of cooking became a part of everyday life, a way to sustain and nourish what we’d built. It’s not to say that these connections were held together by my cooking. Sometimes the relationships fractured and fell apart despite it, my partners never fully aware — or not particularly caring — how much had gone into each meal.
So mostly the cooking was for me: a warmly spiced sweet potato loaf, a roast chicken nestled in a bed of glazed vegetables, a plate of the most perfect summer fruit placed in front of a lover. It helped me grasp at something intangible. Cooking was also a distraction for my anxious, overactive mind, a welcome alternative to the bottle of wine I would otherwise have emptied while I waited for a date to arrive.
In this pandemic, a never-ending cycle of bad and worse news, tiny things have started to splinter and break inside of us, too. What we once loved can feel laborious and exhausting. For me, cooking has become a Sisyphean task. I’m always in the kitchen, which is also my makeshift office, but I’ve been cut off from food in one of the ways that matters to me most: There is not a soul to cook for. The layered cakes, huge pots of brisket, and piles of cookies I made in the early pandemic months eventually gave way to less inspired meals. The hard-boiled eggs and cans of chickpeas started to add up. Apart from the occasional burst of energy, which propels me through a flurry of cooking, the joy has seeped from my kitchen. I don’t look forward to my next meal much.
The offer to cook dinner for a stranger in a pandemic was nothing more than flirting when I’d first mentioned it. But at the end of our first date, spaced so far apart on two picnic blankets in Dolores Park that I could barely make out the details of his face — were the eyes magnified behind his circular frame glasses green or brown? — he asked a question. Can I take you up on that dinner date? After months of eating alone, it sounded strange to my ears.
He said that he’d isolate, then get a coronavirus test before coming into my home, showing up with a clean bill of health. I agreed, and on my drive across the bridge from San Francisco back to Oakland, as the sun slipped into the water, I thought about the menu. I would roast a chicken. There would be a salad with big juicy supremes of grapefruit and orange, and whole candied walnuts. Sweet potatoes too, halved, smeared with miso butter, caramelized under the broiler. After dinner, a plate of sticky dates, discs of bitter dark chocolate, and clementines the size of a baby’s fist. We’d share a bottle of wine. It would be a meal with no real theme, a chaotic, drunken collection of my favorite foods.
I picked up a fancy chicken from the farmers market and thought I was hallucinating when I saw the $37 price tag. So be it. I squeezed the bird into my too-small freezer and wrote out the menu on a scrap of paper. In the days following that first date, I fell in love with the idea of our second, the life we would have when he loved the carefully placed plants in my apartment, loved the meticulously ordered and reordered playlist I’d built around the artists he’d told me he listened to, and loved my cooking. I knew I was getting ahead of myself by leaps and bounds, building a story around someone I barely knew. But it was exhilarating to escape to a world of my own making.
He texted to let me know that his test was off to the lab, and I waited to hear the results. The chicken froze, the droplets of condensation on its extremely expensive surface turning to light snow. The follow-up text didn’t come the next day, or the one after. I woke up in the night, and couldn’t stop thinking about the possibility this roast chicken was supposed to bring into my life.
I tossed the stupid scrawled-out menu after a week, embarrassed to think of the time I’d put into describing each dish in detail so that I wouldn’t forget how I wanted to prepare it. The story I’d worked up, complete with a love strong enough to transcend this deadly pandemic, started to seem preposterous. I was so tired again, remembering that this was how I’d felt for almost 12 months, until that silly first date. I remembered how a week earlier, a day before we met at the park, I’d called my mom in tears, telling her that I couldn’t do this anymore. She was kind enough not to point out that really, I didn’t have much choice. I told her that I didn’t want to cook another meal, that I just wanted to sleep.
It came rushing back, how miserable I was just hours before I unfurled my picnic blanket on the damp grass and we worked our way through the pleasantries of a first date. I ate a sad rice stir-fry for lunch, emptying six different mismatched leftovers from my fridge straight into the pan with an apologetic drizzle of soy sauce. I was at the counter picking over the rice when my phone finally buzzed with a text. My test came back negative.
I told him to come over that night and made a beeline for the freezer. The chicken would need to defrost. When it did, I’d rub its skin with salt, cracked spices, plenty of oil, and lemon zest. Whether this was the seed of something — or just dinner with a stranger — seemed less important as I turned on the oven, smoothed out my crumpled menu, and started to cook.