Okay, I’ll admit it: “I’m so lonely” (if I may quote Saoirse Ronan in Little Women). It’s been over a month of solo self-quarantine, and the solitude, which felt fine at first, has become frequently miserable. (I can feel the parents who might be reading this rolling their eyes, though, and I don’t blame them.)
Although it’s a huge privilege to be responsible only for myself right now, it’s also a recipe for stress and anxiety. “The worst thing that we can do as humans is to imagine a future where we are alone,” social neuroscientist Dr. Stephanie Cacioppo told Vogue in March. Of course, this way of living won’t last forever, but while it does, I’ve been distracting myself by using the large swaths of free time afforded to me by quarantine to cook.
On its face, this is a constructive activity—I’m feeding myself, absorbed in the tasks of chopping, peeling, blending, and baking. But with the now seemingly infinite space in my mind, I’m also falling into a dangerously familiar rut. Even as I foray into new frontiers of cuisine—maybe I’ll try a braise this week, or even attempt fermentation—I find myself looking for dishes with as few calories involved as possible, logging everything I do eat in a weight-loss app, and, most significantly, daydreaming about shedding pounds.
The “logic” behind a quarantine diet is seductive. Why not use a long stretch of boredom and solitude to get healthier? But that reasoning is actually a major danger for people like myself, whose struggles with disordered eating are being exacerbated by solitude. “Eating disorders creep up when you’re isolated, or anxious, or under the weather. They thrive in these conditions,” eating-disorder support group coordinator Ruthie Friedlander told Vogue in March. (Not to mention those not-funny #Covid15 jokes. Seriously, stop making those.)
I know dieting isn’t emotionally healthy for me, but with little other distraction available, it’s the thorny place my mind keeps coming back to. In my normal life, food is so much more than anxiety fodder—I plan epic dim sum crawls with my friends, I dig into office-provided cake to celebrate colleagues’ birthdays, I buy hot chocolate after runs in Prospect Park. Alone and isolated, though, I’ve reverted to a problematic mindset that casts food as “the enemy,” and it’s particularly hard to shake without the company of friends and loved ones to snap me out of it.
So I’ve been slapping together boring salads and flavorless soups with little regard for the idea that food could actually provide some excitement in my current situation. But when I decided to begin my fifth consecutive rewatch of the HBO series The Sopranos last week—I do have a lot of at-home time on my hands—a thrilling idea occurred to me as I watched long-suffering matriarch Carmela Soprano serve eggplant parm. What if I allowed myself to take as much pleasure in my food as the Soprano family did in theirs? I remembered a gag gift I’d once seen at a store, plugged it into Bookshop, and voila: I was the proud owner of The Sopranos Family Cookbook: As Compiled by Artie Bucco.
If you’ve yet to become familiar with The Sopranos, let me explain a little. The putative author, Artie Bucco, is Tony’s childhood best friend and the owner of Vesuvio, the local red-sauce place where Tony and his fellow mobsters congregate after hours. He’s the perfect name to put on the cover, but so many other characters could have fit the bill. In The Sopranos, food is ever-present and visceral, from Carmela’s signature lasagna (with basil leaves!) to fellow mob wife Karen Baccalieri’s baked ziti and the ice-cream sundaes Tony shares with his son A.J. after a long day. When Tony isn’t feasting on pasta at Vesuvio, he’s devouring sandwiches at Sartriale’s pork store or raiding the fridge for leftovers of Carmela’s stuffed shells.
The Sopranos characters don’t do diet food, even at Carmela’s tasteful ladies’ lunches. Whether it’s prodigal daughter Meadow returning from college to raid the fridge or A.J. lamenting the absence of “fuckin’ ziti” from his birthday party, everything the Sopranos and their cohort eat is oily, buttery, cheese-topped, or, as writer Andrea Long Chu noted in January, “so red it’s almost pink.”
As I flipped through The Sopranos Family Cookbook, I first eyed the lighter fare. Salads, soups, and Janice’s Vegetarian Baked Ziti (named after Tony’s irrepressible-hippie younger sister) beckoned, but I knew in my heart that trying to evade the heartiest dishes from the Sopranos Family Cookbook would be an exercise in futility. I settled on a classic—manicotti, pronounced in Soprano-ese as “manigott’”—and made my way to the grocery store for my once-weekly shop.
When I got back and spread my haul across the kitchen island, I couldn’t help noticing how much more inviting the ingredients were than my normal quarantine staples of quinoa, broccoli, and skinless chicken breast. The cans of whole peeled tomatoes looked like sturdy barrels nestled amongst garlands of parsley and papery cloves of garlic; the plump mozzarella shone, flanked by containers of Pecorino and ricotta.
While I normally let some reality show or other drone in the background while I cook, that night I decided to remain on theme, blasting Frank Sinatra and sipping at a glass of the nicer-than-usual Nebbiolo I’d purchased online while I whisked crepe batter, squeezed tomatoes, and combined cheeses. I don’t know if it was the music, the wine, or the heft and freshness of the ingredients, but my evening in the kitchen began to feel less like a chore and more like an experience. I was alone, but the rich food, the dark-hued wine and the old-school music all added up to good company. Was this how Artie felt in the Vesuvio kitchen?
Forty-five minutes later, when my manicotti finally came out of the oven, I was stunned at the results. It wasn’t restaurant-quality, but it looked recognizably more like the original than anything else I’d ever tried to make. I texted my friends photos, thinking about how proud Carmela and Artie—not to mention my distant Italian relatives—would be of me. Painstakingly putting together a meal from the Sopranos cookbook reminded me how freeing it is to cook without restrictions, to liberally salt and sauce and sauté onions in butter with abandon, and to register exactly none of it in a weight-loss app. It’s powerful to know I can trust myself to cook the way I’ve always dreamed of, even in isolation; I might be alone, but at least I’m not alienated from my own desires.
Once the manicotti had cooled, I selected a favorite blue-and-white ceramic plate from the cupboard, carved out a hefty portion of Parmesan-topped pasta, refilled my wine glass and dug in. As I ate, I was reminded of a quote from writer Nora Ephron (who, as it happens, had her own fictional mob ties; she was married to Nick Pileggi, the journalist whose true crime book Wiseguy was adapted into Goodfellas, and would occasionally field calls from mobster Henry Hill).
In a New Yorker essay about her love affair with cookbooks, Ephron wrote: “If I was home alone at night, I cooked myself an entire meal from one of these cookbooks. Then I sat down in front of the television set and ate it. I felt very brave and plucky as I ate my perfect dinner. O.K., I didn’t have a date, but at least I wasn’t one of those lonely women who sat home with a pathetic container of yogurt. Eating a meal for four that I had cooked for myself was probably equally pathetic, but it never crossed my mind.”
I make it a rule to agree with Ephron about almost everything—although there’s nothing wrong with, say a tub of Chobani—and I loved cooking with abandon for just me, for the first time in years. My dalliance with the Sopranos Family Cookbook felt celebratory, even though there had been no special occasion attached, just another isolated Tuesday. Hopefully, just keeping the book propped up in my kitchen will inspire me—to paraphrase another mob classic—to leave the guilt, take the manicotti.
Originally Appeared on Vogue