Tupelo • If you took a random poll of home cooks in Northeast Mississippi, you’d likely find most of them cooked more in the 12 months since the COVID-19 pandemic began last March.
But ask those same folks what they cooked and why they cooked and how they cooked, and you’ll get very different responses.
We asked a small sampling of people who have been featured as a Cook of the Week in the Journal, as well as other foodies, to tell us some of their culinary experiences in the past year.
Reta Doughty, a real estate agent with Pinnacle Realty, cooked three meals a day during the pandemic.
“I’d come up with something nice and fancy for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Doughty said. “I gained 22 pounds, and I just can’t seem to get it off. I didn’t cook more healthfully – quite the opposite.”
Doughty said she’s known for her fried apple pies. She made them by the dozens, and froze them.
“One day, I got in the kitchen and made 400 pies,” she said. “Another day, I made 200. I’d take them to people, leave them on their doorstep. I reminded myself of my mama so much, I can tell you that.”
She also made a lot of soups, chili and gumbo while shut up in her Tupelo home. And she made sure she had a continuous supply of Mexican cornbread to serve with them.
“I learned a lot during COVID,” Doughty said. “Life slowed down. I enjoyed planning and cooking and serving – the presentation of food. Slowing down made me appreciate what I’ve got.”
Deepika Dey, a yoga instructor and dietitian in Tupelo, not only cooked more healthfully during the pandemic, she also prepared several vegetarian meals.
“My husband likes to put a kitchen garden out every year,” Dey said. “Last March, because of his medical experience, he knew what was brewing. He put in a little larger garden, more salad greens, things that could be harvested later in the summer. That kept us supplied with fresh produce.”
Dey said she’s always built family meals around vegetables, but when the pandemic set in, she had a serious chat with her husband and two teenagers.
“I said, ‘Let us not have to go out and shop for meat. We have plenty of lentils and beans and vegetables,’” she said. “They were not happy, of course, and we have relaxed that now.”
To keep things fun in the kitchen, Dey encouraged her children to browse her cookbook collection and find some things they’d like to help prepare.
“My daughter got interested in baking, mostly quick breakfast breads,” Dey said. “That was a joyful experience. My kids have gotten more confident in the kitchen. That was our silver lining.”
Martin Scarlett, a self-employed Tupelo businessman, said he was shocked when he looked back through his cell phone and found that he and his daughter, Katie, had swapped 25 to 30 new recipes in the past year.
“I definitely cooked more, probably five nights a week at least,” Scarlett said. “My daughter was cooking on the same level I was. We started exchanging recipes. Texting was a big part of our communicating, and we always sent each other pictures. We’d critique each recipe, and we’d catch up on what was going on in life.”
Of all the new recipes Scarlett cooked in the past year, an Italian Shrimp Pasta was his favorite.
“When I start playing cards with my group again, that’s the first thing I’m going to make,” he said. “Almost all of us have both of our vaccines by now, so it won’t be long.”
Scarlett said when news of the pandemic first started to spread a year ago, he went out and bought about three months’ worth of food.
“I had food lined up across the kitchen counter,” he said. “I’ve gotten better about that now.”
Janet Bland, a retired gifted teacher who lives in the Longview community near Pontotoc, said she cooked about the same amount as she did before COVID-19 – which is every day.
“I try mostly to eat healthfully, but I saw the pandemic as a green light to buy bacon again,” Bland said. “I even saved the grease to make cornbread.”
Bland said she spent way too much time online, reading about food and cooking. That led to her buying five new cookbooks: “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen” by Harold McGee; “Crescent City Cooking” by Susan Spicer; “The Lost Superfoods” by Claude Davis; “Homegrown Louisiana Cookin’” by Justin Wilson; and “Trim Healthy Future” by Rashida Simpson.
“I didn’t try many new things, but I did learn a couple of things,” she said. “I learned how to shuck an oyster by watching YouTube videos, using a flathead screwdriver,” she said. “Oysters are a good source of zinc, which we need during a pandemic.”
On Labor Day, Bland lost her husband, Gordon, whom she married in 2006.
“That changed my cooking somewhat and my mindset,” she said. “I was just trying really hard to live through this.”
Amy Harris, a Tupelo attorney, said her family turned to comfort food during the pandemic.
“I feel like we had mashed potatoes four nights a week,” she said. “We made familiar things – baked chicken, meatloaf, mac and cheese, pork chops, green peas.”
Harris said there was a stretch of a couple of months where she prepared every meal her family ate.
“I cooked every single thing we put in our mouths,” she said. “I was worn out, but I love to cook, so it was a stress-reliever for me. Eventually we got to where we’d pick something up local to eat.”
Harris said the biggest change she made was menu planning.
“I made a menu on Saturday or Sunday and placed a grocery order and we stuck with that through the week,” she said. “That sort of gave me a feeling of control when I didn’t have any. There was no running back and forth to the grocery store.”
Harris said when she used to buy her own groceries at the store, she would tend to make unnecessary impulse buys.
“I’m a marketing person’s dream,” she said. “We’ve probably saved a lot of money by my ordering online.”
