When this Rome-based food writer found herself in a strict lockdown, her appetites went sideways.
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Open bag of potato chips
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When I flew to Nashville from my home in Rome in late February due to a death in the family, I had only planned on staying ten days. At the time, COVID-19 seemed like a distant and mysterious flu affecting the north of Italy, far away from where I lived—there were only 30 documented cases in Rome when I departed. As the doors to the plane closed, I felt like I was escaping that danger, that it would all be taken care of by the time I returned. Famous last thoughts. Two days after I arrived, cases in Italy blew up, transatlantic flights to the country were cancelled, and I began a months' long, intimate relationship with snack foods.

It all started with my self-imposed lockdown of my own at my father's house. By the time I realized I would be hunkered down for awhile, a new mentality seemed to kick in. Perhaps it was a reaction to people hoarding toilet paper, or maybe it was some puerile way of trying to assert my adult independence while staying at my father's house. Whatever it was, all I craved was junk food and fancy cheese. I wanted plain potato chips, savory and sweet kettle corn, Trader Giotto's Margherita Pizza, Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream Brown Butter and Almond Brittle, cheeses like Brie, Comté, and Mimolette, and vegan breakfast sausage. At the same time, to keep my father off my back and to balance out my cravings, I also bought salad by the bushel, barramundi and other fabulous fish I couldn't get in Italy, and plenty of vegetables. I am sure I didn't cook for my father as often as I should have, but at least I showed him I could make healthy food (even as I walked around the house with a bag of potato chips in my hand).

After 16 days of being stranded in the U.S., I was miraculously able to find a flight with Alitalia, the only airline flying into Rome at that point. Arrival back in Italy meant an even stricter lockdown, and sourcing became a major issue. It would no longer be possible to check daily at the supermarket to see if my favorite frozen pizza had come in, or when the next shipment of my ice cream would be available. The Italian lockdown was no joke, and I was required by law to spend the first fourteen days in strict quarantine, meaning I couldn't leave the house for any reason. My husband took it one step further and isolated me in our bedroom with only my dog and my TV as company.

Frozen pizza
Credit: Sungsu Han / Getty Images

Per my request, my welcome home meal upon arrival in Italy was frozen pizza. I'll let that sink in for a second. Hubs had stocked the kitchen with the same junk food I had in the US. After ten days, though, he told me the junk food affair was over. Before the lockdown, I was the cookbook author, the one who strolled the market for fresh produce, insisting on only the best-quality meat, dairy, fish, pasta, and bread. During lockdown, my new junk-food impulses meant I was not to be trusted. My husband took on the shopping role, and I was forced to rely on him to bring me back whatever was on my list. Food shopping was one of the few legal justifications for leaving the house, so losing that felt like I was being robbed of my last bits of independence and freedom.  

My world narrowed to one single solitary focus: The next grocery trip. Whenever I came across Hubs in the yard having coffee, or drinking a glass of wine, I took advantage of the moment to inquire about the next supermarket run. I obsessively checked the delivery radius for my butcher, cheese shop, spice shop, and farm where I bought produce to see if I could get deliveries. I WhatsApped my butcher to see if there were any way to do some sort of relay or exception to his delivery rules.  Pretty soon, Hubs did not even entertain discussions about food, though in exchange he did purchase everything on my lists. 

When the restrictions on movement within our region were totally lifted in early June and there was no restriction on the number of people per household who could go shopping, I was finally free to visit to my usual market and cheese shop. Coincidentally, my favorite restaurant, Marigold, announced it would be doing a hamburger night once a week. After three months, my heart was finally at food peace with access to my favorite Italian food, and my most-missed American food.

Turns out this clinging to nostalgia is a common reaction during times of trauma, and those objects of nostalgia can help comfort us when we're stressed. My nostalgia harkened back to my first years living on my own as an adult, when I woke up and realized that I could have pizza for breakfast if I wanted to, potato chips for lunch and ice cream for dinner, and nobody could set any rules but me!

Instead of music, bad movies, or games, my nostalgia concentrated on food choices and being able to shop wherever I wanted for whatever I wanted, junk food or "fancy" food.  This was synonymous with freedom. So when I started cooking again, I was able to quell my frustration for a few weeks by making recipes that used ingredients I still had on hand such as tahini, chana dal, my homemade garam masala, and frozen cilantro, lime leaves, curry leaves,  ginger, and lemongrass. This felt like a kind of freedom.

Once the lockdown was over and I was able to resume my previous shopping habits, I looked back on the previous three months and admitted to myself that I had been an ungrateful privileged brat about not having my so-called freedom to eat what I wanted when I wanted. I was actually lucky that I even had food at all and that even within the walls of that provincial supermarket that stayed more or less well-stocked, I had choices. 

But as I had regained the freedom to leave home and go back to specialty shops for primary ingredients, and no longer felt quashed, my focus turned to the many restaurant owners who were still struggling to stay afloat. Some of their restaurants had opened within the past year. Many of these business owners showed an incredible ability to innovate and roll with the punches. Others didn't fare as well, and some are still holding their breath and our communities are on the cusp of losing even more food choices.

How will I feel, I wonder now, if we finally move to a "new normal" but there is nowhere to have my favorite Thai, Indian, or Sri Lankan food in London, coffee and biscuits in Nashville, or BBQ in Atlanta?  It will first and foremost be a loss of livelihoods, dreams, and years of personal sacrifice for the owners and their staff.  For their patrons, like me, it will mean fewer food choices. That same feeling of restriction from lockdown may resurface. How will my nostalgia for all of these vanished restaurants manifest itself if this happens? I wonder what I'll need to eat next.