Sunday Spotlight: Satisfying a craving for connection in the time of covid

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North Salem resident and chef, Debra Rizzo. Photo courtesy of Debra Rizzo

While the loss of life caused by the pandemic is undeniably tragic, the acute loss of human connection is taking another, though less quantifiable, toll on our collective psyches. North Salem resident and chef Debra Rizzo has always connected with others through food, and the pandemic has forced her to get creative to maintain togetherness while also staying safe.

According to Rizzo, it’s this social connection that people are right now—figuratively and literally—dying for. “People just can’t stop themselves from socializing to go have a meal,” she said. “Whether it’s Thanksgiving, a birthday, an anniversary, or a wedding, we are so used to being connected that way that we are literally dying because we can’t stop ourselves from doing it.”

One of the defining moments in Rizzo’s culinary education occurred when she was a student at the Culinary Institute of American in Hyde Park, New York. A fellow student asked a visiting Julia Childs what the best meal was that she had ever had. “Julia Childs responded that it was the simplest of all meals, and while it wasn’t technically the best meal she had ever had, it was the best meal because of who she was with,” Rizzo said. “I will always remember that. Some of the best meals of my life have also been some of the simplest foods, but because of the people I was with, and the moment in time, it made the meal the best.”

Rizzo believes that what we are craving these days is the social connection more than the food itself. “Of course, we have to stop,” she said. “But we are conditioned that way—to want the social connection so badly.”

While Rizzo could whip up virtually anything in the world that she wants to eat, she says that lately she does not crave food. “When I asked myself the other day, what do I feel like eating, I couldn’t think of anything that I wanted to eat,” she said. “I couldn’t get taste inspired, which was so sad. Then I thought to myself, if someone told me right now that the pandemic was over and we are meeting Saturday, I could think of ten different things I would want to eat with my friends.”

While Rizzo acknowledges how intensely this loss of human connection has impacted her and so many others, she has found ways to adapt to pandemic life with her family, friends and the larger community.

Rizzo says that cooking with her 14-year-old daughter is one of the only things keeping their connection strong right now. “All we have to talk about is school, and, quite frankly, it’s a bummer. When we can talk about what we are going to make for dinner, we take a break from life, and we cook together. We connect with that and, right now, it’s our lifeline.”

Among her friends, Rizzo has taken on the role of a culinary Dear Abby. “One friend called me frantically before Thanksgiving and said, ‘I’m making a turkey for the first time…what do I do?’ I talk my friends through things. They say ‘I could’ve Googled this but you really help to simplify things and make the recipe easier to understand.’” For Rizzo, these interactions provide the connection to her friends that she misses so much.

One of the most significant ways Rizzo has maintained a connection with the North Salem community during the pandemic has been through volunteering with the Ruth Keeler Memorial Library. Currently in her second year as president of Friends of the Library, Rizzo is very passionate about the role the library plays in the community. Before Covid hit, Rizzo dreamed of creating a culinary literacy program at the Keeler Library modeled after the Free Library of Philadelphia’s (FLP) Culinary Literacy Center. Like the Philadelphia program, the goal was to advance literacy through food and cooking around a communal table, using cooking as a vehicle for learning.

According to Rizzo, the FLP is encouraging other libraries to start similar programs and provides support in the form of toolboxes and training. “The FLP has a beautiful kitchen classroom and of course, it may be a pipe dream, but I thought maybe, if the Ruth Keeler library eventually expands, we could build a multi-purpose type of classroom where we could incorporate a similar cultural literacy program,” said Rizzo. “You can teach so much through cooking: math, prenatal care, health, senior eating, what have you.”

While Rizzo’s passion project had to be put on hold after Covid hit last year, there was one component of her envisioned culinary literacy program that she was determined to push forward, regardless of the pandemic: community cooking classes. Last May, Rizzo began teaching a series of family-friendly Zoom cooking classes. With catchy names like “Grab Life by the Corn” (black bean and corn salsa, sweet corn margarita), and “Zuchs and Cukes,” these classes were a hit and continued through the end of the year. Rizzo loved sharing her passion for cooking with adult participants, but especially enjoyed connecting with the children who attended her classes. “Cooking gives children a sense of contribution and a sense of pride, Rizzo said. “Most every child wants to feel needed. The children love being involved in the doing—smelling, touching and tasting—not simply watching someone else cook. What kid doesn’t want to get their hands in a big bowl of dough or make their own buttermilk?”

Rizzo tries to involve all five senses when she teaches, which she admits has been a challenge via Zoom. “I try to teach my students that cooking is not an exact science. I teach that they should know if a meal is being cooked correctly by utilizing your senses: how the edges of a fried egg should look when they are ready; how thick or thin your batter should look; how to eyeball viscosity; how to listen for the sizzling sound of water drops when you are testing to see if a pan is hot enough; and so on. Those things are hard to communicate via Zoom.”

When life returns to normal, Rizzo looks forward to pursuing her goal of turning the Keeler library into a center of culinary literacy. “We live in such a great area with farmers’ markets, wineries, orchards, etc. so it would be really great to incorporate all of those things in the program and take advantage of what North Salem has to offer.”

Rizzo believes that the library and its programs can provide the human connection that so many of us crave right now. “A library is more than just a library,” Rizzo said. “A library is a community center, and now more than ever, it’s crucial."

Rizzo hopes that by participating in her virtual cooking classes, participants will feel a connection to her and carry that into their own lives by bonding with their kids or spouses through cooking. “I see this as a wonderful way to maintain connection with our community and our family members until we can meet with people in person again…one day.”

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Debra Rizzo’s Culinary Literacy Zoom classes will resume at the Ruth Keeler Memorial Library in February with a Valentine’s Zoom class on February 11. Rizzo will make chocolate covered tuxedo strawberries and a chocolate bowl with a balloon. The remainder of the series will continue in March/April with a focus on cold weather comfort food such as stews, soups and chili.

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