From Massachusetts to Wisconsin, and back, Lyle Michael traveled through the tough times to find comfort in family, work from home and cooking that led to a couple of neatly designed recipe cards to share

A Sunday morning ritual was mass followed by a 20-minute walk to Boston’s urban café in Dorchester County. Where a large oatmeal raisin cookie sat cosy near a freshly-brewed black coffee in a large white mug. Homestead was home, where FaceTime with loved ones on IST and a book from their shelves, was the highlight. If it was a Sunday with a few extra dollars to spare, folks back home could virtually share a smoked salmon on cream cheese rye with avocado – comforting against the New England winds that bring out the fleece over two layers, gloves, muffler, the works. Only, today was not Sunday, it was Monday, March 16, and instead of being at work – Cambridge Office for Tourism (COT) – I was at Homestead.

It was a “work from home” day. The first of its kind. A creature of habit, I was thrown off balance, in a reverie of sorts, only to be brought back to reality by an ominous sound from the woman to my right. A sneeze! No kerchief, not in her inner elbow and loud enough for all to go, “gasp!” This, while breaking ethics of keeping your conversation to yourself in a moderately-filled space! While I safely distanced myself from said “offender”, my body was recovering from the chills that coursed through my veins a moment ago. This was the genesis of what came to be known as the official lockdown in the country that till today is in the top spot for the Highest Number of Coronavirus Cases and Deaths. At the time of this diary entry going to print, it stood at 15.5 million cases and 290,000 deaths, and counting!

Back then, on Mar 16, there was no lockdown in Massachusetts yet – NYC, our very recent place of residence, was in the thick of it – no mandatory face fashion yet nor a hint of the months that lay ahead. Only breaking news of a mass purchase of toilet paper by the public who feared running out of an “essential” commodity. And I knew then I couldn’t face this alone. So, off I flew to Green Bay, Wisconsin the very next day to stay with my sister and her family, “…just for a short while, till the lockdown is lifted and the pandemic has eased.” Couldn’t have been more wrong!

Green Bay was home for the next four-and-a-half months. You know what they say of the best laid plans of mice and men! So, I left it all in His hands and went with the flow. ‘Twas a blessing I had my sibling to seek shelter with and a blessing to have been where I was when I was. For I played the role of kid-sitter, tutor, brother-in-need, Spring cleaner, and home cook cum recipe designer, all in one. My job at COT was intact by the grace of God, as was my part-time position at Bartleby Press, a publishing house. For my pandemic productivity quotient – while stress baking was the rage – I chose to walk down memory lane with an initiative titled ‘Better Days’. “Take me back to a better day with you and we’ll recreate it when we’re lockdown-free.” Images/videos/plain text poured in, cards were designed and shared with loved ones who responded. 30 people, plus myself, were gifted a smile, a moment filled with affection, fundamental to staying afloat through the dark days of COVID. Mission accomplished!

Hands full, my lockdown days were both busy and relaxed, stressful and joyful, doubtful and thankful. Hope reigned constant throughout. And belief. For a wise person once proselytised to me to not hope but believe. It will happen, we will get through this. We must!

As I sat at the dining table cum office desk, with the customary glass of honeyed warm water to kickstart my day, I looked upon this golden gleaming, perfectly-centred yolk of a sunny side my little chef prepared with his tiny hands for me. Sure, there were a few shells to contend with in every other bite, but this egg by my nephew was most fulfilling through the lockdown days. Perhaps he was trying to earn brownie points with his tutor who went through each Google Classroom session and every worksheet, every subject, every single weekday, morning and night with him. Grade 4 was less of a challenge given that teachers had streamlined every lesson and boy, was it arduous for them. However, Lower KG, now that’s where the challenge lay. For the niece had no actual classwork to submit, just workbooks on her own time to keep the mind stimulated, which meant playtime comes first! This is where my heart goes out to the kids growing up through this pandemic; a shattered routine, lessons that seem unfair at home and no “Tag, you’re it” with their pals.

Thankfully, the lockdown in a smaller town like Green Bay – save for the fame the Packers bring – wasn’t house arrest like in Bombay (as the folks back home would relay) or big cities of the US for that matter. Which meant solitary walks through serene environs, evenings at the park for the young ‘uns to expend all that pent up energy, gloves on hand, and a frantic uncle running around with sanitiser after every run on the monkey bars, the merry-go-round, the slide, the swings and the see-saw. Come snow, the winter winds, a light drizzle, or the extreme summers, playtime was undisturbed. Which led to evenings skateboarding or cycling down the slope of an empty factory lot surrounded by greenery where the only sound was that of a hummingbird followed by freedom of a jubilant boy and girl, soaking in the moment and not worrying about the next. For that’s what children do best; live in the moment, in the age of innocence. Which further led to weekend bike rides into the marvellous sunset, of pinks and orange hues; and scraped knees and torn jeans – mine included – to Walmart to treat the well-behaved duo to slushies, especially on an unforgiving 40 degree-C day. Which also led to pool time in the backyard with the ducks and the dolls and all. “Uncle Lala, come on, it’s time to fill the pool!” Of course, no matter my Zoom meeting in 15 minutes, says uncle Lala!

