Coronavirus: Finding joy in cooking, eating and, yes, even shopping

The rituals of the kitchen are a comfort, but this sourdough thing won’t end well

Gerry Godley, at home in his kitchen in Rialto, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Gerry Godley, at home in his kitchen in Rialto, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill


Dinner is a fleeting pleasure. As one meal fades, thoughts turn inexorably to the next. Not the eating, necessarily, which for all its immediate gratification rarely exceeds expectation. A devoted cook should never be too pleased with themselves. It is the nature of the beast, the process more important than the consumption, the journey over the destination.

In these lockdown days, the ritualistic aspects have taken on more substance. We each have our favoured displacement activity to quell the dread, to tune out the brutal numbers game that has become the news cycle, each 24 hours much like the last. The virus marches to its own music, and we are still in the first movement.

You must make your zen garden where you find it and mine is in the kitchen, specifically the space I prowl restlessly between stove, sink, fridge and worktop. Here you’ll find me, early evening onwards, lost in the repetitions and motor functions, the sequencing and choreography of cooking, both tethered to and liberated from the small family dramas unfolding elsewhere under this one roof.

Here in voluntary exile, dinner is prepared in silence, for cooking is as much aural as tactile and olfactory, until the deed is done and the reverie is broken with the call of “Dinner!”. This is repeated multiple times, in mounting crescendo, not out of concern for the punters that constitute family, but for fear the fruits of my labours will spoil.

A home to call your own, a healthy family, a handsome kitchen, a well stocked larder, a decent meal shared at the end of the day. The very fabric of middle class entitlement, a lifetime’s accumulated privileges so ingrained we rarely pause to check them. We are checking them now.

The plight of those denied them are thrown into cruel relief by this pandemic, and we may yet join their ranks before this enthusiastic virus is curbed, or in the great financial reckoning that will come in its wake. Sober thoughts, not to trivialise meal time, but to elevate it. For as Kavanagh reflected over his dry black bread and sugarless tea: “Through a chink too wide, there comes in no wonder.”

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Apparently we are at war against the virus. I accept the analogy, especially with field medicine, but still it makes me queasy, as it did the last time it was invoked, the war on terror. That worked out really well.

Nevertheless, the first rule of warfare is to secure your supply lines. So it is, armed with facemask, gloves and the stoicism that seems the only rational response to our state of chassis, I make the twice weekly sortie. On my back is the child’s Stranger Things rucksack, now stood down from its schoolbagging duties and redeployed in the great household effort to secure rations within our 2km green zone.

It just about extends to the centre of town, which feels sketchier with every passing day. Plywood is going up on shop fronts digging in for the long haul, and the addicts look haggard and desperate, cut off in all likelihood from their primary sources of product and income, the couriers and tourists that fill the ferries and airplanes that connect our island to the outside world.

The buzz in D1 is not good, but for our mixed race household, it is the closest source of various Asian staples deemed essential to maintaining morale among the troops. I go to places like the Oriental Emporium on Abbey Street, where I can get everything from tamarind paste and belacan to pandan leaf and fresh holy basil and I can shoot the socially distanced breeze with its Malay proprieter Siew.

Ours is a cook’s friendship, built on countless small transactions over the years, and peppered reassuringly with gross breaches of political correctness, the kind that paradoxically indicate we are both very comfortable in our respective skins. Siew does not stock rashers and sausages among his “foreign muck”, which no doubt displeases the Little Irelanders out there.

But on the plus side, with his comprehensive offer and extended opening hours, he serves the needs of the capital’s Asian diaspora, many of whom work the shift patterns required of hospital, sanitation, facilities management and care home workers. Keeping them fed right now is in everyone’s interests, even the Little Irelanders.

Ready for the fray, I put on my noise cancelling headphones, but the city has taken a vow of silence and there is precious little noise to cancel. Even the ambulances rarely have recourse to their sirens. I listen to the wireless - a bit of Sean O’Rourke wheeling out the can’t boil an egg trope, Neven and Darina mugging along with gusto. I listen to Joe Duffy, and I marvel at his deep reservoirs of empathy and emotional intelligence as caller after caller wake their loved ones, a proxy for the catharsis of the tea and sangwiches in a pub function room after the funeral service. These days Liveline makes mourners of us all. I abandon Ray d’Arcy as soon as he starts the daily wittering about his sourdough starter.

This whole lockdown sourdough thing will end on a sour note. There is irony in the chattering classes letting bacteria run riot in their kitchens as a consequence of a virus rampaging across the planet. I’m flirting with it myself, but my heart isn’t in it, and when all this is over, those hipster bakers in the indie start-ups will need us. Ditto the butcher and the candlestick maker.

We will be rebuilding our gaunt, emaciated economy one small transaction at a time, and those few euros spent on a good loaf might be a better use of our collective loaf. This will be the least of the trade-offs to consider when the smoke clears. It’s enough to make your head melt. Maybe it will make sense when I’m alone in the kitchen later. But look at me, blathering on, and I haven’t even got the messages yet.

A former chef, Gerry Godley, “now works out his frustrations in a domestic environment”. When not in lockdown, he commutes to the UK, where he is Principal of Leeds College of Music.

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