One Man’s Pandemic Story

For nearly three years John Achatz would slip out of his Cambridge office at noon to pick up a bowl of nourishing homemade soup at nearby Second Street Café which, according to its website, is the greatest little lunch spot in all the world.

But then the pandemic hit and for the first time since his collegiate days Achatz, an attorney and civic leader, found himself working from his home on Beacon Hill. And that meant having lunch at home, too. Oh, how he missed the Café’s bowls of tasty, comforting soup at a time when, one might surmise, he needed them most. So he decided he had no other choice than to make soup himself.

Admittedly he did not know how to make soup. So he learned. Soon the aroma of vegetables simmering on the stove permeated the air as he cooked up big batches of flavorful soups for himself and his wife Mary Farrell. He decided he would set a goal for himself: He would make a different soup each week throughout the pandemic.

Needless to say that goal required many more soup recipes. Having heard on news reports about people cooking more or cooking less or cooking differently during the pandemic, he reached out to a few friends and relatives, asking them to send a recipe or two that they associated with the pandemic. He set no limits. They could be recipes tried out for the first time or ones treasured for a long time. Or convenience food. Or desperation food. Anything they associated with the stay-at-home year would be exactly right. And then he would collate all the recipes he received and share the collection with the contributors.

“I had no idea what would happen when I emailed the request,” said Achatz. “Their responses exceeded my expectations. We got really great recipes for soups and for even more – chicken, beef, seafood, vegetable dishes and even sweets to end the meal with.” So Achatz and Farrell put them together along with two of his own into a 66-page booklet they called Recipes of a Pandemic Year.

The cookbook, however, is far more than a collection of recipes. It is a reflection of a diverse community of everyday cooks brought together through the sharing of recipes. In the margins adjacent to each recipe are personal comments made by the contributors. There is a Cherry Soup recipe, for example, that was submitted by an Illinois friend who said the recipe was from his German immigrant grandfather who years ago grew cherry trees in his back yard. This friend’s parents and he too planted trees in their own yards and, as a child, “I risked injury while harvesting gallons of cherries from my parents’ tree that grew higher than the house.”      

An ‘Ultimate Chicken Noodle Soup’ recipe was submitted by a cousin who first made it for a family who suffered from Covid. A ‘No Recipe Soup’ comprising whatever is left in the refrigerator was recommended for Sundays, and a ‘Roasted Tomato Soup’ recipe came from a gardener who produced an over-abundance of plum tomatoes. A recipe for ‘Honeyed Fig and Walnut Galette’ was submitted by a family who harvest an ample supply of figs every August from the tree in their front yard.  Another friend sent ‘Aunt Mary’s Butterhorn’ recipe for rolls that are always included in her family’s Thanksgiving celebrations.

And there is a recipe for the official ‘US Senate Bean Soup’ contributed by Achatz himself who promised that he would make it and deliver it to anyone who wanted it if the Democrats won a Senate majority. (They finally won. He made it and delivered it to those who asked.)

Light heartedness prevails throughout the collection. One contributor called her recipe ‘Whole Foods Delivery’ (chocolate decadence cake, grilled salmon, almond butter and raspberry preserves) “that keeps me happy and brings out the five-year-old in me.” Another friend named her recipe ‘Pandemic Dinner’ which involves a pairing of popcorn microwaved 2 minutes and 48 seconds with Netflix. (She flatly denied watching Schitt’s Creek while dining.)

Because no recipe collection during a stay-at-home year would be complete without it, the recipe book includes all one ever needs to know about sour dough. “I was late to the pandemic sourdough craze,” said the contributor. “I have a long history of short relationships with precious starters from family and friends. I tended toward inconsistency with my attention… but now not a day goes by when I am not feeding the starter, baking the dough or enjoying the results.”

“The recipes are wonderful, and the comments are markers of both what we experienced in common during the pandemic year and what we experienced separately in this stay-at-home time,” said Achatz. Cooking meals he and Farrell would never have made and remembering the people who sent the recipes brings joy to them several times a week, he said. “We received way more in many dimensions than we expected.”

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