Food provides outlets for students coping

Students in Melanie Chambers’ now-online Food Writing course dissect the meaning of and our relationship with food. In the first class, they discussed how food goes beyond sustenance and nutrition; food is life and pleasure, ritual and connection.

Editor’s note: Visit the official Western COVID-19 website for the latest campus updates.

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Preparing a lecture for my now-online Food Writing course, while eating graham crackers and cheese (a childhood comfort snack), I wondered how everyone else was feeling about food.

Are they scared about going to grocery stores?

Are they binge eating?

Who is cooking?

Who are they cooking with?

The heart of my course dissects the meaning of and our relationship with food. In the first class, we discussed how food goes beyond sustenance and nutrition; food is life and pleasure, ritual and connection.

No one has said it better than the food essayist M.F.K. Fisher:

“It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it … and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied … and it is all one.”

The assignments in the course reflect that universality and diversity: Students write memoirs about recreating a favourite childhood meal; they interview dieticians to report about the validity of an ingredient making a health claim; they give food-trend presentations; the final presentation before the COVID-19 shut down was about shareable food boards.

When I posed a series of questions about food and the virus on the online forum, I shouldn’t have been surprised about the variety of student responses. After all, these are quintessential foodies. I was, however, shocked by their honesty and maturity.

Each response was unique. No wonder as no two students are living the same circumstance: Some students have stayed in London with roommates or boyfriends; one went to a cottage; many are home with upwards of seven or more family members.

For all of them, in a time when days of the week all melt into one, food and eating have become both a source of pain (scared of contracting the virus at a grocery store) and a source of comfort and structure. Families talk about what they’re going to eat for meals; students are baking and experimenting with cooking (something they didn’t have time to do before the virus).

For some, the virus is thrusting them into life’s new realities.

As the daughter of a farmer who plants seedlings, Kaitlin Sonneveld has been working at her father’s farm. Border restrictions mean they cannot hire immigrant labourers, mostly from Jamaica.

“Obviously, there’s a lot about grocery stores in the news, but I haven’t seen much about how the virus and social distancing is affecting farms – which are ultimately the root of the food supply chain,” she said. “If you can, buy local and support local farmers if you are able to. It’s a very stressful time for many of them.”

For many, cooking is the one familiar constant.

Olivia Smit was “stress-baking her way through the virus” by whipping up French bread, iced brownies, berry turnovers, and, a new one for her, homemade granola.

“In a world where so little is within my control, baking allows me to maintain the illusion that there are things I can manipulate with my own two hands,” she said. “There are outcomes I can manufacture. I can, with a little hard work and just enough flour, make something good in very little time. I can predict a happy ending.”

Beyond the kitchen walls, things start to feel unpredictable and scary for the class.

While waiting for a flight back home to British Columbia, Isabella Kennedy felt disconnected from food and healthy habits. Her roommate is immune-compromised and afraid to go out, so they order delivery groceries and take-out food.

“The last couple days it’s just been pizza or pad Thai. It stresses me out to know I am not nearly doing enough physical activity to warrant such caloric heavy meals,” she said. “But it’s also hard to care about anything like that right now. I try not to think about it.”

For Emmy Goodman, in isolation with her boyfriend at the family cottage, food has become a welcome distraction. “Cooking is a time when I can focus on something that doesn’t have to do with the pandemic.”

The duo has created an Instagram account of their creations called @cookingthrough.covid.

Creating new recipes is also a saviour for Brittney Shoychet-Mccully. At home with seven family members, including her grandparents. She finds herself experimenting with food and recently made shakshuka, a traditional Israel eggs in tomato sauce and herbs, for the first time.

Famed chef Julia Child has been an uplifting inspiration for Quinn Schneider.

“I got Mastering the Art of French Cooking on my birthday, which has become a bible to me during this captivity.”

First, Quinn attempted lady fingers. Her dad gobbled them down despite them turning out dry and overly sweet. Her second Julia recipe was more ambitious; it took seven hours to make white bread.

“Julia calmly led me through this process. Together, we mixed the dough, let it rise, performed a second knead, let it rise again, and finally baked it with crossed fingers. During its bake, my house smelled warm and yeasty, and my heartbeat slowed for the first time in a week.”

She served the warm bread to her family with gobs of melting butter, just the way Julia recommends. It was gone in minutes.

For introverts, the isolation is a reprieve.

“During this quarantine, I find myself actually enjoying eating and cooking more,” Mackenzie Emberley said.

With both her roommates gone home, she has had the kitchen to herself. “I can play loud music, I can make a mess of the kitchen, and I can take my time to cook without worrying about getting in anybody’s way.”

Melanie Chambers is a travel journalist and travel-writing instructor in The Department of English and Writing Studies.