Like a koala to an eucalyptus tree or a D-List celebrity to relevancy, in times of uncertainty, people look for something to cling to for stability and comfort. Right now, for a lot of people, that thing is cooking. Others are simply binging cooking shows and browsing recipe websites for inspiration. But I only need one guiding light: my long-time queen of hospitality, the Empress of Entertaining, the Goddess of Good Vanilla—Ina Garten.
I grew up with the Barefoot Contessa; her books were my mom’s cookbooks of choice. As a kid, I’d pore over her recipes while imagining the summer picnics I would throw as an adult, with shrimp salad and panzanella, a berry pie ready for dessert. I’m one of a legion of fans who view Garten with a kind of vision-board reverence, envying her chumminess with artisanal cheesemongers and her expansive vegetable garden, while aspiring to the warm, effortless hospitality she embodies.
While sheltering in place, I’ve been watching her show with almost religious fervor. Just as I did as a kid, I’m again dreaming of leisurely garden parties with colorful salads and pitcher cocktails in Gartenland, where your cheesemonger is always on call and your florist pops in for drinks. (Even without the context of quarantine, a backyard feels like the height of luxury for me in my apartment above an immediate care center on a busy Chicago intersection.)
But now, two months into quarantine—and who knows how much longer to go—that life feels even further away. My downtime is occupied by worry about the physical, mental, and fiscal wellbeing of my friends and loved ones, especially those who work in restaurants and are rapidly losing hours or jobs. When I see people on Instagram making multi-step cinnamon rolls and checking in with their gestating sourdough starters, I wonder why I can’t get it together to do anything beyond microwaving a frozen meal or tossing together a bagged salad.
I suspect it’s because I usually feel my most invigorated—my most Gartenesque—when I’m inviting people into my home. I used to host parties on Sundays, and relished the conviviality of lingering over a table with friends and family. I miss taking care of the people around me, and giving them food I’ve made. It was a tangible way to show I love them.
Only recently did I realize that watching Ina do the same with her family, friends, and bridge club drew me to her in the first place. Having lost that grounding ritual, while an insignificant loss in the face of such widespread global devastation, contributes to my unmoored and unmotivated mood.
But then I saw Ina’s Instagram, and what she was choosing to share with the world during quarantine.
It started simple enough, with a revelation from her Instastories—Ina, like nearly all of us, has a couple packets of Instant Ramen in her pantry. Of course, lots of people stock Instant ramen, and there’s nothing wrong with having long-lasting, filling, and adaptable staples, especially ahead of a long-haul quarantine. Generally, making jokes about what other folks have or don’t have in their pantries is crass and uncool. But it makes sense that fans on social media perceived this a bit of a departure for Ina, whose insistence on high-end ingredients has long been a subject of parody.
“I guess store-bought is fine,” crowed the gleeful chorus on Twitter. Ten days later, she followed this story with a post and a recipe for a bowl of instant-ramen soup, augmented with chicken and vegetables.
The next day, she posted a sweet, salty, and self-aware breakfast. “I’m not proud of myself,” she wrote of a freezer waffle topped with a thick layer of peanut butter and jelly.
Then came the instant-classic April Fools’ Day “cocktail hour” video, wherein our heroine dumps a generous portion of Grey Goose into a pitcher—followed by the requisite cranberry juice, triple sec, and lime—and pours the lot into a cartoonishly large martini glass. “During a crisis, cocktail hour can be almost any hour,” she assures us, while shaking it up.
Of course, everything still has an Ina Garten touch. She made the waffles herself, and the pantry ramen was zhuzhed with gorgeous vegetables. Since those first few weeks, many of her posts have struck a balance between luxury and practicality. S’mores are made from store-bought graham crackers and homemade marshmallows; hot dogs are served in puff-pastry shells; and even soup made from frozen peas gets dressed up with crispy bacon and a drizzle of oil. After all, no matter how many times we’ve said “Ina is all of us,” Ina is definitely not all of us.
These posts elicited a range of reactions, from “even Ina’s losing it” to “yes, same, we stan a relatable queen.” They’re entertaining for sure, but for me, they were a source of relief and reassurance. My feeds have been full of acquaintances who still seemed “on” in quarantine, showing off freshly-baked loaves, immaculately-sorted closets, and all manner of exhausting memes about finding your #hustle during a #pandemic. I have time carved out of my weekdays to “just go lie down for a bit,” occasionally with a steaming side of scrolling through Twitter.
And though I used to think of Ina as someone who is always “on,” making everything look both easy and immaculate, quarantine Ina is armed with Top Ramen and PB&J waffles. She’s a reminder that not every day, every thing you put out into the world is going to be a masterpiece. Especially not during an unspeakable global trauma wherein, for many, even finding flour and yeast is a luxury, let alone being able to stay home and take on baking projects. Ina is still being that warm host in a way, reading the room and the needs of her virtual guests, shifting the focus to what feels good while being mindful of what people can manage with respect to access and energy. If my aspirational dinner party goddess is also trying to just do what she can right now, maybe it’s okay that I have popcorn for dinner tonight. If she can let go of perfection and pretense during a crisis, so can we.
As someone who misses the warmth of hosting, seeing Ina post about missing her friends is also a reminder, for me, to think about how to bring people together even in these strange times. What skills can we offer and what do we have access to in our metaphorical pantries to make things even the slightest bit easier for our communities? Maybe that looks like joining a mutual aid group to make sure your neighbors have food on their tables, or gathering friends for a virtual dinner party to all support a restaurant you love. Maybe it looks like checking in with a phone call. Maybe it looks like piling mounds of peanut butter and jelly on a waffle, and leaving it for your equally stressed-out roommates. Regardless, you are worthy of being kind to yourself, and enjoying the things that make you feel good, especially now. Store-bought is more than fine, and so are you.
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