I love cooking dinner. The supernatural smell that emanates when fusing spice, starch, greens, and protein is whimsical; it’s liberating. Ever since the pandemic started, cooking has been my sensory escape from the anxiety that comes with all of our uncertainty.
In the kitchen, my reality is fully controlled by me: I call the shots. I measure, chop, and season to my liking. I decide what and how much of an ingredient to add. I decide if my stove is on high, medium, or low. I am completely responsible for my creations. I’m not beholden to University President Lee Bollinger, to Columbia, or to the CDC.
I cannot say the same for my limited experience as a Columbia student. As a hopeful, newly- admitted Columbia student, I longed for my New York escape—to go to college, to seek magic in a different chapter of my life. A few months later, as I am reading Bollinger’s plan for the fall, I wonder if cooking a decadent meal will remain my only escape from the bitter reality of the present.
I grate 4 ounces of Parmigiano-Reggiano and 4 ounces of Pecorino Romano. The salty yet funky aroma of cheese swirls all around me as the plan slowly creeps into my head. A singular statement disturbs my sense of peace: “This is all contingent on evolving health guidelines.” Much like the University’s disclaimer lingers in my mind, the lingering pieces of cheese that fall out of my bowl pique my anxiety. I quickly pick up the pieces and throw them back into the measuring cup: I regain a sense of calmness from my own authority.
The recipe marches on. I carefully dissect my four eggs, seamlessly separating the yolk from the whites. I smell the flakey salt in the pasta water that boils my farfalle into the perfect al dente. The grumbling sounds of my stomach are as fierce as the pungent smell of the Pecorino.
Finally, I combine every ingredient I carefully prepared. As I calmly stir the mixture, I once again seek to put away the lingering pieces of cheese on my table. But with one mistaken flick of my wrist, the sound of a broken glass pierces my tranquility. The seemingly ever-expanding splatter on the floor mocks me. The sudden demise of my carbonara reminds me that nothing—not even my cooking—is ever completely controlled by me.
I am reminded again of Bollinger’s announcements. Even when I am in control, when I believe I am fully making my own decisions, something that seems to have greater influence continues to linger—a recipe, a system, a pandemic.
As I start grating the Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Romano for the second time, I stop trying to pick up the lingering pieces of cheese. I am no longer overridden with stress about what I can’t control. Columbia’s response is out of my control. The pandemic is out of Columbia’s control. All I can do is make some mean carbonara.