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COVID-19 has created a society of adventurous chefs, with mixed and often hilarious results

Desperation yields both creativity and disaster. Fried dirt ball, anyone?

Brighton's Laura Horowitz tried to make a rainbow cake. She ended up with a toddler coated in food coloring.
Brighton's Laura Horowitz tried to make a rainbow cake. She ended up with a toddler coated in food coloring.Courtesy Photo

Was it hubris or hunger that led Winchester’s Steve Kleinedler to make pizza from Cheez-Its? Kleinedler, a 53-year-old who spent eight adult years without a functioning oven, now fancies himself a food innovator thanks to COVID-19.

“I always ate out, except for the occasional sandwich,” he says.

However, he found himself stockpiling Cheez-Its during quarantine, because why not, and he got creative. He arranged them in a rectangle; topped them with shredded cheese (he’s not sure what kind), hot peppers, and pepperoni; and popped them in the oven.

The result was gastronomic alchemy.

“It ended up being like a very crisp flatbread pizza,” he says. “But next time, I’ll brush them with olive oil first." Yes, there will be a next time.

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Of all the personality transformations that this pandemic has wrought, perhaps none is so poignant as the nouvelle culinarian.

A new home chef made a flatbread of sorts using Cheez-Its.
A new home chef made a flatbread of sorts using Cheez-Its.Handout

Boston University food anthropologist Merry White has lived through World War II and studied the Great Depression. Examining how other generations have endured seismic national disasters is instructive when predicting how we’ll react to this one: Will we become a country of victory gardeners and crock-pot-simmerers? Will we hoard milk? (Perhaps we already have.) And will our cooking habits permanently transform into something more innovative and resourceful? One thing is certain: We’ll be forever altered.

“That self-sufficiency is what we’re going to maybe remember. We’re taking care of ourselves,” White says. “It’s amazing what you can dredge up in memory. I physically remember where the ration stamps were kept, how my mother hoarded dried milk. These things almost became fetishized. What will we remember with pleasure or with regret if we go back to something called normal? Maybe being at home will look better; maybe the feeling of competence.”

There will also be stories handed down, she says; narratives around cooking and experimentation, of family dinners or of scarcity.

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“Now we try not to depress children and make them fearful, and sure, we don’t want them to be fearful. But, you know, I think there’s a way of telling kids now and in the future what’s been happening that will make them feel good about what you’ve done,” she says.

But, oh, what have we done? Consider Acton’s Karen Jarsky, looking for a way to keep her 15-year-old son occupied during lockdown. A deep fryer once reserved for latkes now provides hours of amusement, as the family has taken to crisping all manner of groceries.

“It was a pandemic-fueled thing: science meets food. It’s a good experiment,” she says. “With the quarantine, we have this corner with snacks stashed. We started pulling things out. We threw in a Pop-Tart. We threw in Uncrustables. We fried Brussels sprouts.”

Pop-Tarts were the “most surprising and best” item, Jarsky says. The family has since wrapped ice cream into Wonder bread (“the magic ingredient,” she reveals) and dunked it in the fryer, with tasty results. Her husband has kept a photo fry-diary.

“Frying does make things better,” she concedes.

Fried Pop-Tarts.
Fried Pop-Tarts.Handout

Not every kitchen experiment deserves immortality. Poor Josh Tammaro relocated to Connecticut to live with his parents during quarantine, far from Tahaza, his favorite lunch spot in Cambridge. Homesick, he attempted to make the restaurant’s falafel on his own, an endeavor he calls a ”hysterical disaster.”

He couldn’t find a food processor to puree his chickpeas, so he resorted to his parents’ blender with mangled blades. His sister then suggested trying a NutriBullet instead. But, as Tammaro learned the hard way, “a NutriBullet isn’t made for batches of falafel.”

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The family finally dusted off a never-before-used air fryer. The resulting concoction wasn’t quite Tahaza-worthy. In fact, it was inedible.

“It scared my family. It was like eating a fried dirt ball. It tasted like peanut butter or mud left out in the sun too long,” he says.

In Medford, meanwhile, Lori Mahoney tried to entice her toddler, Carter, with three-ingredient bagels. She envisioned a scene of domestic, Instagram-inspired bliss.

“I’ll be the best mom: fresh, puffy bagels for breakfast. A house that smells like bread. I’ll have my husband and toddler worshiping my existence. I’ll want to start a blog,” she says.

This is not how Mahoney’s story ends.

“They were dense, somehow squishy, like five-pound Mr. Clean Magic Erasers,” she says. “And they tasted like sour cheese.” She no longer plans to start a blog.

Brighton’s Laura Horowitz had the audacity to make a rainbow cake she’d seen online for her 5-year-old’s birthday.

“I have more time on my hands now. My kids are home. I try to find creative things to do,” says the mother of three. “I see it on all the mom blogs: Everyone makes rainbow cakes! It can’t be that hard.”

Oh, but it was. Her toddler found a stray Amazon box and climbed atop it while Horowitz was distracted by the complicated dessert. After removing the rainbow cake from the oven to cool, Horowitz spun around to find the tot coated in yellow food coloring, with yellow streaks splattered across the white-tiled kitchen floor. The cake tasted great, however.

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Back in Winchester, Kleinedler says the pandemic will improve his dining habits in the long term.

“I’ll eat at home far more than I used to,” he vows.

Or will he?

“I think we’ll respect our ability to do this, at least for a while,” says White, the anthropologist. “Then we’ll forget and go back to blind indulgence."


Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.