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  • Writer's pictureSylvie Epstein

Anyone Can Cook!

On kitchen concoctions in the stay-at-home age of Covid.

By Sylvie Epstein

A decade ago, we opened our tin lunch boxes to find neatly packed containers of green grapes and goldfish, or lined up in the cafeterias of our elementary and middle schools, patiently waiting to be served the mystery meat of the day. A year ago, we grabbed our vegetables at Hewitt’s Fyul station, our pasta at John Jay, our sushi at Diana. Now, we open our fridges and find a single block of tofu and half a jar of marinara sauce and wonder how to MasterChef them into something palatable.

For many college students around the country, the pandemic has meant a fast track into the responsibilities of adulthood. Columbia and Barnard students who have opted to live in off-campus apartments in and around Morningside Heights face a tall order as we rise from bed each morning: Seven days a week, 365 days this year, and for the rest of our lives, we must figure out how, when, and what to feed ourselves.

Illustration by Madi Hermann

The collegiate cooking boom has proven easier for some than others. Those unable to conjure up their inner Gordon Ramsey blame their lack of at-home exposure to the culinary arts. Elizabeth Flaherman, CC ’23, characterizes her prior experience as “extremely minimal.” When she and her four roommates each agreed to take on dinner for the household one night a week, Elizabeth needed to “learn from the other girls that putting cumin or red pepper flakes made boring beans so much better,” because her “mom really doesn't use spices.”

Nico Lopez-Alegria, CC ’21, on the other hand, shared “I’ve always loved food and cooking. I never learned formally, but my mom … helped me appreciate mixing flavors and combinations.” Even before the pandemic required it, Nico relished time spent in the kitchen: He lived in Hartley his first year for its kitchen access and later moved into the famed SIC Potluck House. He began a food Instagram about a year ago (@nicoflood) so a close friend could make his recipes and regularly posts satirical videos of his cooking exploits and artistically plated creations.

Though some Columbians like Nico are more experienced homecooks, in a city where groceries are expensive and apartments can be fifth-floor walk-ups, there have been complications for all. Nico has been frustrated that in New York, “fresh produce is usually more expensive or harder to come by.” For me in my studio, I’ve been learning to cook and shop for one and attempting not to let fresh vegetables and fruit go bad. Beyond these logistical obstacles, simply having the time and creativity to cook nutritious, interesting, and flavorful dishes three times a day can feel impossible.

Inspiration from outside sources is essential. Over Facetime, Nico praised the Instagram accounts of chef Yotam Ottolenghi’s team of recipe developers (@noorishbynoor, @ixtabelfrage), Samin Nustrat’s book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking, and Netflix’s The Chef Show. Elizabeth said that she often simply types “Easy Dinner Ideas” into Google and scrolls through the results until she finds a recipe that piques her interest and seems somewhat achievable.

There are also specific foods we all find ourselves falling back on. Elizabeth and I gushed about toast and the limitless possibilities created by its deliciously blank slate (blank plate?). Nico and I talked about the stews and soups we often make at the start of the week and preserved on the stovetop, keeping us fed for several days. He also raved about the adaptability, ease, and comfort of big salads, and insisted that keeping chopped, frozen bananas in your freezer (to turn into smoothies or to dip into chocolate) is a must.

Though virtual, these conversations with Nico and Elizabeth were more animated and exciting than most I have had as of late. As we shared yummy recipes and stories from our kitchens, I was offered a reminder that I have needed more and more often as I struggle to feed myself: Eating is not just meant to nourish, but to satiate. The challenge of cooking for ourselves, while daunting, also presents an opportunity for discovery, spontaneity, and creativity—three things that have felt difficult to come by this year.


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