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VOL. 44 | NO. 35 | Friday, August 28, 2020

Comfort food for 5K global gastronomists

Nashville-based ‘Cooking Through COVID-19’ an international surprise

By Catherine Mayhew

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It was March 15, and Cindy Wall had a dilemma. The fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic had just sidelined her and the entire staff of the Belcourt Theatre, which officially closed temporarily the next day, and she was already missing not only the work environment but also the daily conversations she enjoyed with her co-workers about what they were cooking and eating.

“We’d always talk about what we made and ate,” she recalls. “That notion of not being able to do that just seemed awful. And on a whim, I thought I’ll just start a Facebook group, and it will be an online version of those delightful chats about food.”

So the same day as the communications and marketing director began staying home, she created Cooking Through COVID-19, with the tag lines “stay in touch” and “let us know if you run out of onions.” She invited a few friends and asked them to invite a few more to the closed group.

And then she sat back, waiting for some good virtual discussions about the topic the world became obsessed with in quarantine: Eating.

The world, apparently, had been waiting for Wall’s creation.

The group has ballooned from a few dozen members to more than 5,000 devotees from around the world. Cooks from as far away as the United Arab Emirates, New Zealand and Mexico joined in conversation with professional chefs and enthusiastic amateurs from across the United States spanning Florida to Alaska.

“I thought it was bigger than it ever would be when it hit 300,” Wall says. “My only motivation was we’re all cooking, so let’s have those conversations we would normally have (in person). I didn’t even look at the Facebook analytics for a long time. When the group started, I would get on every day and welcome new people and be a good host. That’s not really possible any longer. There are so many people posting.”

As the group grew, Wall decided she needed to set up a few rules as the administrator. Among them:

• No insulting posts or comments

• No spam (not the food, but unsolicited commercial messages)

• Respect, no matter what, whether the post is about haute cuisine or boxed mac and cheese.

And then there’s this rule: “These are hard, difficult times. Many people are unemployed. Many people are going hungry. Many people are dying. If you’ve a full cupboard, that counts for a lot. Please remember that in every post.”

“This is home cooking,” Wall says. “I think it’s also really moving to me how many conversations are happening on each person’s post. There are often times where I’m pretty sure the people chatting with each other don’t know each other except in this group.”

Brian Jackson checks in from his home in Bethel, Alaska, on a regular basis. Jackson and his family moved to Bethel from Nashville – 3,583 miles away – in June so his wife could accept a nurse practitioner’s job at a health clinic on the tundra. A beer and wine distributor in Nashville, Jackson is now a stay-at-home dad to his daughters, ages 8 and 12.

While still in Nashville, Cooking Through COVID-19 became a source of inspiration and, in the early days of the pandemic, generosity. He gifted one member with peach jam for a newly acquired taste for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. She left him flowers in return. He also bartered venison for sourdough bread starter when bread baking suddenly became the hobby of the moment.

Cindy Wall started the Facebook group “Cooking Through COVID-19” because she wanted a way to connect with her co-workers and friends,” she explains. “I thought I’ll just start a Facebook group and it will be an online version of those delightful chats about food.” That group now has 5,000 members.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

In Bethel, he’s had to adjust his culinary expectations and budget. He was determined to buy a watermelon for the Fourth of July and suffered sticker shot at the $26 price tag. Two takeout pizzas set him back $100, so now he makes his own.

He’s drawn inspiration and a new reliance on internet shopping when he sees something on the group’s page that he just can’t resist.

“The other day (Nashville chef) Arnold Myint posted that shrimp and crab omelet, so I went online to order some preserved radish and some fake crab,” he says. “It’s got me chomping at the bit more because you have to plan better. I can’t just say that looks delicious and go to Kroger.”

He also thinks the Facebook group has fostered a sense of community that might not have been at the forefront before everyone sheltered in place.

“It’s inspiring,” he says. “It’s good to catch-up with friends because you’re not seeing anyone outside your bubble. It’s brought folks closer together.”

Almost 3,000 miles away from Jackson, Edelma Huntley finds communion with the group from Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she studies the intersection of food and folk art.

“I’m fascinated by the ways in which some kinds of food are – by all definitions – also folk art,” she explains. “They transcend the simply edible and become artistic expressions of culture and community. Like other folk art, these foods can be deeply traditional and they can be innovative. Like folk art, there will be the commercial version and the truly artistic creation.”

She began her time in quarantine as so many others did, cracking open cookbooks she hadn’t consulted in a while and scavenging for ingredients that all of a sudden were hard to find.

“The Santa Fe Farmers’ Market kept going – bless them – and we started trying to buy something from as many vendors as possible. There’s a local online group, Santa Fe Foodies, that shares information about what’s available and where (there’s flour at Albertsons!). I’ve been watching (Italian chef) Massimo Bottura cook dinner for his family on Instagram.”