Mary Ann Plasencia
Mary Ann Plasencia, the new executive director of Northeast Mississippi Habitat for Humanity, said the pandemic made her more creative and resourceful.
“I did a lot more scrounging,” she said. “I’d say, ‘I don’t want to go to the store. I don’t need to be in the store. What I have in my pantry or fridge is what I’ll make do with.’ That was sort of a blessing of the pandemic. Being resourceful is something I will carry forward, no doubt.”
Plasencia said she added two new things to her cooking repertoire in the last year: build-your-own bowls and homemade cookies.
“The big thing were the bowls,” she said. “We’d start with jasmine rice and add edamame, shrimp, carrots, peas, ginger, lemongrass, cashews and coconut milk. That was my first time to really use coconut milk in cooking.”
And while Plasencia has always been a regular weeknight cook, she’s never been much of a baker.
“I can’t even do slice-and-bake cookies,” she said. “I can cook anything, but I can’t bake a thing.”
She found Nestle’s original Tollhouse Cookie recipe and made some tweaks, like using two kinds of chips and nuts, and sprinkling sea salt on the cookies.
“I consider myself to have a well-stocked kitchen, but I didn’t even have a wire rack for cooling cookies until this year,” she said.
Lisa Howorth, an Oxford author, said even though she felt like she was cooking more, it was really that she was just enjoying it less.
“For 47 years, I’ve cooked most days, but the pandemic made me anxious about buying supplies, etc., and I was preoccupied with worries about my family and our business,” Howorth said. Her husband, Richard, owns Square Books in downtown Oxford.
Howorth said two things things happened in the past year to change her cooking. First, she sent her vintage Chambers stove (the prototype for Fred Karl’s Viking stove from Greenwood) to Macy’s Stove Works in Houston, Texas, to have it cleaned and refurbished.
“For two months or so, I was pretty much cooking with a hot plate and toaster oven,” she said. “I tried to find an old 10-inch hibachi like the ones we had in the ‘70s, and when I couldn’t, I got an old kettle from under the house and a couple of cast iron pieces from Sneed’s Hardware and made my own.”
Just when Howorth got her stove back, her daughter, Bebe, along with her boyfriend, Sam, drove down from New York to escape their small apartment and the cold weather, and to work remotely from Oxford.
“Bebe and Sam often cooked,” Howorth said. “Sam made good latkes at Hannukah, and they made us fabulous Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. Thanks to them, I became even more worthless in the kitchen.”
When Howorth did cook, she mostly relied on her family’s homestyle Italian meals: braciole, pasta with meatballs or sausage, and minestrone.
“I did improve my grandmother’s eggplant lasagna – a great meat substitute – by consulting Marcella Hazan’s recipe, which probably has Nonna spinning in her grave as we speak,” she said.
Beau Hill, a financial advisor in Tupelo, said he hasn’t really cooked more, or less, than he did before the pandemic, but he has become more adventurous in the kitchen.
“We laugh about the substitutions we get from the grocery pickups,” Hill said. “I’ve had to be innovative.”
Hill said when everything started to shut down last March, he tried to go to the grocery store to get some staples, but the shelves were largely bare.
“I came home with some wild stuff – stuff we’d never had before,” he said. “My wife was like, ‘Why did you buy this?’ I came home with rib tips, which I’d never cooked before in my life. But I cooked them and they were good. They were available.”
Hill has been experimenting with new recipes, sometimes as often as twice a week.
“I’ve been trying different cuts of meat I hadn’t tried before,” he said. “I’ll buy a cut of meat and then go online and find a lot of different recipes and see which one I like more.”
He’s also learned to be resourceful, and to make do with what’s at hand.
“My wife went out of town for four or five days and left me with the children,” Hill said. “I didn’t go to the grocery store, because we had plenty of things to eat. We like making Asian food, and one night I made fried rice. We didn’t have any beef or chicken, but we had smoked sausage, so we had smoked sausage fried rice.”
Juanita Floyd, vice president of finance and administration at the CREATE Foundation, said she was able to work from home some during the pandemic. For her, that meant more time to cook.
“Cooking is my getaway time,” she said. “It’s my stress-reliever, whether I was making a casserole or a cake. I tried recipes I’d never tried before.”
Floyd said every Sunday they could, her family would gather at the homeplace, and she’d make a pound cake for dessert.
“I bet I made a different pound cake eight weeks in a row,” she said.
Floyd said her grocery shopping habits changed drastically during the pandemic.
“I had a list, and I didn’t linger,” she said. “I’d go in, get what I needed, go through the checkout line and get out. I’d see people I know and wave, but I’d just keep rolling. I didn’t want to stop and talk. The social gathering aspect of the grocery store has changed.”
One eye-opener for Floyd was when she took the time to organize her kitchen cabinets, so she could see what she had and what she needed from the grocery store.
“I threw out what was expired, and I felt ashamed that I threw all that stuff out,” she said. “Over the years, I’d buy stuff and just put it in the cabinet. Here I had all this food, I didn’t use it, and now I’m throwing it out. It was really a time for reflection. I don’t want to be wasteful anymore.”