Food is love in the time of pandemic

This heart-shaped apple spice cake says love on Valentine’s Day.   Photo: Marisa Romano

By Marisa Romano

December marked the end of a year dominated by the surge of COVID-19; 2021 has begun with hopes of seeing it recede. These are unusual times, unsettling and sad. They are times of disconnection, isolation and loneliness, worries and frustrations, but this is not truly unprecedented. In fact, pandemics have ravaged the world in the past, changing cultures and the course of history.

The Spanish flu, for example, was the greatest and most devastating infectious disease of the last century. While its source has never been indisputably proven, one theory holds that it originated in the United States, crossed the ocean with American troops bound for Europe to fight the Great War and spread around the world as the conflict spread. The fight against the deadly disease forced the closure of schools and movie theatres and the suspension of public events; people were told to stay home, respect social distance and wear face masks. Sound familiar?

That pandemic dissipated in 1920, after two years and four deadly waves triggered by relaxation of distancing measures. Data collected from the Spanish flu and the following pandemics of 1957 (Asian flu), 1968 (Hong Kong flu) and 2009 (H1N1) are the basis of forecasting that helps public health officers to plan the strategy to control the current pandemic. At a time when the world’s population was about 1.7 billion, the Spanish flu killed 20 to 50 million people, mainly the very old and the very young. Survivors of the flu (about 600 million) celebrated a kind of rebirth.

My grandmother was among the survivors. She caught the disease in 1918 while rooming with her aunt in a small city in northern Italy, close to the war front. The infection was so severe that she lost consciousness for four days while her long and lush hair fell out in clumps. Death seemed certain.

At that time, she was dating a young captain posted in the military barracks down the street from her aunt’s house. At the news of her imminent death, the officer went for a last visit, evading all restrictions, and kissed his loved one while the rest of the family watched over her from a distance.

The author’s grandparents, Carlo and Carmela Romano, married in 1920 after a bout of Spanish flu in 1918 that threatened Carmela’s life. Photo: Courtesy of M. Romano

“I was thinking about them the other day,” said my aunt after recounting her parents’ story during one of our long phone conversations. On her daily walk, she had noticed a young couple sitting on a bench; the two chuckling very close to each other, then lowering their face masks to exchange a tender kiss. “Love in the time of pandemic,” said my aunt. “It is another sign that all will pass”.

After a miraculous recovery, my grandmother married her young captain, my grandfather, two years after that desperate kiss when life was slowly picking up again. In the faded marriage photo that I have, my grandmother’s hair has grown back and the two spouses hold hands while facing the camera, their faces showing signs of hard years left behind. My father – the first of four children – was born the following year. The Roaring Twenties were underway.

My grandmother was not a passionate cook. Her craft was sewing. In fact, she was enrolled in a tailoring school when she fell ill. My aunt does not crave the meals of her childhood, and I do not remember anything remarkable from my grandmother’s dinner table.

This is the recipe for a spice cake that welcomed me on a Valentine’s morning years ago. It was found by my husband when searching the messy family recipe box for something special to bake for the occasion. The rumpled piece of paper was hidden at the bottom of the box, the unfamiliar writing faded and almost illegible. I do not remember seeing it before then. The fragrant, heart-shaped cake has become our Valentine’s special, and it will bring joy and love again this Valentine’s in the time of pandemic.

Marisa Romano is a foodie and former scientist with a sense of adventure who appreciates interesting and nutritious foods that bring people together, especially in these times.

Spicy Applesauce Cake


½ cup butter
¾ cup sugar
1 egg
½ cup applesauce
½ tsp vanilla
1¼ cups flour
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp nutmeg
¼ tsp cloves (or allspice)
½ cup chopped walnuts
½ cup raisins or dried (Zante) currants

 Cream butter, sugar and egg.
Add applesauce and vanilla.
Mix flour, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves (or allspice) and add to the batter.
Add nuts and raisins.
Spread in an 8-inch square pan and bake 35-40 minutes at 350°F.

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