She took a lot of inspiration from watching what others posted on Cooking Through COVID-19.

“It’s inspiring to see how people happily share food information especially when there are shortages of something, how they share ideas for reworking a recipe when ingredients just aren’t available, how determined so many people are to do what they can to save small food businesses and farms and food producers,” she says.

Members of the group hope that once it’s safe to gather in person again there will be a potluck supper that will bring people to Nashville from around the country and, perhaps, the world. If so, Huntley plans to attend.

“If it is at all possible, I intend to fly to Nashville for the potluck whenever it happens,” she adds. “This group is such an inspiration and a respite from the ugliness out there. Whoever once said that ‘food is community’ meant people eating together, cooking together, face to face. But Cooking Through COVID-19 is as close as we can get to community right now, and it’s a community to treasure.”

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Wall says one of the benefits of the group is that it’s welcoming and supportive of all, whether the cooks are pros or enthusiastic beginners.

“People are posting things that I’d never cook in my life,” she admits. “They’re complex. Other people are posting tuna salad. Some have extraordinary photos. Others are posting pictures of tuna salad.”

Among those leaning toward the tuna salad side of the equation are Thomas Williams and Chrysty Fortner. Williams is a local Realtor, and Fortner is the director of special projects for Echo Power Engineering. Neither would say they entered quarantine with a deep knowledge of cooking.

“I am a fledgling cook,” Williams says. “Honestly, this has caused me to cook more. The problem with me has always been I’m single and at the end of a long day I know a couple of chefs and they will modify anything on their menu to make it diet friendly for me.”

Williams has another unique role within the group. He’s known as the Pied Piper of Provisions. A dedicated foodie if not a cook, he’s very well connected with local chefs, butchers and other purveyors of fine foodstuffs.

Since many members were friends with him when the Facebook page started, he routinely would text or post that he was at a grass-fed beef farm or Amish vegetable stand and ask if anyone needed anything. Much-coveted Cruze Farms buttermilk from Knoxville, Sugar Baby watermelons and heritage-breed pork chops circulated among the group with contactless pickup at Williams’ condominium.

Fortner found a new passion in front of the stove.

“It was the best escape,” Fortner says. “It’s crazy because I think Thomas Williams invited me and he knows I don’t have kitchen skills but I’m interested and love food. These people were cooking their food and the presentation was incredible. And I got inspired to try some of these things.”

She remembers the first time someone in the group mentioned joining a CSA –Community Supported Agriculture – she’d never heard of one.

“I pretended I knew what that was. And I got on Google to find out. I started running and I haven’t looked back. I have cooked two to three meals seven days a week since March 6. It has been kind of like my respite and my anxiety because I don’t know what I’m doing but I’m going after it. The blessing, Tracey (her husband) thinks I’m a gourmet chef.”

Her favorites that others have introduced her to on the page are a pimento cheese recipe, various banana bread recipes and the improbable but very real Butter Swim Biscuits.

Her own favorite dish was born of an excessive gift of pecans, 6 pounds worth. She put out the call on the site for pecan recipes, and one for pecan-encrusted chicken came back.

“I was so pleased with myself,” she recalls. “I usually make enough (of any recipe) to share with my mother-in-law. I didn’t even share the pecan-encrusted chicken.”

Both Williams and Fortner appreciate that experienced cooks have embraced their efforts with nothing but enthusiasm and support.

“It‘s a great community,” Williams says. “We’re all trying to get through this one day at a time. And the people who have posted stuff are excited about what other people post or resources. I’ve always been of the mindset that food is fellowship.

Obviously, it’s better in person, but this is a perfect example of doing it in a virtual way. You can be in your house, cook something, post a picture of it without going out and interacting with other people. People like that connectivity in a very welcoming way. “

Fortner feels like a member of a large and loving family.

“I’m the person at a family dinner who when they’re giving out assignments I get plates and soda,” she admits. “This has been an exponential growth and learning experience. The members have been so kind and encouraging. They have embraced me like a kid sister. Nobody’s made me feel like an idiot.

“Some of them are chefs and post this amazing beautiful stuff and they give me an ‘attagirl’ when I do something really simple.”

For Wall, the phenomenal growth of the page and the warm and engaged community that’s formed is rewarding, and she sees other opportunities such as creating Zoom panels of members to talk about food and cooking. And then, of course, there’s that potluck sometime in the future.

“I love how kind everyone in the group is and open to asking and answering questions,” she says. “If you post something that didn’t turn out the way you like you’ll have all your Facebook friends saying that looks delicious. Everyone’s lifting up each other.”

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