Staring out the window, watching the California sunlight soak into each corner of the garden, I’m reminded that it’s the time of year when I feel the urge to fling open the door and invite my friends in.
The longer days and balmy weather make it feel like the right time to fire up a grill and wade into the kidney-bean pool at my 1960s apartment complex. And when my friends crash through the building and into my living room, they inevitably bring gifts of wine and liquor — a march of labels and bottles I don’t recall, poured into the same glasses I always scrounge up. It’s the liquid fuel for the hours I’ll spend doing the thing I love most: Cooking a giant meal and fussing over people, with a glass and a smoke within arm’s reach at, ideally, all times.
Staring out the window, though, I’m reminded that I don’t get to play this game this spring. There are much more serious concerns in the world right now, amid a pandemic that stretches on like a hot desert in a bad dream. But I miss my friends, and I miss our rituals. I miss the rush of realizing I’m an hour behind on prep when the doorbell rings. I miss nearly falling over the coffee table as I attempt to stuff a bite into someone’s mouth while refilling my own glass (sloppily). I miss that gassed-out haze at 9 p.m. when we’re too faded to gossip but not yet ready to call an Uber.
In other words: If cooking while intoxicated is an art form, then I surely miss my palette. Was it possible to recreate any of that joy at home, in quarantine, with only my bemused girlfriend to play guest? Would it even be worth the booze? On a Wednesday morning, I embarked into the simulation with a pop from a bottle of Prosecco. I planned three meals, including a three-course dinner. As I sipped my first glass at 10:30 in the morning, I tried to channel my inner Keith Floyd.
How would the legendary cook and BBC presenter handle quarantine? A video of Floyd prepping a fish stew seemed like a good place to start: “Of course, this dish doesn’t require any wine in it, but it does require wine in the cook. And my little lucky frog here and I are going to have a quick one before we start,” he says to the camera before clinking his glass of white against an unblinking ceramic frog.
I raised my glass to no one in particular before beginning the prep for the first dish of the day: A French omelet. Making an omelet is easy, but a perfect French variation — with creamy curds bound in a thin blanket of golden egg, with no browning at all — is the test of a good cook. By the time my three whisked eggs hit the pan, I was already two glasses in, but the muscle memory kicked in just fine. Round and round my spatula went, churning the egg into a pile. With a few taps, I nudged the mound toward one side of the pan. A sprinkle of chives and another few taps, and the omelet was ready to flip onto a plate.
A little misshapen, but fine! I got a bite in before my girlfriend, not normally an omelet fan, polished it off (“I’ve had so many bad omelets,” she said, approvingly). With some food in my stomach and a third mimosa in my glass, I began making the dough for hand-pulled biang-biang noodles. We had some leftover grilled pork and caramelized onions, plus half a bottle of “Sichuan Stir-Fry Sauce” from Safeway, so it seemed practical and delicious to put it all over some frilly fresh noodles.
And about four minutes into kneading said dough, I started to feel it: The moment when your drunk pulls you into the repetitive motions of cooking. I was nearly done with the Prosecco, and falling into a zone with each fold-press-turn of dough. It felt therapeutic, in a way. I wished someone would interrupt me with a shot of something strong, so I could pretend to refuse it before sighing and joining the cheers in the living room.
Instead, all I could hear was the residual sound of a work Zoom call. I finished the bottle in the garden as the clock ticked into 1 p.m., with another hour to go before the dough was ready. In my memory, the lulls start to meld under the weight of intoxication; I think I stared at a patch of irises for 10 straight minutes after cracking open a can of kolsch.
The biggest trick of drunk cooking is to understand when you’ve begun stumbling toward the edge of failure — that point where you brown out in a recliner after forgetting about the wings in the oven, or lop off the edge of your pointer finger while looking up at your best friend dropping a beer on the ground. I could sense the edge coming as I pulled the noodles at 2 p.m., making myself drunk-giggle with each thwack! of the dough. I was now halfway into a six-pack, with four more hours until dinner.
Noodles definitely help soften the drunk (as does the right kind of cannabis, for that matter). But by 3:45 p.m., I was hurtling toward the blurry line between intoxicated and ineffective. This was normally when I’d be talking happily with everyone by the pool, with maybe some kielbasa or shrimp coming off my small charcoal grill. I was drinking less than I normally would, but felt it more. Was this still fun? Looking for inspiration, I put on a video of cook-turned-rapper extraordinaire Action Bronson and his crossfaded, wine-drenched trip around France. If anyone could sell me on the pleasure of cooking for others while fucked up by yourself, it was him.
Bronson is what’s great about the art of intoxicated cooking, distilled into singular focus — it makes his braggadocio more charming and clarifies the sheer amount of love he feels when performing for people, whether through verses or dishes. It’s the same quality that Floyd, three decades his senior at the time of his passing in 2009, showed in every gregarious BBC appearance. There is something frenetic about their energy, and watching Bronson seemed to ignite the same feeling in me — or it could’ve been the 20 ounces of black coffee I mainlined at 5.
More beers and two strawberry-and-gin cocktails later, it was time for dinner. I failed to take notes or video of this, and it’s a minor miracle that I even took pictures, but it happened in a sprint: Roasted beets and fried chickpeas with balsamic dressing, a classic Caesar salad, garlic-fried shrimp and strawberry shortcake with spiced yogurt. It hardly matters what I made, I guess. What I remember is the feeling of laughing while shooing my girlfriend away from the stove, and the hazy satisfaction of collapsing onto the couch after eating everything. I made a mental note to text my friends about doing a dinner like this when the pandemic fades, then fell asleep on the rug.
So much of the last decade of my life has been marked by the delirious sensation of feeding happy people — on Christmases and birthdays, after promotions and graduations, and for no particular reason at all. To pull it off is to acknowledge that making food is my comfort zone. It helps that booze also makes me less perfectionistic in the kitchen (because no one else really cares!). There is a bit of gamesmanship and flair in standing in a kitchen, tipsy but in control. I guess to do it alone, then, is to prove it to yourself during a time when a crowd can’t.
It’s not the same, and I crave the day when a group can gather in my home again. But it’s kind of like that old adage about dancing alone when nobody’s looking — and I’d like to think that Floyd would approve of my drunken ambition during such weird, trying times.