Spring had arrived and everyone was stuck inside, including Alisa Kushner, who was cooking dinner with her boyfriend when she got the idea.
She turned to Peter: I think I’m going to start a photo album and call it eating through the pandemic.
“I said it as sort of a joke,” Kushner said last week. “But I thought it might be fun to share recipes and sort of commiserate.”
Kushner had grown up cooking, part of Lincoln’s Latvian community where all the moms and grandmas gathered in kitchens stuffing piragies, baking bread, making sauerkraut and adding dill to every dish.
Now everyone was home cooking.
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants were reeling like the rest of us, attempting to up their take-out games without knowing all the rules.
So people who loved to cook cooked more. And people who were forced to cook went looking for advice and ideas and for places to post their artful photos of food, an obsession that long predates the pandemic.
Kushner woke up after that meal of salmon and herbed pasta salad with kale and asparagus and buttered baguette in late March and posted pictures of the meal on her Facebook page.
She shared her idea, too. People liked it.
“I would have been happy if 80 of my friends would have joined. I think we had 80 members in an hour.”
Two months later, Eating Through the Pandemic counts 7,561 members from 64 countries.
The majority of them live in Nebraska, said Brenden Evans, a data guy who helps Kushner administer the page and whose first post featured deviled eggs.
But the foodies are spread far and wide — from Saudi Arabia to Scotland — and showing off everything from pan-seared scallops with lemon caper pasta to boiled hot dogs with carrot sticks dipped in ranch dressing.
“It’s fun to see things trend all at the same time,” Evans said. “A movement of meatloaf or French onion soup.”
For a while, people were all making Runzas. Right now, Dutch oven baby pancakes — just what they sound like — are popping up everywhere. (Cake, cheese, chicken and potatoes are currently in competition for the most popular food types, according to Evans’ most recent word cloud.)
It’s been wild — and fun — watching the group grow and evolve, said Kushner, who is working from home for her day job at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and delivering crowlers in the evening for her part-time job at Boiler Brewing Company.
“I think it probably blew up because so many people find comfort in food.”
Angie Alesio does. The Lincoln woman loves to cook and joined the group right away. Her husband and daughter have food allergies, she said, so she scours recipes looking for ways to adapt them.
And she shares her own family’s meals — everything from Sheboygan sausages to homemade peppermint ice cream to bowls of her son’s favorite snack, popcorn.
“I’m one of the high-volume posters.”
For her, the page is about more than showing off supper. It’s people using their grandma’s napkins, setting the table with flowers. “Making their plates look pretty.”
People offering suggestions.
Praising the cook.
Asking for recipes.
Leon’s awarded a gift card to member No. 6,000. Habitat did the same for member No. 7,000. There’s a spot for local restaurants to post specials and menus, too.
It’s a community, Alesio said. Meat-eaters, vegetarians, vegans, gourmets, frozen food heater-uppers.
Jeff Kohl is a part of it all from home in Scotland, sharing photos of crispy pan-fried tortellini, salt-and-pepper chicken, chocolate-bacon-banana cupcakes and his signature cocktails with far-away fellow cooks.
“I love looking at other people’s food, love throwing some likes and loves around and asking some questions,” Kohl said.
The tattoo artist who grew up in Lincoln has more time to cook since he can’t work right now.
“It’s kind of my creative outlet.”
Food art. Food tips. Food, food, food.
Kushner has heard from health care workers who come home after a long day and scroll through the page as a way to relax.
“Something that’s not news-oriented and pandemic-oriented.”
She’s heard from people who like the camaraderie.
“What touched me the most the first week were friends who were quarantining alone and were so glad to not be eating alone.”
Some members call what happens on the page: “Breaking bread together.”
Kushner still posts food photos — dinner made with fresh produce from Robinette Farms or the plates of nachos that have become her family’s pandemic staple.
She’s in charge of the weekly Eating Through the Pandemic Iron Chef competition.
Two ingredients, picked by the previous week’s winner. Whoever makes the best meal — subjectively speaking — wins.
Last week’s contest featured potatoes and pickles, with Kushner announcing the rules and allowing for substitutions with the pandemic’s grip in mind.
She wished all 7,651 cooks well — wherever they might be.
And she ended the post the same way she always does.
"So now World, with an open heart and empty stomach, I say unto you in the words of my grandmother: edisim! Let's eat!"