man cooking on zoom with family

Cooking on Zoom Helps My Family Cope With Grief

My aunt died in January. To honor her, my family is making her most popular recipes together, but virtually.
Ashwin Rodrigues
Brooklyn, United States
August 3, 2020, 11:00am

Everyone has a different starting point for when this year went south. Some might look to the day their favorite sports league canceled its upcoming season. Others might remember the day their employer sent them to work from home indefinitely, which for VICE employees, was March 9. It’s nearly universal that people half-jokingly pinpoint a moment in 2020 that the world started ending, and everything changed irreversibly.

My starting point came a little earlier than that, on January 31, 2020, the day my aunt Jeanette died suddenly in her home in Sugarland, Texas. A central part of our family's world ended that day. Her death feels like the only thing to happen this year besides Black Lives Matter protests and a pandemic that, so far, has resulted in over 155,700 deaths in the U.S.

On March 1, I found myself at SFO around 10 p.m., waiting to board a flight back to New York after attending my aunt’s memorial service in the Bay Area, a small gathering at a restaurant in Oakland for family and friends who weren’t able to attend the funeral in Texas. The TV at our gate was tuned into CNN, and the chyron said something about a virus. I didn't pay it much attention, and then I sat in my middle seat and passed out, mouth agape, for the majority of the redeye. In retrospect, this seems like extremely risky behavior; If I had known what I know now, I would have worn a mask and paid extra not to sit in the middle seat.

Jeanette was a matriarchal figure in our family, a successful small business owner, teacher, and a licensed professional counselor. Her faith was extremely important to her, and she always took pride in her family and friends, continuously stressing the importance of staying in contact, even if you weren’t physically together. This was a challenge for a family that originated in India but then scattered across the United States.

She was also an excellent cook. In the 90s, along with her sister, Annabelle, she opened a successful deli-bistro in California called Amelia's. The deli introduced Indian ingredients like tandoori chicken and chutney to Bay Area staples like Dutch Crunch bread. At the time, these were more radical concepts than they are now. But even then, tech workers flooded in to enjoy them before heading back to their large beige computers. (The first Amelia's was near a Sun Microsystems office.)

On the few occasions I visited Amelia's as a kid, the order would always go the same way. I'd ask for a BLT, and my Aunty Jeanette would suggest I try something less boring. There were great options, she'd tell me, like the tandoori chicken or salted tongue sandwich. I'd refuse and get a BLT anyway,  taking some comfort in knowing my little sister would order a "BLT without bacon."

My palate became more adventurous later on. On any trip to visit Jeanette, we could return on a plane with an immaculately packed beef tongue sandwich, if requested. Her banana bread was so good and treasured in our family, a valuable commodity wrapped in a tin foil brick, that I became confused later on when I found other people treated this delicacy as a way to salvage bad bananas.

Shortly after the funeral, Jeanette's husband, Sri, spun up a WhatsApp group to ensure our family stayed close as we returned to our various corners of the world. Eventually, we began to have weekly Sunday Zoom calls. At first, these calls were an extension of her memorial. We shared our favorite stories and made tentative plans of when we'd get together again—plans that have since been rescheduled because of COVID constraints.

Then we pivoted our calls to jointly prepare some of her most popular recipes, brainstorming in our WhatsApp group what to cook the following Sunday. My uncle John would share a recipe with a veg and non-veg option, and everyone would log into the call on Sunday, with their mise en place, ready to cook. The weekly call is now complete with a Spotify playlist and cocktail pairing. We are also currently in the process of collecting Jeanette's recipes to make a cookbook that will also double as a memorial for her; there are the hits from Amelia's Deli, such as the Dutch Crunch bread and tandoori chicken; Indian classics like chana masala and shrimp curry; and miscellaneous hits like her American chop suey. One must-make dish that we have not collectively conquered is sorpotel; the simmered pork masala is a top-tier breakfast dish alongside a fried egg and fresh roll, and it was one of Jeanette's most requested dishes.

Our family is like a closed-circuit Indian Food Channel, one that I can directly relate to much more than any recent Indian reality show on Netflix. Together we prepare other family favorite dishes, like potato chops, a dish my late grandmother (Jeanette's mother) made from mashed potato cutlets stuffed with minced beef (or vegetables.) This prep-intensive dish, that many of us avoided for its inconvenience, we now did with intent, even happiness.

The weekly cooking meetings, attended by family in California, Washington, Texas, D.C., Indiana, Connecticut, New York, and Mumbai, are a way to connect with a purpose. The discussion varies, from the week's national news and the local happenings in our respective neighborhoods. We celebrate recent birthdays, and the babies on the call will beam into the camera, or growl like a tiger, or even assist with food preparation.

The process of putting together such a book is much more complicated than I'd imagined: from sorting through dozens of recipes, using a combination of shared drives, documents, and spreadsheets; thinking through the physical layout of each page, and finding a supplier to print an actual book. How do you organize the recipes? Who will cook what? Does everyone have a phone capable of good food photography? How widely do we share such a book? There's an instinct to keep at least some recipes within our circle, but I'm not sure if we're all on board there. I'll have to bring it up on a future call.

In the absence of being able to physically see most of my family, these messages and Zoom calls provide some sense of closeness and purpose.

I look forward to our Sunday cooking sessions, which provide a sense of closeness in the absence of being able to physically see each other. The weekly Zoom is the one constant and recurring event that I can count on, knowing I will enjoy it, and that there will be a delicious result on the other side. When I've been able to share a Sunday dish with a friend, or another family member, there’s a real feeling that we're honoring Jeanette. Her chutney was a hit with my girlfriend's mom, and a friend enjoyed the potato chops at a socially distant park hangout in Brooklyn.

I don't endorse using Zoom, it's simply the path of least resistance to get on the horn with a dozen or so family members. It’s one of the cases where I throw up my hands and let the riptide of convenience pull me into an ocean of compromised privacy. My dad, who is Jeanette's younger brother, told me he was sad that we had not done these Zoom cooking sessions when Jeanette was alive, as it was the exact type of thing she'd love to be part of. She loved cooking, being organized, and chatting with our family, and this activity requires all three.

My aunt meant a lot to me, but there are other people in my family for which this loss is indescribably much worse, and it’s something that feels callous to say, but weird to omit. My dad spoke to her nearly every night on his drive home from work; the loss her husband and two children feel is one I can't know. But my aunt made it a point to tell us all repeatedly how important it was to be together, and how much she enjoyed it when we were together. If I was taking a trip to visit her daughter in the Bay or her son in Seattle, she'd say how happy we were going to be together, even when she was not going to be there herself. And I'd joke that I felt like I was getting credit for doing something I wanted to do already. And as I look forward to next Sunday, there is a small joy in knowing she'd be happy we're cooking together.