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Times Like These... With New York Times Food Columnist And Author Alison Roman

Times Like These

New York-based cook and writer Alison Roman was supposed to be in Australia right now. I was scheduled to interview her last week about her new cookbook, Nothing Fancy, the follow up to her wildly successful first book, Dining In. I’d even planned out the title for the final article already – ‘There’s Something Special About Nothing Fancy’.

But as we spoke over the phone last week, me in my dining room-slash-home-office in Melbourne, and her in upstate New York, the fact that only two weeks ago we were planning an in-person interview seemed completely ludicrous. Such are the strange times of COVID-19.

30th March, 2020

Spread from Alison Roman’s new cookbook Nothing Fancy, published in Australia by Hardie Grant and available now. Photo –Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott

New York Times bestselling author Alison Roman. Photo –Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott

Photo –Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott

Alison Roman’s new cookbook Nothing Fancy, published in Australia by Hardie Grant and available now. Photo –Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott

Photo –Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott

Photo –Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott

Left: some photos from ‘the commune’ with Alison’s self-isolation partners! Right: An image from ‘Nothing Fancy’. Photo –Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott

Photo –Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott

Sally Tabart
Monday 30th March 2020

‘People are more tense and edgy in one way, but more tender and vulnerable and open in another.’ Alison Roman.

Alison Roman is a food columnist for The New York Times, and a contributor to Bon Appetit, who is beloved for her casual, just-throw-it-together approach to cooking.

I hadn’t even made any of Alison’s recipes before kind of falling in love with her. Visiting her Instagram or reading her cookbooks feels like dropping by a friend’s house, and being invited to share the dinner or lunch or breakfast they were already making (but your friend also happens to be an incredible chef and best-selling cookbook author). It’s Nothing Fancy. But it is something special. Thanks for letting me repurpose that title.

So many people were disappointed when Alison’s trip to Australia was cancelled – she’s amassed quite the cult following here – but I feel so grateful to have had this conversation with her about how life has changed for her lately.  Instead of the chat we likely would have had – one sandwiched between dozens of others I’m sure she had scheduled for her book tour – I spoke to Alison about feeling all the feelings, finding the motivation to work, and (of course) cooking as a tool for connection.

Hey Alison! How are you feeling today?

Today I’m good, yesterday I wasn’t so good. It’s a day-by-day situation for sure. I think the mentality of truly taking it one day at a time and allowing yourself to not feel good when you don’t feel good, and not feel inspired when you don’t feel inspired, is key to surviving this.

Totally. What’s the vibe like in New York?

I’m actually upstate in Hudson right now. I had gotten a house sitter for my apartment in New York because I was supposed to be in Australia. So I decided to get out of town for what I thought would be a week or so, and then as things progressed it kind of became like, oh shit, this might actually be a longer term living situation.

The vibe in Hudson in mellow. People are staying home, there’s no sense of panic necessarily but it’s definitely eerily quiet.

So you were supposed to be in Australia right now, I imagine you’ve got a lot of time on your hands at the moment now that’s obviously not happening. What are your days looking like?

I’m finishing up some stories for the New York Times, and trying to work on a book proposal. Well, I say I’m working on it, but it’s on my To Do list, I haven’t actually started it yet. But it’s on the docket.

Right now I’m just trying to finish this Passover article that I basically had to rewrite, because we kind of have to rethink and redo all the stuff we’ve been writing about to be sensitive and mindful of the situation at hand.

It’s the same for us, it’s been pretty crazy having to completely rethink our content for the next few months because nothing we had planned is relevant anymore. Are you finding yourself inspired or creative?

It’s a true ebb and flow, you know? I’m staying with two of my dear friends, and we all cook and talk about food, and being around them has helped me stay considerate and mindful. We’re all trying to figure out how we can all help people during this time. It’s nice to have that.

But there are times I sit in front of my computer and I stare at a blank word document and I just refresh Twitter repeatedly because that’s all I have the energy for. I feel a bit defeated, like what’s the point of writing any of this stuff? Which isn’t really the spirit.

It kind of is the spirit right now.

Yeah. There’s also a real insatiable appetite for people going live on Instagram and answering questions, being there for the general public, fielding troubleshooting tips and being a resource to people. But also if I do that then I’m not writing or doing other things, and it’s a fine line between how can I be helpful and how can I preserve an ounce of my own space, and not feel like I’m pedaling myself. I don’t want to be like, self-promoting.

