Cookbook author and New York Times columnist Alison Roman has emerged as one of the most beloved figures of Quarantine Culture. Her shallot pasta and chickpea stew have been made, worshipped and Instagrammed in kitchens around the world, and the warm, inviting, you-can-do-this tone of Dining In and Nothing Fancy have encouraged even the most reluctant home cooks to roll up their sleeves and give it a try. We caught up with Roman on the phone from a friend’s house in New York’s Hudson Valley—where she’s been vegging out, making matzo ball soup and attending Zoom seders—to get the socially distanced version of her W Culture Diet.
What books are on your bedside table right now?
Well, I’m staying at a friend’s place right now, so I’m without a lot of my comforts and things that I would normally be doing. But right now I’m reading Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb, and I’m finishing There There by Tommy Orange, which I started this summer, lost, and then found again. And the new-ish Carmen Maria Machado, In the Dream House, which is a memoir but told in this very prosaic, short story format.
What is the last thing you Googled on your phone?
It looks like I searched how old Joe Biden was. ‘Cause I think he’s secretly dead. I also searched running trails in the Hudson Valley, if that sounds better.
Actually, I like that as a combo. Have you been getting into the quarantine fitness routine?
I’ve been working out every day, which is not like me at all—I realize I’m probably still just breaking even in my caloric intake and outtake. I started running, and I actually hate running. But because I’m upstate I’m really into it, because there’s a nature element to it. I’ve been doing yoga through Sky Ting and Tangerine, my studio in Brooklyn. And I’ve been doing Rumble boxing and a HIIT class at a local gym, all through Zoom. I’m very weak, but I’m getting stronger.
Are there any upcoming albums, or books, or film releases that you’re really excited about?
In all honesty, no. I’m okay, but I am not looking forward to anything right now. I feel like I don’t even know what’s coming out enough to be excited about it, you know? I’m looking forward to getting out of here. I am really excited about Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which I still haven’t seen. I’m kind of bummed that I have to watch it at home, but it’s better than nothing. And my friend Aminatou Sow’s book, Big Friendship, is coming out in July—so that’s really exciting.
What albums or playlists are you listening to right now?
I’m listening to a lot of piano music, interestingly enough, by John Carroll Kirby and Nils Frahm. And I have a few different playlists curated by Odunsi and Faye Webster. I’ve also been listening to a lot of Dua Lipa, to try and keep my spirits high, and a lot of old soul songs.
Are you leaning into the news overload or actively avoiding it?
I think, like everyone, I check the internet when I wake up. Which is probably not healthy, but I try not to stay on Twitter all day and refresh the news, because it’s not that helpful—I don’t think that things are gonna change so intensely and quickly that I’m gonna miss a really important piece of information that’s gonna change the impact of my day. We’re going to be in this for quite a long time, and I’m trying to stay informed but also stay mentally sound.
Do you have any favorite social media accounts to follow?
Oh my god. Yeah. Raven Smith (@raven__smith) is so funny. And quarantine memes are very funny right now to me. I’m not, like, a meme person in general. But I’m finding them to be very amusing.
Any favorite formats?
I’m not a reality TV show person. And it is interesting to me, because a lot of the memes are reality TV show based, but I feel like I’m familiarizing myself through meme culture. It’s not a thing that I have ever kept up on. So I’m like, “Oh, have you guys heard of memes? They’re pretty funny!” And everyone’s like, “Uh, yeah.”
Speaking of TV, what TV shows have you been watching?
I’ve been watching Fosse/Verdon, which I love. And I’m waiting for my pod-mate to finish Ozark season two so we can start season three. And Hamilton Morris’s Viceland show, Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia. It’s a show about drugs that’s mostly focused around psychoactive drugs—he breaks things down from a science-y perspective and goes to find out where the drugs come from and oftentimes it’s, like, animals in a jungle. This show is wild.
What about the last movie you streamed?
Well, we started watching these scary movies. We watched Us, and all of us had insane nightmares. So we decided if we’re gonna watch something scary we have to follow it up with, like, a 30 Rock.
Yeah. You need a shot-chaser method.
What is the most bizarre cooking question you’ve ever gotten?
Yesterday somebody asked me if they could use saltine crackers instead of matzo in matzo ball soup. And I was like, “I don’t think so.”
What has been your go-to quarantine outfit?
Well, I’m so glad you asked, because it’s definitely some variation on a yoga pant and an oversized sweatshirt.
Any preferred brands or designers?
Designer would be a stretch of a word. There are these Outdoor Voices sweatpants that I love, they’re a very soft fabric that I can do yoga in and also just lounge around in—I mean, any pant you can lounge around in if you try hard enough. I also have a pair of these stretch pants from the Gap from maybe six years ago that are still my favorite yoga pants. They’re just really well-made and they really stood the test of time.
Which of your own recipes have you been making the most these past couple weeks?
I feel like that’s the secret of anyone who does what I do—we don’t actually make our own recipes. I’ve been making a lot of those lemon turmeric teacakes, but otherwise, I’m taking this opportunity to make things that I would never normally make or publish, necessarily—snacky things comprised of stuff that I already have in the house, like rice that we made last night turned into a personal crispy rice thing with sautéed greens and chili oil.
Have you found any unexpected upsides to this new reality?
Yeah. I feel like I needed to slow down in general. And I am really bad at it. I’m bad at staying inside. I’m bad at thinking big-picture. I’m bad at just slowing down. And this kind of forces you to, in a way. The first few weeks were really uncomfortable for me. And now I’m sort of settling into it. I also think that more people are cooking at home, and more people are excited to cook at home. And not just because they have to be. And that, to me, is really exciting. I think that people are also just being nicer to each other. People are reaching out in a different way and connecting with people in a different way. I’ve talked to my parents more than I ever have in my life, probably. I’ve called friends in a way that I never have before. And I really like old-school connection like that. I love talking on the phone. I brought stationery and stuff to write letters to people. I’ve also found that, it’s really helped to shake away the people in my life that weren’t necessarily harmful, but didn’t really need to be there.
Are there any causes that you’ve been supporting or getting involved with?
I just sold a bunch of tote bags and donated all of the $22,000 proceeds to Feeding America, which was so cool. So I’m looking to do more work with them, and looking to do more work for Restaurant Community Workers’ Foundation and World Central Kitchen. Organizations that are trying to focus on having people get fed and be taken care of who have lost their jobs, especially ones in the restaurant industry, because it’s really brutal.
What’s the first thing you’ll do when life goes back to normal?
Go to a restaurant. I miss the energy. I miss seeing my friends who work there. I miss the difference between being at home and being in a restaurant. They’re two very distinct experiences, both of which are very important to me. Like, yes, I love home cooking and I’m a home cook advocate, but I also just absolutely adore restaurants. There’s nothing better than sitting at a bar at your favorite restaurant and getting a martini and a shrimp cocktail and hanging out. I never really felt like I took restaurants for granted because I was constantly thinking about how in love with them I am. I always felt lucky to be able to go to good ones. But now I really, really miss them.