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Desert Companion

The Hard 9

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Hard 9
Illustration by Delphine Lee

A cookbook group canceled by COVID becomes a tight-knit community of kitchen activists, using cookbooks to feed the community

I started our cookbook group at The Writer’s Block in 2019. Pre-Covid. When we could all hang out together in one room, breathing on each other, spooning dollops of each other’s home-cooked food onto our plates without concern. God, it seems like forever ago. We met once a month. We called ourselves Please Send Noodles, a name I shamelessly stole from my daughter’s friend’s TikTok. They still don’t know.

We made buttermilk fried chicken and oyster po’ boys from Toni Tipton Martin’s Jubilee, Hawaiian plate lunches with Alana Kysar’s Aloha Kitchen; Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat guided us toward tomato confit and herby, crunchy Persian rice, and we dabbled in Israeli and Middle Eastern flavors — think crispy fried lima beans with feta, sorrel, and sumac. We tasted each other’s food through successes and failures. Every dish was made with love, respect, and earnestness. But with just four cookbooks under our belts before the pandemic, we only knew each other on the surface. We still needed our name tags.

Then: COVID. I wondered whether we should keep getting together. Zoom felt awkward and not intimate in the early days. How would we cook together? How would we share food? We didn’t. As with most people in isolation, we adapted. My husband, David, made me — pretty much shamed me to — continue the group over Zoom. I’m sure I’ve told none of the group about that. I was afraid it wouldn’t work. That no one would want to hang out for hours online talking about cookbooks. But as people lost jobs, as less money flowed in, as the numbers of the sick and dead rocketed, there were fewer places to go, and there was simply more time to make connections, while we were severing most of them. Folks turned to things that comforted them — like long dog walks, waving at neighbors we never spoke to before, making our own kombucha (what were we thinking?), growing little garden patches on patios and backyards. While restaurants shuttered, we cooked simple meals for ourselves. Our pantries were stocked. Heirloom beans from Rancho Gordo and Zoom socials became a path to new normal.

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The Please Send Noodles gatherings went from 50 people attending a cookbook meet-up at a book shop, with food and booze, to the Hard 9 — the core and soul of our group — who meet bi-weekly on our computers. We bring our glass of whatever-the-hell-we-want and sit out on porches while the desert sun burns down behind us, and talk dosas, and the Jordanian triple cream feta at Aladdin market, and the near-miraculousness of Chinkiang vinegar. We don’t need name tags anymore, and we have little inside jokes, and a few more people joined us, and then left, and came back, and we just kept using our cookbooks and making dishes for our families.

And we laughed. It’s a gift to laugh with people during a pandemic. But we knew what was happening around us. Money was tight. We were all eating, budgeting, figuring it out, but we watched people in our communities falling off the edge. So, in June, we started planning 100 Dinners. Every last Saturday of the month, we cook 150-200 dinners for anyone who wants them, as a bridge meal, to get them over the last weekend before their benefits arrive.

We choose the menu together. We box up the food together. We put dinner after dinner into the trunks of cars that pull up, because it’s hard out there right now. And we learned some things — we know that Bethany makes the tastiest vegetarian and vegan food. And LeAnne, who went to culinary school, is severely bossy, which makes her the perfect expediter when we box up the food. Noreen is a beginning cook, who now cooks Ottolenghi-inspired meals and is making her own preserved lemons. That’s how we know each other now, by how we cook. No name tags needed.

The Hard 9 knows each other the way people do when they go through little wars together and emerge arm-in-arm, dusty and triumphant. We’ve come a long way from our first meetings at The Writer’s Block. When we go back to meeting there, we’ll be a different, tighter, more accomplished group of humans. We will be more in touch with the community around us, more naturally inclusive, and clearer that cooking for people matters.

 

PLEASE SEND NOODLES 

• Join the Facebook group for food discussions, recipes, food questions, and more.

• Upcoming Zoom sessions: November 9 and 23, December 7 and 21. More information on the Facebook page

• Upcoming cookbook: Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge by Grace Young, available at the Writer’s Block

• November excursion: SF market in Chinatown, date and time TBA on Facebook page

• 100 Dinners: open to all home cooks who wants to help others. Details on Please Send Noodles Facebook page

• Please Send Noodles will resume in-person meetings at the Writer’s Block, sixth and Carson, when it’s safe to eat and drink with each other again

 

 

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