Anna Olson felt a tinge of pride last spring when the demand for flour and yeast became so great that grocery stores couldn’t stock their shelves fast enough.
The professional pastry chef and Food Network Canada star was thrilled to see people turning to baking and cooking in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, sharpening culinary skills they never felt they needed before.
But pandemic cooking, borne out of necessity, comfort or boredom, soon evolved into a means of connecting with others at a time when social interactions were drying up, Olson says.
Whether it was cooking together as a household, dropping off baked goods on neighbours’ porches, calling relatives for recipes from childhoods, or texting photos of kitchen masterpieces — and disasters — to friends, many Canadians have strengthened their connections over the past year through food.
For Olson, it was the regular texts from her stepdaughter, and the “play-by-play” phone calls from her mom describing her latest Instant Pot creations, that helped reinforce bonds between her family.
“We were always into food together, but we’ve got this new relationship, exchanging photos, constant conversation … it’s like: ‘what are you eating? What are you cooking right now?’ Olson said.
“I expect the five o’clock text from (stepdaughter) Mika to come in: ‘OK, I just bought this cut of meat. How do I cook it?’ And we walk through it together.”
Olson, a recipe developer who’s also a judge on Food Network Canada’s “Great Chocolate Showdown,” says the early COVID lockdown allowed her to delve deeper into new creations for the first time in years.
She misses the impromptu dinner parties she’d throw at her Niagara, Ont., home after perfecting large quantities of a recipe, but Olson says she adapted by dropping off boxes of her test goodies at neighbours’ doorsteps — and getting to know them better in the process.
“We can’t physically dine together, but cooking is still bringing us together,” Olson said. “That’s very important.”
John Axford, a former Toronto Blue Jays relief pitcher who lives in Burlington, Ont., says pandemic cooking has allowed him to bond with his sons in the kitchen.
The eight- and nine-year-old boys help their dad prepare meals and desserts when they stay with him — bumbleberry pie is the trio’s specialty — and Axford has been trying to introduce more complex recipes to their palettes.
He doesn’t always throw strikes though.
“Definitely a couple times I was like, ‘wow, I messed this up bad,'” he said with a laugh. “‘Better get some hot dogs going.'”
Axford, who spent 10 years in the major leagues, rarely had to cook for himself over that span as MLB teams employ chefs and nutritionists for players, who typically eat two to three meals a day at the ballpark.
While he misses the ease of walking into the clubhouse and grabbing some grub, Axford says he feels a sense of accomplishment from the skills he’s honed over the last 12 months.
He gets recipe inspiration from memories of dining with teammates on the road — the Old Bay-seasoned crab they’d have in Baltimore, or the catfish and cheesy grits in Houston — but he tweaks them by taking advantage of time-saving tools, including the air fryer.
“Being able to make certain foods quicker, I can save those 30 minutes,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m saving those 30 minutes for right now, but it’s still nice.”
Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist and COVID expert at the University of Ottawa, says gadgets like the air fryer, bread maker and Instant Pot — which he calls “God’s gift to lazy men” — have transformed complex recipes into easier feats.
Being able to find any recipe on the internet is another bonus, Deonandan says, aiding his constant quest for creating new vegan dishes.
“Ten years ago, this would’ve been impossible for me to do well,” he said, adding that while he always enjoyed cooking, he was never good at it before.
“Now my house smells like a restaurant all the time.”
Deonandan says it makes sense to see people embracing cooking during lockdown.
He says many of us, pre-COVID, were losing the desire or ability to prepare meals for ourselves, either from time constraints or dependence on restaurants.
“But (with the pandemic) we retreated back to our homes,” he said. “The impulse was to become a little more self-sufficient, a little less reliant on things like meeting friends for dinner.”
Deonandan, like Olson and Axford, says he’s nourished relationships with relatives over the pandemic, habitually calling his mother to walk him through traditional Indo-Guyanese recipes of his youth.
While his attempts never come out quite the same, he says the process of cooking those dishes makes him feel closer to his mother, who lives nearly 500 kilometres away in Toronto.
“There’s this feeling of realness that comes from home-cooked food,” he said. “There’s nothing quite like it.”
Olson expects people will return to dining out often once the pandemic subsides, but she thinks the last year may have also changed the way many of us view our culinary abilities.
“We’ve set a new standard for the way we cook at home,” she said. “And we appreciate the work that goes into cooking a meal.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 26, 2021.
Melissa Couto Zuber, The Canadian Press