Cooking builds bonds in pandemic

Kevin Riordan
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — It took a nightmare to make Ellen Zinn’s longtime dream of publishing a cookbook a reality. But “Pots & Pandemic” is not only a collection of recipes; it’s also a memento of a strange and scary year in which making and sharing comfort food has become a new kind of essential work.

Subtitled “Cooking in Quarantine,” the book includes 125 recipes from 75 contributors. Most were submitted by South Jersey home cooks, although out-of-state friends and relatives, as well as local restaurants and food stores, also participated. The book offers concise, straightforward instructions for preparing traditional and contemporary American, European, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean starters, soups, salads, sides, breads, main dishes and desserts.

Oh, those desserts: They roam whole realms of lusciousness, from the familiar (coconut cream pie) to the fanciful (peanut butter lasagna) to the fabulous (cheesecake-stuffed cookies); from Bubbe’s Chocolate Meringues to Grandma Jackie’s Fruitcake to hummingbird cake. That’s a confection best known in the South; simply skimming its ingredients should be enough to inspire any sweet tooth, regardless of geography.

Fundraiser: “Our dessert chapter is called ‘Fattening the Curve’ and it’s longer than any other chapter,” said Marsha Seader, who along with Zinn served as the cookbook’s “executive chefs.” They and other volunteers (“sous chefs”) created “Pots & Pandemic” as a fundraising project for Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Some of the proceeds also are earmarked for the Betsy & Peter Fischer Food Pantries of the Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Southern New Jersey.

Seader and Zinn said the eight-month effort to compile, edit, illustrate and arrange for professional printing and production of “Pots and Pandemic” by Morris Press Cookbooks helped anchor the early days of being in lockdown at home. Cooks found themselves using and tweaking beloved old recipes; people who usually didn’t cook found themselves falling in love with it. And the project also was something of a family affair, with Seader’s daughter Stephanie Zinn, who’s married to Ellen Zinn’s son, Andrew, playing a key role.

“It was just such a joy to have both my mom and my mother-in-law jump in with both feet and take on this huge endeavor – and perform such a service for the synagogue,” said Stephanie Zinn, a 46-year-old former teacher, now a “professional volunteer” who also serves as M’kor’s vice president.

Early in the pandemic, “when you couldn’t find flour and you couldn’t find anything, all of us were almost obsessed with cooking and baking,” said her mother, 74, a retired job coach whose recipes for sourdough bread and Armenian Wedding Cookies are in “Pots & Pandemic.”

“I am an accomplished home cook. But the only way I was going to do this book was if Marsha were involved.”

Said Seader, 71, a retired event planner: “I’m a very organized person, and Ellen is very good at recruiting restaurants, and Stephanie knows everybody at the temple. So we all kind of took our part and ran with it.”

Foodies in the M’kor community and beyond submitted recipes for venerable Jewish dishes (Mom’s Potato Latkes), vegetarian or otherwise updated versions of traditional fare (Veggie Chopped Liver), and creative feats of fusion such as Tortilla Stew and Eggplant Parmesan for Crock Pot.

A handful of submissions were “bizarre,” said Seader, whose contributions to the book include noodle pudding, honey mustard chicken, and mango lemonade. She declined to provide details about the more unusual submissions, but did say one “was so extremely long and involved that I took one look at it and thought, ‘I am never making this.’”

Said Ellen Zinn: “Some people sent in recipes that didn’t have measurements 1 / 8of ingredients3 / 8. Others I had to contact and ask, ‘You said to use chicken cutlets, but is it two or 12?’”

The executive chefs also asked contributors to include a vignette with their recipes. One of several who did so was Mark Wolkoff, a retired lawyer in Marlton, New Jersey whose wife, Sherry, is one of the book’s sous chefs. She contributed recipes for goodies such as Mama Mona’s Chocolate Mousse; her husband’s contributions include pickled cucumbers, cream of mushroom soup, and chicken sausage and peppers. Talk about comfort food.

“After the pandemic started I took up a lot more of the cooking,” Wolkoff said. “Our daughter Lauren lives in D.C. and sent me a pickling recipe. I got into that. Although I’m from New York and always did love sour pickles, this is a new thing, and when I’m pickling onions and cucumbers or put the jars out on the table it’s a connection with our daughter.”

In sharing her Romanian-born mother’s recipe for Sweet & Sour Stuffed Cabbage in Soup, Zinn recalled the first time she made it as a young, newly married woman. She tasted it, something seemed to be missing, and it turned out her mother had forgotten to include the recipe’s final step: Put the soup in the oven for two hours.

“It’s the perfect dish to make in quarantine,” Zinn wrote in the book. “Too many ingredients, too much time, great memories.”

The adage on the cookbook’s back cover – you’re never alone in the kitchen – has become especially true during the pandemic. Home cooks would drop off a hot dish or a loaf of fresh-baked bread for neighbors who live alone; volunteers made meals for essential workers at the synagogue. And are bonds have been strengthened as well.

“When I was using someone else’s recipe, I was bringing them, their essence, into my kitchen,” said Stephanie Zinn, whose recipes in the book include ground beef and broccoli. “Sometimes I text them while I’m cooking, and I feel I’m getting to know them. It’s awesome.”