When Trump was officially elected, or “elected” president in 2016, Mr. Wallace and I immediately set up recurring monthly donations to the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Like so many others, I saw the writing on the wall and knew America was in for some deep turmoil and devastation. I didn’t have a crystal ball to know what the exact specifics would look like, I just knew it would be a worst case scenario. And yet. I still didn’t have “Googles ‘pandemic burnout’ in February 2021” on my autocrat horror show bingo card back in 2016. But yes, that’s what I did this week. According to Christina Maslach of the University of California at Berkeley, the leading researcher on burnout, it’s a thing. If you’re feeling emotionally exhausted, disconnected from people and activities you love, are having difficulty concentrating, or finding that your appetite and/or sleep cycles are all fucked up one way or another, you’re not alone. And if you, like me, are also dealing with a cold, snowy, dark winter dogpiling on an already difficult time, well, it doesn’t exactly help.
Last week I wrote about the struggle I’m having processing the wide and wild range of emotions ousting a dictator has, or probably should, evoke. Yet nothing feels like a normal or straightforward journey here, even though the matter is somewhat simple in fact. I have spent most of January in something of a fog and a funk, and it shows no signs of abating. Two feet of snow, freezing temps, and Vitamin D levels that must be in the negative numbers certainly aren’t helping.
Like I said, I know I’m hardly alone here. I think most of us are feeling, at best, fatigued by our sorry state of affairs. We’re lonely, bored, exhausted, scared, and not playing with a full deck anymore… and that is the most charitable existence only available to those of us who have managed to sidestep the disease itself and any loss of income. So many are dealing with far, far worse. How this ends, I do not know. I’m just trying to stay safe and get through it.
My main coping skill – and I would never tell you it’s balming effects are anywhere near total – is, unsurprisingly, cooking. I dedicate at least one day every weekend to “project cooking,” or making some involved, multifaceted, complex production of a recipe that takes all afternoon. I put on some music, then make sure my shoes are comfortable. I give myself something to sip on – a glass of wine, some rooibos tea, a finger of bourbon, maybe popping open a beer – and slowly get to work. No rushing, no deadlines, we’ll eat eventually when it’s ready. So far it’s been delicious: Gumbo Z’Herbes. Pierogies completely from scratch. Lamb Shank Posole. Oxtail ragu with charred carrots over a fresh Cabernet Sauvignon pappardelle. A hoisin glazed pork butt I’m sharing next week. These birria tacos I’ll be making tomorrow. And of course, this recipe today: Italian-style, prosciutto-studded meatballs. Brothy tomato sauce. Buttery parmesan polenta. More cheese on top, plus some fresh sweet basil. Doesn’t get much cozier than that.
I’ve found a too-small but still helpful reprieve by spending unnecessary hours in my kitchen when I can. Cooking something complex demands just enough concentration to keep my mind off a mass extinction event for a little while, and my hands stay busy and thus unable to doom scroll. I have been and remain convinced that others’ tragedies of preventable deaths and joblessness are not my personal growth opportunities, and that I have no right to treat them as such. I haven’t and won’t be using a fucking genocidal pandemic to “work on myself.” That’s not what this is about. Cooking projects are simply a small kindness I can offer myself, so I do. I hope you are finding some sort of kindness and respite for yourself as well, using whatever works best for you. Stay home if you can, and stay safe.
Barbuto's Meatballs and Polenta
- 4 tbs olive oil, divided
- 1 small-to-medium onion, diced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- Kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper
- ¼ tsp crushed red pepper flakes
- ½ lb. ground beef sirloin
- ½ lb. ground pork
- ½ lb. ground veal
- ½ cup 85 g prosciutto, minced
- 1 cup fresh breadcrumbs
- 2 large eggs
- 1 cup grated Gruyere cheese
- 4 tbs heavy cream, divided
- 4 tbs unsalted butter, divided
- 1 28 oz. can whole, peeled tomatoes, with their juices
- 1 small bunch of basil
- 1 ½ cups polenta
- 4 tbs freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
- In a large saucepan or skillet, heat 2 tbs olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until softened and translucent. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, another 30 seconds or so. Transfer to a large mixing bowl, season with salt and black pepper, and let cool completely.
- Once the onion mixture is cool, add the crushed red pepper flakes, all the ground meats, prosciutto, breadcrumbs, eggs, Gruyere, plus 2 tbs heavy cream. Season a little more with salt and pepper, then use your hands to gently but thoroughly combine the mixture. Pinch off and roll into meatballs about 1 ½ inches in diameter. I used a standard cookie scoop and they were perfect. I found it easiest to line the uncooked meatballs on a parchment-lined baking sheet.
- Wipe out the saucepan or skillet you used to cook the onions, then heat it over medium-high heat. Add the remaining 2 tbs olive oil plus 1 tbs butter. Add the meatballs in a single layer with a little space between them and brown them by either turning them with tongs or rolling them by gently shaking the saucepan. You’ll probably have to do this in two batches. Make sure they’re just nicely colored, you don’t want to cook them through.
- While the meatballs are browning, add the canned tomatoes plus their juices to a deep bowl and either crush them a bit by hand or use kitchen shears to snip them into bits and pieces.
- When the meatballs are browned, add them all to the saucepan, then pour the tomatoes over evenly. Add about half the basil, torn if your leaves are large. Turn the heat to low and cook for 20 to 30 minutes.
- While the meatballs and sauce are cooking, make the polenta with water according to package directions. Once it is done, stir in the remaining 3 tbs butter, plus the Parmesan. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Just before serving, taste a little of the tomato sauce and season if necessary.
- To serve, mound some polenta in a bowl, then top with four or five meatballs plus lots of sauce. Garnish with more torn basil leaves plus all the extra Parmesan you like.