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Due to COVID-19, I learned to appreciate the fulfilling process of cooking and eating with others. (Photo from Lark Yan)

I learned something unexpected during the pandemic: I gained a deeper appreciation for cooking and eating. That in and of itself is not unusual – social media and the internet are oversaturated by self-proclaimed “foodies” posting cheese boards and brunch spreads. But in my case, I came to appreciate the social aspect of cooking and eating. 

Before the pandemic, cooking together served as only an occasional activity saved for when we set aside free time during the week or on the weekend. For the most part, in-person classes and our busy schedules meant we usually weren’t home that often to cook for ourselves, let alone together. COVID-19 and its ensuing new social norms changed that. When I moved back to Penn’s campus this past spring semester, quarantine restrictions were very much still in place – buildings were largely closed to students and our classes remained online. 

During the pandemic, my roommates and I finally had the time and space to cook together. Dine-in options for restaurants were mostly closed and, given that all social interactions turned virtual, we had nowhere else to be. Newly-opened Acme was a five-minute walk from where we lived — why not cook for ourselves, then? We created a rotating cooking schedule: each night, two of us would cook and the other two would clean. 

Every night when classes ended, our kitchen came to life. We were dicing onions (through tears) for Taco Tuesdays, boiling curly-cue macaroni noodles for alfredo pasta, unscrewing jars of alfredo sauce under hot water (because we couldn't get the lids off normally no matter how hard we twisted), slicing potatoes into wedges for the air fryer, and (though we dreaded it) mincing garlic. It was an entirely new process to me — I wasn’t cooking and eating for myself anymore, I was doing it with and for others. 

What we decided on making wasn’t only aligned with what I wanted but also what general cuisine and food preferences satisfied the group. Did we want baked lasagna or pork ribs? Should we explore an entirely new cuisine or stick to our classic tomato and egg stir fry favorite? Were we brave enough to conquer homemade dumplings and sushi rolls?  

Due to COVID-19, I learned to appreciate the process of cooking and eating with others in fulfilling ways. We shared many life conversations over the stove-top while we waited for the simmering bok choy to soak in the oyster sauce, laughed over sliced carrots and tossed broccoli, and sang along with Justin Bieber on the speakers while marinating chicken legs. 

There are many details I have come to appreciate and cherish in the seemingly mundane acts of cooking and eating — gathering around our low living room table and exclaiming emphatically over how delicious our own meals were as we ate (reflecting back, we did harbor quite a lot of confidence in our own cooking skills), afternoons in between classes where we’d sit and enjoy each other’s company while snacking on cheese and crackers before the next Zoom meeting, and treating ourselves to post-dinner popsicles. 

The way our friendships grew during our time cooking together is something I have come to appreciate immensely, in spite of the many cooking disasters we brought upon ourselves (such as accidentally burning a fabric coaster on the stove top and setting off our fire alarm numerous times) and the added effort it took to cook each night. Sure, buying takeout and eating at our own convenience might save a lot of time. I’m positive that a few hours we spent cooking and eating meals together could have been spent on studying an extra chapter, writing another paragraph, or coding another line. But in the end, what I value most from a semester spent under COVID-19 restrictions is not in the academic progress but in the time spent cooking and living alongside my roommates — these are the memories I will remember well beyond my four years here.  

As the pandemic slowly improves and quarantine restrictions ease, the pace of life is bound to pick up speed once more. Classes will return in person, indoor dining will reopen, and the time for cooking with others will only shrink as the bustle of Penn life returns. But now that I’ve experienced what it’s like to cook for and with others, I’ll work hard to protect that time and space. More than just an act of cooking, I’ve come to see it as a means of slowing life down, to spend it truly in the moment and alongside those who matter most. In preserving those moments through cooking, my tastebuds might never be bored again.   

LARK YAN is a rising College senior from Toledo, Ohio studying philosophy, politics, and economics. Her email is larkyan@sas.upenn.edu.

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