Dinner à la Dad.

The Quarantine Diaries, Part 4: Confessions of a First-Time Stay-At-Home Dad

Editor’s Note: Joe Bardi — writer, editor, musician, husband, father — has always been a busy man. But until recently it had been up to his wife, freelance writer/photographer and frequent dRTB contributor Heidi Kurpiela, to handle the bulk of weekday parenting chores, because she could work from home and he had an office job. Then the pandemic hit. The following post is the fourth installment in “The Quarantine Diaries,” a series about the double whammy of suddenly being both unemployed and a 24-hour stay-at-home dad. Read the first three installments starting here.

Quarantine Diary Part 4: Now I’m Cooking!

Four weeks into quarantine and I’m on full-time dinner duty. This is a wonderful development. 

Pre-coronavirus, the dinner hour in the Bardi household was fraught. For starters, my wife hates having to handle it. She’s a breakfast gal, with its waffles and fresh fruits and grains. But I was usually at the office until 5 p.m., which meant the job of prepping a meal for the fam landed on Heidi. I think she would have prefered an anvil. 

Dinner duty led to arguments, a quiet two-way resentment, and takeout — lots and lots of takeout. 

I love making dinner. My grandfather was an excellent cook known for his homemade pizza, fried chicken, a vast assortment of seafood, and the absolute best stuffing ever consumed by man. My mother has carried on many of his culinary traditions, offering her own generational improvements to some of the recipes. I paid attention and tried to learn what I could, even if I remain a cheap imitation of my forebears.

Chip (off the old block) goes for the cheez puffs.

The truth is I’m not a gourmand, nor do I possess any special training in the kitchen. To complicate matters further, I adhere to a childish diet that is legendary among my people: Tuna or turkey sandwich for lunch (with Cheetos or Doritos as a side, of course), then some combination of meat, potatoes, rice, pasta, and bread for dinner, with chocolate ice cream for dessert. Can I get most of that fried? Yes, please. 

I also have recent, immaculate blood tests showing I’m totally healthy. Thank you for your concern. 

Though I may lack taste or an adult palate, I do possess basic cooking skills. I know how to measure out ingredients or scramble an egg, and I’m an excellent recipe-follower. Chicken Parm is my specialty. Adding this up, I’ve long felt I would have made a great Army chef. I still sometimes daydream about using a spoon the size of a boat oar to cook 50 pounds of pasta in a giant silver cauldron. Good, serviceable food would be my trademark, made in giant heaps for an adoring audience just happy to be in the chow line and not getting screamed at on some obstacle course or firing range.

In the run-up to being laid off I was already fantasizing about taking on dinner full-time. Back then, I assumed I’d be working from home for at least a month or two. I’d turn off the computer around 4 p.m. and start throwing together the evening’s meal. That’s not how it worked out  — which is good. I can see now that juggling working from home with dinner duty would have been no fun, because there’s more to making dinner every night than just firing up an oven.

For starters, you have to shop for all those groceries. This is now an approaching-apocalyptic ordeal, Road Warrior-esque facial masks included. Heidi was oddly prepared for this, as she has long hated food shopping. She likes to point to a particular scene from The Hurt Locker, a movie about military bomb disposal experts overwhelmed by civilian life, as her typical experience. 

I, on the other hand, have always loved the grocery store. I can still tell you the first time I set foot inside a Publix. It was 1984, and I was in Orlando visiting my grandparents. Grandpa took me over to the bakery and scored me the free “Kids’ Club” cookie. A lifetime customer was born, just like their marketers planned it. I’m on to you, Publix. 

Prepared for battle at Publix.

Chip would have been my co-pilot pre-quarantine — the kid loves the free cookie even more than his old man did. Plus, he’s a master at badgering daddy into buying candy at the checkout line and he knows it. But the grocery store is suddenly no place for a child, and in-store shopping has gone from a pleasure to a terror. Every trip to the store is now a race against some imaginary clock. How long can I stay in here and not come into contact with the virus? 

I’ve been carrying alcohol wipes, and I scrub my hands and the bottoms of my feet once I’m back in the car. That makes me feel better. I’m also limiting trips to the grocery store to about once a week, and filling in the gaps online. The night before I was laid off, in a fit of monetary defiance, I placed a large order with Omaha Steaks. I’m a sucker for their high-quality meats and freezer-friendly packaging. This order ended up filling a gap when Publix was having trouble keeping meats in stock — an issue which persists. I recently made a second order because we needed more chocolate lava cakes. If you’re going to lock yourself in your house for a few months, better to do it with lava cake.

Pre-cake time, I’ve been serving a steady diet of steaks, burgers and fries, chicken breasts, pork chops and frozen pizzas paired with whatever rice or pasta side concoctions I can still find on store shelves. Good ol’ fashioned Chicken Flavor Rice A Roni is a huge hit with the boys, and any night there’s garlic bread is a winner. I’m even occasionally eating spinach — the one vegetable I can tolerate. I choke it down raw while my wife, the vegetarian, looks on, struggling to control her laughter.

BBQ à la Brunson.

I want to tell you that cooking for the kids every night is gratifying, and to an extent it is. But I’ve also found that seeking their approval is a trap, as they are impossible to feed. Creating a meal that everyone enjoys is tough, and we’ve slowly been working back in takeout. Heidi is obsessed with the Mexican bean and rice bowl at St. Pete’s Casita Taqueria. The kids have demanded Jimmy John’s, Chick-Fil-A and other non-PC yet tasty fast food joints. I keep ordering terrific backyard BBQ made by Ed Brunson, the father of one of Henry’s classmates, who is running regular weekend smoke sessions, accepts PayPal, and offers contactless pickup in his front yard. Desperate times, delicious measures. I hope Ed opens a restaurant when this is all over.

I try to indulge these takeout whims because more than the food, those styrofoam containers offer a taste of some much-needed normalcy. And Dad can use the night off, anyway.

Next up: Quarantine Diaries, Part 5: Enter the Drogon!