Sheltering: Phyllis Grant is Cooking Her Way Through Quarantine
The Author of Everything is Under Control Talks to Maris Kreizman
On this episode of Sheltering, Maris Kreizman speaks with Phyllis Grant about her new cookbook/memoir, Everything is Under Control, which uses recipes and meals to guide and document her and her family’s life. Grant talks about the recipes that are remaining constant even in this time (tomato sauces, tarts, salads, etc), and adjusting to the new normal. Grant’s favorite local bookstore is Mrs. Dalloways; please purchase Everything is Under Control through their website or through Bookshop.
From the episode:
Maris Kreizman: Welcome to Sheltering. I’m Maris Kreizman. I’m so delighted to be joined today by Phyllis Grant. Welcome!
Phyllis Grant: Thank you so much for having me, Maris. I appreciate it.
Maris: Oh, what a pleasure. Will you please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about how you’re doing?
Phyllis: Well, my name is Phyllis, and I live in Berkeley. The weather is beautiful this week, which has helped. I guess we’re at week six now of sheltering in place, so getting outside a little bit has certainly helped my state of mind. You’re in New York, right?
Maris: Yeah, I’m in Brooklyn. On really nice days, it’s a little more dangerous to go outside, I think.
Phyllis: So many people, right? Same thing here. I tried to take a walk the other day with my mask on, went out with the dog, and I just felt like I could barely move. But I am doing better. It’s nice to have my book out; it came out last week. Here it is, Everything Is Under Control [holds up copy]. It’s a feeling of relief, actually, because it’s been many years in the writing and rewriting. Quite an adventure. It’s been fun to share and to see pictures of it all over and people sharing passages. It’s been a nice distraction because until the book came out, I felt such sadness for the world. I just couldn’t climb out of it, you know? There’s only so much we can do in terms of reading everything and donating money. I was feeling just so sad. So, a little lift this week with my book has been really sweet.
Maris: That’s all we can ask. I love the writing in your book so much because it’s sparse, so you really had to choose every word very carefully, I imagine. When you talk about a brief time you broke up with the man who became your husband, you say, “M and I separate the Tone Loc from the Madonna.” Ugh! How evocative that is of a certain time.
Phyllis: Nineteen-ninety… six? Seven? Exactly. The Tone Loc, I can hear it in my head now. And I think I also separate the bong from the tea strainer in there too.
Maris: Yep. I’m glad it worked out. I also love how in the book you use food to document so much of your life and your family’s life. I’m wondering if there is a dish that you will think of now when you think back to quarantine.
Phyllis: Oh, that’s such a good question. You know, the one thing that hasn’t changed for me in the quarantine is the cooking, actually. I am making a lot of the recipes that are in my book—a lot of the tomato sauce that you cook all day, tartes and stews and salads, wanting all these components to be out for the kids because they’re now making their breakfasts and their lunches, which is great. This has never happened before. It’s beautiful to step back and see them step in and take my place, which is the kitchen. That’s my office. I’m in my husband’s office [now]; I don’t have an office. The kitchen’s my office. I would say everything feels a little, as I said, sadder and a little more loaded and complicated and all that, but I am pretty much cooing those comfort foods that I’ve cooked all along. The stuff I cooked when I was dealing with postpartum depression and 9/11, all these things that I wrote about int the book, these horrible times, I got through them by cooking like I’m cooking now. It’s been fascinating to see—so many people are cooking more than ever. For me it’s like, “Oh yeah, this is cool! Everyone’s cooking along with me.”
Maris: Are you hearing from many amateur chefs who are seeking out your advice?
Phyllis: Yeah, that’s been really fun. Absolutely. Although, not about things like sourdough starter. That seems to be a big trend. That’s something I’ve done for a while, and that’s hard. It’s like keeping a little pet alive. I don’t have much to offer except talk to it every day like your plants. But people have reached out and said, I have these six vegetables, what would you recommend I do tonight? And what can I do to extend it? It’s not just about steaming the cauliflower; it’s about how many dishes can that go into, and how can we eat more and maybe cook less, because it’s a little overwhelming for some people who aren’t used to cooking all day every day.
Maris: Sure is!
Phyllis: How about you? Are you cooking more than ever?
Maris: My husband is.
Phyllis: Oh, yeah? That’s nice.
Maris: I feel lucky in that regard. Have you been finding any ingredients tough to get, or has that been okay for you in Berkeley?
Phyllis: Flour, sugar. Baking soda took us quite a few days. It was hard to live without that for a while. But other than that, no. We’ve been supporting local farms through CSA boxes. The smaller mom-and-pop stores like you guys have in New York, we have a few of those in Berkeley, and they’re doing curbside. Sometimes avocados are hard to get ahold of, but otherwise it’s been okay. The food is there. It’s just a matter of getting it safely and supporting the right people. And every day those rules seem to change in terms of safety, going out. For a while there, I was rinsing every piece of kale that came into the house with soap and water. We’ve chilled out a little bit, which makes it a little less stressful. That’s partially why things feel lighter this week. We have a system, and we’re not being insane about it. We’re being very careful, but we’re not in a state of fight or flight like we were in the first few weeks, I would say.
