Since I left the East Coast, I’ve never missed a summer visit home to see my family in Jersey. Whenever I was in town, we’d stay up late nights reminiscing. I’d drag them down the shore for a beach day. I’d indulge my nieces and nephews like a good auntie is supposed to. This annual visit reminded me that Jersey would always be there, family was just a short flight away, and home is where the heart is (it’s a cliché for a reason, y’all). But last year, I ain’t go nowhere, and I was missing my folks.
My family and I—like everyone else across the country—were spread far and wide and on lockdown. In late March/ early April of 2020 when the writing was on every wall and Zoom was becoming as ubiquitous as, well, Facebook, the fam and I had already started to check in with each other more often via group text.
What are the new case numbers in your city?
Are folks in your state acting right?
How are y’all holding up with all this Covid mess?
Since a couple of us are educators and had already started pivoting toward remote learning, I suggested we start a weekend family video chat. Then, my parents suggested that we do it weekly. Every Saturday. At noon. Every. Saturday.
We’d hop on, catch up, talk about whatever. It was awkward at first because none of us had spent that much time together since we lived under the same roof. But who knew when we’d be able to get together again? So, we kept it going. Every Saturday – pretty much through the end of the year and beyond – we’d log on for an hour, maybe more (okay, more, some of us are talkers).
The early conversations were preoccupied with pandemic talk, but soon we got into a groove. Siblings teased each other. My parents retold some of their favorite stories. My uncle (the former DJ) found ways to work a rhyme or song lyric into nearly every conversation and response. And as the verzuz battles picked up, we’d catalog and debate our own hypothetical matches. The more tech savvy among us sharing links and recaps with the ones who either couldn’t work the Instagram or refused to be so bothered.
The conversations got easier. We found our rhythm. Topics ebbed and flowed. Folks hopped on late or left early. But none of that mattered. What mattered was the intention and the connection—the I’m here and I got you.
By the time the holidays rolled around, we’d accepted that nobody would be going to see anybody. My sibs and I started to brainstorm how we could celebrate separately but still feel together. What could we do that would include the elders, the littles, and all of us in between? (TBH, the nieces and nephews would show their faces on screen from time to time, for the respectful and requisite ‘hello’, but they were otherwise generally unconcerned with grown-up talk.) We needed something accessible, fun, creative, and with a low time commitment.
What we came up with from our brainstorm (and a lot of binge-watching of competition cooking shows) was a family food throwdown of sorts: Everybody agrees on a dish, everybody makes that dish on their own — or their interpretation of it, and everybody presents and tastes the dish live before our small virtual audience. (That way, even if you tried to play it off like your dish was delicious, we could see in your face if you was lying.) The dish we all agreed on? Lasagna. The time? A Saturday between Thanksgiving and Christmas. And so several households — from north to south Jersey to Chicago to Kansas City — got to work interpreting and preparing with gusto.
Some of us followed recipes to the letter. Some of us threw caution to the wind. We had cheddar cheeses instead of mozzarella and eggplant strips instead of lasagna noodles. There was even a mention of barbeque sauce (I ain’t naming names, but that wasn’t me). Some of us were ready for plating and tasting soon as we got on the next call, and some folks who didn’t manage their time well were just getting their ingredients together. (Me. I’m folks.) (Stop judging.) In the end, we had several different lasagnas, sinks full of dishes, and more fun than any of us expected.
This holiday season, even though people are back to getting on planes, me and mine will probably be staying put. The family’s not meeting every Saturday at noon anymore. (C’mon now, we kept that up for almost a year and a half—we had a good run.) But as Thanksgiving rolls around, I think I’d like to revive our family food throwdown. Pick a new dish, choose a new day, and gather together again. To be as far apart and as close as we’ve ever been.
What coping, pivoting or problem solving did y’all stumble upon when we were really in the thick of it last year? Any pleasant surprises you want to share? Any new traditions you’re going to carry with you going forward?