Then there was let’s play catch; let’s go for a walk, let’s watch a movie and eat pizza on the couch. Let’s piggy back, tie my hair with ribbons and then play cards! Oh, the energy levels of a five and 10-year-old are unimaginable. Sure, the tantrums, anger and the occasional wood splinter removal from the finger or loose tooth removal with a kerchief were all part and parcel… and I’d do it all again. This is where I realized, children do take you back to your days of prime agility, and wounds that heal in a jiff, and untainted joy! This was my purpose through the lockdown.

Cooking, getting creative with recipes and happily feeding the brood blood red beets and vividly orange sweet potatoes (in contrast to our Indian purple counterparts) in a mango chilli sauce – was the bonus.

Mushrooms, corn, soy nuggets, edamame beans, spinach, cauliflower, purple and green cabbage, bell peppers, red pumpkin, Roma tomatoes, avocado, tuna, cottage cheese… these were a few of the modest ingredients that went into simple fare with a personal touch. The table played host to staples such as dal palak, pea pulao, tomato rice, aloo baingan, peppered steak and mashed potatoes, too, to the more inventive Shrooms & Tots on an Olive High, Squashed Potato Curry, Coconutty Beans, Beetroot and Chana Dal Sabji, Cookered Young Soybean Pulao, Chunky Soy Taters and Meats: Coloured & Peppered, and more. The baker in me is in dire need of Mother Nurture, so banana bread and pancakes were still treats from pre-mixes!

Cooking was certainly not an everyday affair and not in large quantity, but when the need to feed the family arose, dal, chawal, sabji and fried fish did the deal, beets and sweet potato to round it off. A sense of satisfaction and responsibility sets in when one has control of a kitchen, when hungry mouths are in one’s hands, and most assuredly, when relaxation is sought. If you’ve got a kiddie sous chef who’s eager to follow your every instruction and get you ingredients such as coriander from the neighbour’s garden at the speed of a bullet train, then all the more cooking is a joy. With the zest to create a menu of all things whipped up and ladled out during the lockdown, The Menu began and recipe cards with fun elements were designed and documented for use on my blog, with loved ones, and for a rainy day. Or for moments when a friend comes over, months after being isolated from the world, to dine on dosas with an assortment of home-made fillings and chai. Try this: paneer bhurji, masala aloo and sausages and peppers in tomato sauce to go with fresh-off-the-pan dosas. Filling, gratifyingly so. Add a hearty vegetable stew and tender Coorgi pork if you’re throwing a party and you should do delectably well.

Food was the central part of many an occasion through the lockdown: Easter, a 10th birthday, Mother’s Day, 4th of July; and life rolled on with every meal. Once the pandemic became a way of life and the lockdown had long since eased off, travel plans to head back to New England were made come July end. Bidding farewell to family after months of going through an unprecedented hardship together – a death in the family back home in Bombay included – was like leaving a piece of you behind. And just like that, in a flash, I was back in Boston, narrowly escaping a travel ban enforced on Aug 1 to combat the onslaught of a rise in cases from out-of-state travellers.

It was eerie yet familiar to come back to a room I left intact since I flew out in a flash months ago. Eerie to stop by Homestead after a run or a bike ride – and a visit to the church courtyard in thanksgiving and supplication – and to see the café still shut since March. This was the new “home”, and with it, there was a new found purpose: be thankful for the many graces and make the most of the new normal while staying active, up and down the slopes of Dorchester, breaking a step to bust a move to ITunes’ Favourites Mix because you’re alive, and you’re kicking! Graces.

Much like that rainbow that gloriously spanned the Green Bay sky one gentle rainy day while I was on a walk with my niece. It appeared out of nowhere and her face lit up with glee. My soul did the same for it was a sight from ages ago and you know what they say about a rainbow: Yes, there is light at the end of it! A pot of gold, too, I gather, but I’ll take the light. For what else is a rainbow but a sign of the covenant with the one above. I hope, nay, I believe so. 

This feature was published in the Jan-Mar 2021 issue of UpperCrust and reused here with permission from the publisher. Images by Lyle Michael. For recipes, visit Pgs 194-195 at uppercrustindia.com/online-edition/v22/ or The Menu section of The Pen Chants.