When the pandemic locked us all into our little Zoom squares, my family instituted a virtual cocktail hour to keep us connected. Some nights, there were up to 20 of us: One 86-year old grandmother, three adult children with spouses, five grandchildren ranging from 35 to 18, with occasional appearances by cousins, significant others and family friends. Once we all logged in, the first question was “what are you drinking?” The second was, “what’s for snack plate?” In our family, enjoying a nice snack plate with at least one delicious cheese, even a simple hunk of yellow Parmesan, with that umami fifth taste that keeps you reaching for one more piece, created a moment of respite, a chance to stop the roar of panic in our heads. The cocktails also helped.
Daily food prep is what anchors me; during the pandemic, it kept me sane. I had some very dark days in March and April of 2020, as friends I loved lost their lives to Covid. There were days that began in fear and ended in exhausted panic, spurred on by news reports, and from our daughter, a doctor in the Bronx, who would have wrapped her father and me in bubble wrap to keep us safe. Instead, she delivered canned goods.
The pleasure I took in shopping for and preparing dinner disappeared once we stopped going to the supermarket and turned to Instacart for assistance. I couldn’t smell a cantaloupe or ask the deli man how the roast turkey was that day, could not fondle a piece of cheese and ask for a sample before buying it. But I couldn’t get worked up; who was I to get picky over which kind of Brie when I couldn’t find toilet paper and people were dying? There were hours and whole days when I sat in the kitchen, immobilized by concern for my mother, who lived alone in her condo, four hours away in Rhode Island. I couldn’t imagine when (or if) we would see our son and his girlfriend out in California. Most of all, I was terrified for our daughter. The news showed ambulance after ambulance arriving at her hospital in the city where she was an ob/gyn resident and treating COVID infected pregnant mothers, day after day. She wanted to keep the worst of what she was seeing from us, but when the hospital handed out Yankees rain ponchos for lack of PPE, she couldn’t hold back. “Mom, we’re trained to change our N95 masks and our gowns after every infectious patient! I’m wearing the same stuff all day long!” Good friends delivered homemade masks and scrub caps. Preparing for our weekly Zoom-tails gave me something small and contained to worry about.
I pulled out the cheeses, veggies and spreads from the refrigerator. If I could occupy myself with worrying about whether to use the deep blue pottery bowl to hold the hummus or a clear glass dish – weighing which would add more character to the visual appeal - I could let my overwhelmed brain rest. How to lay out swath of sliced red, yellow and orange mini-peppers, a small green glass bowl of ripened black olives and where to place my favorite crispy sesame crackers were what I concentrated on. The bigger worries didn’t disappear, just glancing up at the news was enough for it all to come roaring back, but sliding the large white platter filled with delicious food in front of my laptop was a slight balm to my soul.
My son and daughter created their own snack plates, sharing them around with us on the family message thread. All kinds of colorful radishes, peppers, carrots and pea pods make vegetable rivers around triple cremes, California goat and fig jams, red pepper dips and homemade hummus. Sending pictures of these snack plates became a way of checking in, saying “wish you were here to share.”
Very early into Zoom-tails, our daughter’s boyfriend popped onto the screen. They’d been together almost a year before Covid set in. He made it clear that he was going to continue seeing our daughter, even though she worked at one of the epicenter hospitals in the Bronx and he could have worked safely from home at his white-collar desk job. I loved him for that, and worried about what his parents might be thinking. The ob/gyns were kept isolated from the rest of medical staff, as babies were still coming into the world and their skills were so specialized. Many of her twelve-hour shifts were spent alone on the gynecology/oncology floor, where only emergency cases were admitted. We were grateful to him; his presence in her life meant we didn’t have to worry about her living isolated with no human contact. And there was a bonus. Turns out the boyfriend was a whiz at snack plates too, He introduced jammy eggs to the lineup. “Only cook them for six and a half minutes, it’s easy!” he instructed. He gave us another lesson on making deviled eggs, using not nearly as much mayonnaise as I would have and much more paprika, but our daughter loved them. Watching my family welcome someone clearly so important to our daughter made my heart expand.
One cold Friday night in late April 2020, our daughter Zoomed in from an on-call room at her hospital. She was pale by the light of her laptop, but she’d managed to create a snack plate (no cocktail) complete with shards of Parmesan, slices of carrots, cucumber and salami and capped off with a perfectly cooked jammy egg, prepared by her boyfriend. My mother, the most isolated of all of us, probed her with questions about her work and the conditions at the hospital. It was sobering, amidst our martinis and cheese and crackers, to see the world through the eyes of someone confronting Covid every day.
Now we are at the beginning of a new season. I stand at my daughter’s kitchen counter, in Dallas, where a fellowship is the next step in her training. Her hands, small, slim and practiced at guiding babies into this world, hover over a small silver serving tray. She’s placing a wedge of triple crème Brie, setting it so that the edges can be accessed from both sides. Next are slices of Italian finocchio sausage, cut on the diagonal for better presentation. She’s already cut slices of cool green cucumber, which she nestles between the cheese and the salami.
There’s a twinkling on our daughter’s left ring finger; She and her boyfriend, the jammy eggy maker, are part of the bumper crop of couples getting married in 2022. As our daughter spreads hummus into a bowl, her engagement ring catches the light, like a beacon reminding me that I’m a guest in their home, and though I can offer to help, but not arrange or rearrange the plate (I might have suggested a more accessible placement of the Brie.) While we have come to love and adore our daughter’s fiancé, a I feel a nervousness in my stomach that isn’t hunger. The sliding doors of our family relationships are on the move, and I am unmoored from the familiar. My children both live plane rides away. Our visits are not frequent enough. But - that snack plate my daughter is making? The small silver platter, with a detail of raised silver dots around the edge? It was a gift from my mother’s collection. The world may still be tilted askew, but the weekly preparation of Zoom cocktails and snack plates will continue to connect us. At least there will be cheese.