I feel like watching people cook has always been very soothing, so I’m sure that a lot of people are turning to you for comfort in a way. What are you doing to feel comforted and normal?

Cooking! It’s just something that I really enjoy doing – even though I do it for work, it’s still enjoyable to me not doing it for work.

Something that’s been hard to watch is the decline of the restaurant and hospitality industry. It’s the lifeblood of cities like Melbourne and New York. What do you think it’s going to look like after this?

I don’t know. It’s really sad. I think the ones that have a lot of money behind them will figure out a way to survive, but I think that for the most part the whole landscape has changed. It’s going to continue to change because they don’t have any infrastructure in place to protect them against something like this happening.

The whole industry is so precarious, I don’t think people realise that if a restaurant doesn’t do well three months in a row then they’re going to close. There’s not a tonne of safety for small businesses in general, but the margins for restaurants especially are so, so small that every bit counts. Especially in cities like New York, Melbourne, San Francisco, London, where the rent is insanely high and you just can’t afford to stay open.

I was listening to a podcast you did with Hilary Kerr on Second Life where you said something that really resonated with me – ‘I genuinely appreciate the bad because it means I can feel the good’. I know that was pre-COVID-19, but are you still able to feel that? What good are you taking from this time?

I still maintain that. I’m staying with my friends, and I’m spending time with them that I don’t normally get to. We’re really taking our time cooking and taking care of each other, and everybody’s being really considerate in a way that we usually try to be, but it feels extra nice. I’m FaceTiming with people that I haven’t spoken to in a long time, which is awesome. I’ve spoken with my family more than I have probably ever in the 16 or so years I’ve lived away from home.

People are more tense and edgy in one way, but more tender and vulnerable and open in another. I think that’s a real sign of progress when we’re able to be more honest and open with each other, and kind of level with one another when things aren’t going well. Because we were spending so much of our time being like, ‘Everything’s great! This is my life! This is so cool!’ and I think we’re being forced to come down and admit that things aren’t.

I can’t help feeling like there is some sort of prophetic energy that counters this #blessed life we were starting to feel was inauthentic, and now we’ve been confronted with this total authenticity that you can’t escape from. I feel good about that stuff too. You said your quarantine group has been cooking for each other, what have you been making?

We’re pretty much really going for it every night! We did steak night, baked potato night, fried chicken night, we had leftovers night, last night we took a break and did a vegan vegetable soup with mushrooms and noodles and broth. Tonight Amiel is making Chile Colorado, which is probably very American. Lauren’s making rice and I’m making beans. So it’s a real family affair. It kind of feels like we’re living in a commune.

What is the biggest challenge for you personally right now?

I would say trying to stay focused, which is something that I struggle with anyway. But also purposeful, because it feels a little bit defeatist to be like, ‘Is this the most important thing? Does anybody care? Will this matter?’ when you’re trying to plan anything more than a week in advance because everything’s changing so quickly.

And just staying motivated with regards to work. The three of us in this house have kind of unconventional jobs and schedules anyway so we work from home a lot. Self-motivating is the name of the game. But now it just feels more intense.

What are people making from ‘Nothing Fancy’ right now?

Everything, it’s crazy. Stuff that they weren’t making before, that’s for sure. People have time on their hands and they are just making it all.

What are you hopeful for?

I’m hopeful that this is going to repair the planet. I’m hopeful that we’re going to emerge from this a lot more compassionate to one another, and excited to actually be with each other once we can. I hope that it ushers in a new era of how people treat and communicate with each other, and value actual human connection. And like, going outside and going to the store and taking pleasure in things that we aren’t able to do right now.

I just hope that it restores a bit more gratitude for the boring, everyday stuff that we can no longer participate in.

Are you Listening to, watching or reading anything good right now?

I’m not a podcast person. I brought five books to my friend’s place and I haven’t read one of them! We’re watching old movies that are reliable and not going to make us sad.

Nothing that involves dogs dying or anything.  

No. No dead animals, no romantic comedies that make me wish that I had a boyfriend.

The commune sounds pretty great though.

The commune is great. But I can’t wait to have sex with a person once this is over.

Nothing Fancy is the second cookbook from New York Times bestselling author Alison Roman. Find it here and keep up with Alison via her Instagram!

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