Maris: I think that’s the only normal when the rules change so often. Of course you’re going to do everything you can to protect yourself and your family and community. But it’s hard.
Phyllis: It’s also hard when you start imagining—you just don’t know how long this is going to go. And it’s like, really? Every time we bring vegetables into the house, I’m going to be like, “Everybody get out of the kitchen! Don’t touch that!” I noticed myself falling into these patterns that were just not helping anybody. And a few people commented on it in my household. They said, “Rein it in!”
Maris: How are your children doing otherwise? How is school going and that kind of stuff?
Phyllis: It’s going well. There’s remote schooling. A bit to adjust to the first two weeks because it’s a lot of hours, a lot of screen time, which I’m normally against and now I’m so grateful for it. Socially, they’re—I mean, this is the first time I’ve been so grateful for the phones. They’re seeing their friends, they’re talking, I hear them laughing. Kids—knock on wood—they’re so resilient. I’m seeing them adjust to the new rules. I’m 50, and new rules are harder. But when you’re 17 and 12 like my kids, you have a day or two of adjustment, and you get pissed about it, and then you’re fine. It’s been beautiful to see their strength in that way.
Maris: That’s wonderful. And what else—I know that you’ve been doing yoga, I saw on your Instagram. How is that? You used to be a yoga teacher.
Phyllis: Yeah, I was a dancer before that and then a yoga teacher. Let’s see, it was a year and a half ago that I vowed to do yoga every single day for a year. This is the second year, and I haven’t been quite as successful. Right before we talked, I got down on the ground and did a plank and did some deep breaths. I’m finding it’s grounding me even if it’s just two minutes here or there. I’ve had that tool for a long time, and I’m really grateful for that. I guess that and cooking are two things that ground me pretty quickly if I need it.
Maris: That’s so good. Have you been able to accomplish any other work? You’re promoting your book, so that’s a been part of it.
Phyllis: That’s been hard. It’s been hard to read and hard to write. I’ve written a few things that have come out. Esquire put something out last week, which was lovely; it was sort of a stream of consciousness—my weepy, emotional state in the kitchen listening to my son cook. Thank you, Esquire, for being open to that and publishing my recipe from my book—pancakes. How to choose pancakes. My writing has been going down that very “whoa my god, what is this?” Which is, in some ways, similar to the style in my book, so that’s the style I fall into when I write. I think what I’d like to spend the next few weeks doing is doing a little more writing like that and then paring it down like I did in my book, so it’s not just things slammed over the head with this emotional roller coaster, which we’re all experiencing, it seems to me. Every few hours, it’s just—I mean, I can have a lovely afternoon. It’s possible. But then something sweeps in or I read the news, and then everything gets slipped. That’s a lot on your system.
Maris: It’s so hard to even imagine when—if or when—we’ll have enough distance from this to really figure out how we were feeling at the time.
Phyllis: That’s true. Six weeks in, it’s still this bubble feeling. Just floating. And we’re going to get spit out on the other side, and who knows? That’s why I loved your question about when I look back on this time. You’re already asking me to look back on this time and what I’ll remember. That’s such a wild concept. I will get to look back on this, and so will you. We will be on the other side, and that’s a nice reminder, because I forget. It feels like being on a hamster wheel. Not that I’ve ever had a hamster, but you know. How do we get off? And what do we do while we’re on that wheel?
Maris: Just run, I think.
Phyllis: Just run! Yeah, exactly.
Maris: Tell me about how you had meant to celebrate the publication of your book and what ended up actually happening.
Phyllis: Well, a lot happened the week it came out. I turned 50 and my book came out a few days later. I was going to celebrate at my local bookstore in Berkeley, called Mrs. Dalloway’s. I was going to be in conversation with Julia Cosgrove, editor-in-chief of AFAR magazine, a dear friend of mine. We’re still going to do an event at some point. But yeah, that was going to be the big neighborhood—my mom was coming and her book club and our neighbors. I was really excited about that. That was hard, hard, hard to let go of. Then I was going to go to the Pacific Northwest, Seattle and Portland and all that, then go to New York City. It’s a lot to let go of.
But what did I actually do on my pub date? I’ve been doing a few videos on my Instagram. I drank a martini probably, and I know I rambled on about whatever I was cooking that night and how grateful I felt for the support. To have that community made it easier to let go of the book events in person. Here we are talking, but it’s like, I want to reach out! It’s different. But having that connection with people to be able to share what’s going on in my kitchen, that’s helped me, and it seems like it’s helping others. They’re enjoying it. Somehow it’s soothing, which is so bizarre to me.
Maris: Watching you cook? I get it.
Phyllis: Maybe because it’s my happy place, it somehow brings contentment to other people, and maybe it’s a distraction. So, I’m going to keep doing those as things unfold, whatever that is.
Maris: Well, thank you so much, Phyllis.
Phyllis: Thank you, Maris! This was great.
Maris: And I hope I’ll meet you IRL sometime.
Phyllis: IRL, indeed. I’ll look forward to that. Good luck with everything.