COVID Companions is a series of creative pieces featuring snippets of life during COVID-19, with a special focus on the other individuals or creatures who are keeping us company during quarantine, lockdown, ‘circuit breaker’, or whatever your equivalent might be. 

2 May 2020

It’s been 27 days and 18 shared meals since the circuit breaker/lockdown began in Singapore. 

Covid-19’s onset and the timely croak of our fridge’s last breath triggered some unexpected ripples in our household; propelling the sharing of resources, reorganisation of space and time, collective meals and the exchange of domestic labour, songs, ‘cold’ jokes and the quest for some pretty kickass family recipes. I’d like to think that we’re not alone in these shifts. These rapid changes in dynamics bring to mind the shared etymologies of the words ‘hospitality’ and ‘hostility’, a continuum we’re traveling within. Positions can change in the blink of an eye; the release of a chortle (!)  What does/can power look like? ‘Power over’ versus ‘collaborative forms of power’ (power to, power within, power with)~ Interestingly, the root word ‘hostis’ can be traced to Sanskrit’s ghásati – “consume.” The connection with food is undeniable and most certainly what my house has been obsessed with recently. The act of cooking/sharing/feeding has become a process of knowing, one’s beginnings and dreams.. a mode of survival, and more.

As I pressed on with decluttering my space, I found an old but forgotten love – Alexandra Stratou’s kick-starter funded book of Greek recipes, “Cooking to Share.” I bought this beauty when I visited Greece some years ago; it stood irresistible as the last copy on the book stand, and I remain grateful that I did not have to fight over it. One thing I love about the book was that it had these tiny folded illustrated mini-notes, snuck into specific pages, so that you’d encounter a wise whisper when you thumb a recipe which called upon you.

Today, it was Spinach Pie. I have no oven, but one can always improvise.

“The Power of Community – If one person draws enough dots next to each other and close enough on a piece of paper, the dots will converge to form a line. If many people each draw a dot close enough to someone else’s dot they will create a line as well. It is the intention that counts; no one knows the outcome but all share the intention of creating a line; whether one, or many. Sometimes we need help to draw a line and call out to no avail. But sometimes, our call meets somebody’s ears and then travels to another’s and another’s and a line starts forming and the momentum increases, and soon the dots start getting closer and closer. 

I called out. Others called out for me too.” 

– Alexandra Stratou

Bizarrely, barely a week shy of Singapore’s circuit-breaker, our realities were much less in sync. A generic sense of mystery about each other’s lives pervaded our shared space. Polite smiles, respectful distances; myopia-induced nonchalance in the morning scramble to work. Privacy was prized. 

And what a place we’ve found ourselves in now.

Two weeks on. 

By now, the domestic duty of providing a decent meal has been sliced neatly like pie. There’s enough to go around; and those who draw the short end of the stick are gifted additional meals to prepare for everyone else in the household. 

Why accept this invitation to share? What if we want different things? 

Would it be worth it?

This seemingly transactional process of splitting chores, meal costs and feeding hungry mouths, comes with a profusion of considerations for the humble host. First off, what to cook? For some of us under this roof, facing an audience from different cultures immediately drove home anxieties about acceptance, competence and desirability. What would satisfy different palettes while bridging connections through the tease of new flavours from a distant land? What if my cradled taste preferences are questioned and unwillingly calibrated in favour of the majority? What kind of dormant family bonds might become reignited during this quest for connection, away from home?

Handmade dough painstakingly handled with miniature tools.
 Handmade dough painstakingly handled with miniature tools.

“I remember my father would always make these hand-made noodles when I was a child. I never could find such noodles in Singapore. It was so common to be able to buy handmade noodles on the street or shops in my country. Almost every family had a noodle-making machine. We would all make our own dough.”

“I don’t think my father and I had as long a conversation in person as this Facetime call we had over his sour fish head soup recipe. In our hometown, seafood is key. He was so concerned that I got this right.”

“This feels like an odd family.”

Subjectively-rated and debated dishes. 30 meals and counting.

Secondly, time. How was one to juggle remote working schedules and the newly assigned responsibility of feeding others. Running solo meant full autonomy to skip steps, hack recipes, indulge and lavish in extremes, start late, even shrug and change your mind at the last minute; plot your own course and proudly live with the non-consequences. Preparing for others, in particular the newly acquainted, almost involves devotion. Planning ahead. Accountability. Presentation. And dare I say, laced with a tinge of self-flagellation when ambitions fail. This collective participation in sharing domestic labour and making time, has also resulted in surprising revelations. About each other and oneself.

“You know, I always thought that I was doing you a favour by asking you to cook. I thought it was your hobby! Now that I’m cooking for others for the first time, I realise that I can actually do it.”

“I’ve learnt about each other’s personalities. Secrets.”

“You can no longer walk past me in silence.”

A handwritten recipe digitally forwarded from my housemate’s mother upon
request for family recipes.

A final musing, on space. The physical transformation of a space, no matter how small, undoubtedly triggers the butterfly effect. Our household’s current rhythms were attuned over the recent weeks, punctuated with purges and convergences of goods. Morning beams bounce off surfaces differently now. More than conviviality fills gaps between glances. I recognise its form – a sort of collective willing into being. 

We’ve been initiated, once more.

“I want to eat here now.”