#100newrecipes: a journey of pandemic thrill-seeking at home, plus my 10 favorite recipes of 2021
How pandemic cooking brings community and culture into focus
Thanks to COVID, my love language is asking my friends and family “what do you want for dinner?”
I tried a number of pandemic hobbies, including hiking, yoga, and a very short-lived stint at knitting, but cooking provided the greatest reward with an excellent feedback loop. Every time I made something, I would get a delicious meal AND heaps of online praise for my food photography. Beyond the pile of dishes that my husband and I have to do by hand every night, there was no downside to this hobby.
Is the social media element of this pleasure-seeking a bit shallow? A little. But for many, the pandemic has brought two tasks into focus: 1) survival and 2) seeking joy. I was ready to chase all the serotonin I could healthily and ethically get, and experimenting in the kitchen fit the bill.
A few months into this project, I gave it a name: #100newrecipes. I used my past social media posts to backlog everything I’d made so far into a spreadsheet to track my progress, then pledged to try and document 100 new recipes before the end of 2020. One year ago this week, I tallied up my work and found that I had surpassed my goal, with 164 recipes completed.
At the beginning of 2021, I decided to retain the same hashtag, but make the project more ambitious: By 2030, I would learn to make 1,000 new recipes.
The fact that I have not only created but sustained #100newrecipes for this long is even more surprising to me than anyone else. I tend to get bored easily, and when I was growing up, food was more of a utility than an activity. Because I was a good student, I had a lot of freedom, and so I watched a troubling amount of TV and ate whatever I wanted. My family had about 5-10 recipes in circulation my entire childhood, plus we ate plenty of takeout. I remember eating Subway sandwiches with ham, turkey, swiss cheese, and mayonnaise every single day the summer my grandmother was dying, and it was my favorite. This probably explains my affinity for Gilmore Girls, who, like me, only ever ate vegetables at extended family dinners. And while I probably won’t ever eat like my child self again, I still hold a lot of nostalgia for the macaroni salad, ham and turkey sandwiches, and frozen vegetable lasagnas I’d eat at 4 pm while watching movies with my mom. It was an unusual existence, but a comfortable one. I know I’m not the only one who holds this kind of nostalgia for their outdated eating habits; from Hamburger Helper to Chef Boyardee, many Americans sought the comfort of their favorite childhood snacks as we went into lockdown.
Though fast and/or processed food has helped many of us chase down the serotonin we’re looking for in difficult times, the prioritization of convenience and routine in the American diet has warped our relationship with eating. A simple necessity that evokes memories of community and culture has morphed into something to be heavily monitored, via calorie counting or obsession with a particular type of nutrient. During a 2019 panel I moderated for the launch of Charlotte Druckman’s Women on Food anthology, Druckman, Dr. Jessica Harris, and Monique Truong spoke about how eating is unnecessarily moralized, especially when food is marketed to women consumers. Kale isn’t just healthy, serving it to your family makes you a good person! Chocolate isn’t just sugary, it’s sinful!
To me, #100newrecipes is about exploration and pleasure seeking. It’s also about reclaiming my relationship to food. I wish I could say that I haven’t struggled with disordered eating, but I have alongside 28.8 million other Americans. I keep #100newrecipes going because I take great pride in this work, but also because I want to savor my life and know that I’m caring for myself, whether I’m eating kale or cake. I have already had my fair share of trauma and pain, and frankly I am tired of the disconnection that diet culture creates.
Developing culinary skills at home doesn’t have to be expensive, but cost is one of the many psychological barriers to entry for novice home cooks. In my early 20s, I viewed groceries as a utility. Though I enjoyed experimenting in the kitchen, I spent as little as possible on ingredients and stuck primarily to whatever I could make using BudgetBytes, a site that encourages users to buy inexpensive ingredients with a wide variety of uses. As a single working girl in Washington, modularity was my highest priority. That, and ensuring that whatever I bought wouldn’t be left to rot in the vegetable drawer of the fridge.
The pandemic provided me with both more time at home and more disposable income to dedicate towards cooking. I moved past my local neighborhood grocery stores and started shopping at specialty stores like Kalustyan’s, which has come to feel like a sacred space. Eventually, my pantry reached a critical mass and I found that I was able to try hundreds of recipes at very low cost. I currently own over 50 spices, herbs, and syrups, all of which have played some part in my pandemic thrill seeking. Pomegranate molasses and orange blossom water have allowed me to savor rich Iranian dishes like fesenjān (walnut chicken stew) and ferni (pudding), and with gochujang and gochugaru, spicy, sweet Korean dishes like tteokbokki (gooey rice cakes) are attainable any day.
Yet still, #100newrecipes is about more than eating well. In acquiring what we needed to make this project possible, my husband and I have stretched the limitations of our space. Living in a one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment with a fridge that’s not technically in the kitchen, we spent the early days of the pandemic building wall units for hanging pots, pans, and spices. In maximizing the potential of our kitchen, the apartment’s soul has grown by three sizes. It feels less transitory than any other apartment I’ve had, and after traveling overseas for work in October, I found myself relieved and excited to return home and be in my kitchen again. It is, in essence, a hobbit hole.
An even greater joy than savoring is sharing, and I was exceedingly proud to welcome friends to share in #100newrecipes with us once everyone was vaccinated. While omicron has put a pause on dinner parties for now, I have experienced joy in hosting that I never felt before this. I especially love cooking for friends with dietary restrictions. I am proud to be able to make a vegan latke that rivals Katz’s Delicatessen, and I love making my gluten free, dairy free friends feel at home at my dinner table. Whenever someone comes to my home, I want them to feel understood, but also to experience the joy of trying something new, like a Maple Bourbon Smash or a Merguez and Pomegranate Farro Bowl.
If you’re reading this and wondering what this has to do with fandom, here’s the connection: #100newrecipes has inspired fannish tendencies among my friends, and helped me discover online communities that are as passionate as I am. Often when I’ve posted a new dish on Instagram or Facebook, the people in my network will want to share something with me, whether it’s a story about the time they made crême brulee and it was amazing (or terrible!), or my personal favorite: a beloved family recipe.
Nothing makes me feel more connected to others than learning what certain foods mean to them and their families. I felt giddy when I could show my friend Kyle that I had taken the time to mold Armenian manti by hand, and it was a pleasure to make mandel bread with my husband, just like his grandmother used to make. And while I borrow from many families and cultures, #100newrecipes has also allowed me to savor my own memories. Last Christmas, when the familiar buttery taste of my grandmother’s German Spritzgebåck cookies hit me, I could hardly hold back tears. I believe honing one’s cooking skills or helping a loved one cook is fundamental to helping us draw closer to each other, and to our ancestors. Food is more than what we eat to get by, it is life itself.
Not everyone has the time, resources, or interest in learning 1,000 recipes, but we ought to live in a country that makes quality food accessible, because everyone deserves to find joy and nourishment in what they consume. An estimated 39.5 million Americans live in food deserts, a phenomenon that disproportionately affects Black communities. Though I believe broad federal and state policy can help end food deserts and malnutrition in the U.S., I have taken great pleasure in seeing how quality food access makes a difference on the local level, at food banks like the Harlem Community Kitchen (if you have any cash to spare, donate here).
It will never be easy to break away from the problems of our broken food culture, but we can slowly but surely break into the joy together, even as the pandemic continues. I look forward to continuing #100newrecipes into 2022, and I hope it will inspire others to try new things in the kitchen.
Here are my top 10 recipes of 2021. Happy New Year and happy cooking!
Follow @sabrinacartan on Instagram to keep up with #100newrecipes.