Day after day, the oven in Deja Therrien’s kitchen kept cranking out the hits, like sweetly edible melodies from some inspired jukebox.
It sang out with strawberry chocolate cheesecake and stuffed brownies. Then came carrot cake and a sinfully indulgent variant — carrot cake strudel muffins, filled with cheesecake. Soon they were followed by red velvet cupcakes and chocolate covered strawberries.
“I’m not a fan of chocolate at all, but I find myself using it a lot,” Therrien mused one day recently.
In the brave new world of COVID-19, a world where scores of people found themselves anxious, unemployed and virtually locked down, the kitchen became Therrien’s refuge — part laboratory, part comfort zone.
The daughter of a restaurant cook and a nurse, Therrien has always loved cooking. She suffers from epilepsy, and working in the kitchen has a calming, therapeutic effect.
Shortly after the pandemic reached Rhode Island, however, Therrien was laid off from her job at Asia Pacific Cuisine. With more time on her hands, she threw herself into her passion like never before. She Googled dozens of recipes a day. She started her own Facebook page, Deja’s Delights, to showcase her culinary creations. She ordered new gadgets online, and their arrival became cause for celebration.
“I feel like there’s really not much else to do,” says Therrien. “I love the science of baking, and I’ve got nothing but time on my hands.”
Therrien, of course, was hardly alone. As the economic apparatus of the nation lapsed into a self-induced coma aimed at flattening the curve of the COVID beast, the drift into the kitchen was as palpable as the spread of the disease. Searches for the word “recipe” reached an all-time Google high. Nerves frayed amid spreading illness and mortality, and scratch cooks began baking bread — the ultimate comfort food — en masse. Sales of yeast surged nearly 650 percent in mid-March, according to the Nielson ratings — more than any other food tracked by the consumer data company.
The question is, as Gov. Gina Raimondo begins easing the economy back to life, does America’s love affair with the kitchen turn into a marriage?
“I certainly hope so,” said State Sen. Melissa Murray, another foodie who went wild at the cooktop during the pandemic. “I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. When we go back into session and we have those late nights, I think I’m going to miss cooking and preparing food.”
Murray began ramping up her lifelong love of cooking about two years ago, mainly for health reasons. Shifting to home-made meals and eating fewer packaged and prepared foods helped her drop about 50 pounds during that period, she says.
“This whole pandemic has really allowed me to expand my repertoire of what I make,” she says. “It forced me to change my way of shopping. I’m very much a go-to-the-grocery-store-every-other-day kind of person. Obviously I wasn’t able to do that during the stay-at-home order.”
Planning and creativity took on greater importance. Murray ended up preparing many dishes for the first time. The moussaka, a Greek lamb and potato concoction, turned out great for a first attempt. Same for the pulled pork, another venture into the unknown.
Some of Murray’s most innovative inventions in the kitchen weren’t even meals. She started whipping up condiments from scratch – ketchup and mayonnaise. Salad dressings, too.
But there are perils in the kitchen for the carb-conscious, and Murray discovered those as well.
“I hadn’t baked anything in years because I was trying not to eat carbs,” she says. “But there’s just something about baking that’s so comforting. I love that it’s science-based and you have to be so exact.”
“It’s a slippery slope,” she adds with a laugh.
And it is greased with cheesecake and cookies.
Murray posted photographs of many of her creations on the Facebook page Woonsocket Food Digest, but she says the most satisfying aspect of working more in the kitchen has been sharing the fruits of the labor with others. Not long ago she brought cookies to members of the Woonsocket Fire Department.
Murray is optimistic about the lessons of the kitchen outliving the social paralysis of the pandemic, but other professional prognosticators are more sure of it.
According to AMC Global, a consumer marketing giant, 32 percent of people surveyed said they would continue to prepare homemade meals after the pandemic, and 20 percent said they would continue baking more.
“People want to spend more time with their family,” says Vincent Bono, an entrepreneur who got unusually comfortable in the kitchen during the pandemic.
The founder of the Boston Surface Rail Company, which aims to bring private commuter trains back to Rhode Island, Bono says the pandemic gave the city a kind of old-fashioned, nostalgic feel to it. And cooking food at home with the kids was a big part of it.
It was Bono and a friend who, about three years ago, launched the Woonsocket Food Digest, which now has over 350 members. Like most everything, it too, changed during the pandemic.
Originally conceived as a platform to showcase meals that members were enjoying in restaurants, Woonsocket Food Digest quickly morphed into a vehicle to display homemade food during the pandemic.
Like Murray and Therrien, Bono has been busy experimenting with new dishes and cuisines. “I tried Indian,” he says. “It came out pretty good.”
For an Italo-American like Bono, pasta is nothing new, but instead of making dried pasta from a box he made linguine from scratch, using dough and a hand-cranker pasta machine. Because all-purpose flour was one of the first items to vanish from supermarket shelves, he used buckwheat flour and obtained satisfactory results. He also tried zucchini noodles for a low-carb alternative to pasta and has this advice for others thinking about it: Don’t.
“Not good,” he says.
For many, the COVID-19 era will be remembered for the scale of hardship, disruption and death it’s caused, but Bono says it was also a time when he spent quality time in the kitchen with his two small daughters.
He doesn’t know when the pandemic will fade into memory – no one does – but when it happens, “I hope the good things will stick around.”