Authentic-ish – How the Covid-19 crisis is shaping home cooking and our quest for authenticity

It’s difficult to put into a short sentence just how large an impact the Covid-19 crisis is having on our lives. But one thing seems to be certain, it has given a lot of us more time, including more time to think. Which, in my case, almost inevitably involves thinking about food. More specifically, I have been thinking a lot about the impact the Covid-19 crisis has had on what we cook and eat. 

Much of the narrative around Covid-19 and home-cooking seems focused on the comfort to be found in the daily ritual of preparing our own food, how baking a loaf of sourdough bread can give us back a sense of control at a time when little in our lives seems within our control. Yet, this ignores the fact that many of us have never had to prepare this many meals ourselves. And that depending on where you live (and the size of your paycheck, assuming you are lucky enough to still have one), preparing your own meals may be your only option to feed yourself for the foreseeable future. In fact, I cannot think of a single time in my life when I have had to prepare essentially all of my meals, seven days a week, myself. 

Even for those of us who find a lot of pleasure in cooking, eating meals away from home is woven deeply into our society’s fabric. Be it the muffin we grab alongside our oat milk flat white as we head into the office, the lunch in our school, university or work canteen, the dinner with friends in our favourite restaurant or the box of sushi we might order for another late night at our desks. All of this has largely disappeared (for now), since mandatory stay at home orders have been put in place in large parts of the globe. 

Collectively, we are cooking more than ever thanks to Covid-19. But as I scroll through my Instagram feed, I am sensing a shift in what we are cooking. Over the past few years there has been an almost laser-like focus on authenticity (accompanied by a lively debate on what constitutes ‘authenticity’ to begin with, and who gets to judge whether or not a dish is authentic). And as cuisines that have once felt exotic in much of the Western world have become mainstream, we have demanded authentic versions of ever more niche dishes (both in restaurants and our own kitchens). But this focus on authenticity is now starting to disappear.

As large parts of the global workforce are working from home and thereby saving on commute time, we are having more time to prepare our meals than ever before (well, at least those without children). With most entertainment options outside our homes largely off the table for the foreseeable future, cooking has also become a way to entertain ourselves, to give us a break from sitting in front of our laptops at a time when almost all of our human interaction, be it for work or in a social context, now happens on screen. 

Many of us are suddenly also tackling new cooking projects, be it lovingly tending to a sourdough starter or making pasta from scratch. All facilitated by a veritable tsunami of live cooking demos and online cooking classes that has swept over instagram in the past few months. But here is the twist – while we are cooking more and more, and the dishes we are preparing appear to be more sophisticated and time-consuming than before the pandemic, we also seem to have embraced a lack of authenticity (if, by authentic, we mean using all the ingredients that, according to consensus, belong in a given dish). 

I know I am not the only one trying to limit their trips to the stores to minimise exposure to the virus. At the same time, while we have been lucky to have been spared any real food shortages during this pandemic (well, aside from the initial flour and yeast shortage), I have noticed that I cannot rely on being able to find the exact same ingredients every time I head to my admittedly large and well-stocked supermarket.  

So we make do with what we have. More and more I am seeing captions on Instagram along the lines of ‘I wanted to make XYZ dish, but I ended up making it without (insert type of meat/grain/dairy/vegetable or herb commonly called for in the recipe) and used (insert a different type of meat/grain/dairy/vegetable or herb) because that was what I had.’ Where before the pandemic we were trying to create authentic dishes, this has now shifted to creating authentic-ish dishes – dishes that resemble the original recipe in spirit more than anything else. We are learning more about the role that different ingredients play in a final dish and how to mimic that if we are having to substitute different ingredients – in short, we are learning to adapt.

Where the quest for authenticity can be seen as a sort of rigid culinary perfectionism, this authentic-ish cooking style is very much the opposite – it is creative and playful. Only time will tell whether this is a temporary phenomenon or not. But I do hope we will continue to embrace this creativity and playfulness in our cooking. Especially since the human population has shared and adapted flavours and recipes since the dawn of time – we only need to remember that many dishes that we cook time and time again have been born out of scarcity and making do with what was available. After all, what fun is there in cooking if it doesn’t involve experimenting with different flavours and ingredients? And maybe those that emphasize the sense of control creating your own food can give you are right after all – because knowing how to feed yourself, how to create a meal out of a haphazard mix of ingredients when your fridge is looking bare, is empowering, however authentic-ish (or not) the final dish may turn out to be. 

(Pictured here a Spanish-ish summer dinner of Gambas Pil Pil-ish (ish because the gambas were pre-cooked so only re-heated in garlicky oil) and Pan con Tomate-ish – ish because we had Italian prosciutto and parmesan instead of Spanish jamon and manchego)

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