Ina held her garlic-scented thumb over her phone screen. “Get home safe,” her text to Jeffrey read. She slid her thumb and sent her message into the ether. Where did it go? The Cloud? Outer space? She didn’t know, but that little text box was all she had for comfort at the moment. She lifted her pen to add “call stockbroker” to her daily planner, after the meeting with her publicist and her scheduled recipe edits. The news was not good but that was no excuse for idle behavior. “Buck up, Ms. Rosenberg,” she said to herself. The chicken thighs on the stove behind her started to spit.
With a heave, Ina pushed herself back from the long oak table and lowered the flame under the thighs. It was barely 11am and she’d already been up for close to six hours. Morning hours were her favorite, padding around the dim house, her robe keeping the warmth from sleep close to her body. She always had her first cup of coffee facing the garden. It wasn’t meditation, really. For all she knew, it could just be that part of her was still asleep—the part that was a Food Network icon. Ina relished the quiet before the day lumbered to life and her brain clicked into high gear.
But no amount of house-padding, robe-warmth, or garden-facing could completely detract from the chaos that had swept East Hampton along with the rest of the world. Ina indulged in a sigh when the oven announced its preheated 350 degrees not with a cold electronic beep, but with a chirpy ding! that never failed to delight her. She would always be indebted to her past self for instructing her kitchen designer to search high and low for an oven that would ding rather than beep. She wiped the garlic remains off her hands with a clean towel and finished scraping down the sides of her mixing bowl. While she hadn’t woken up six hours before intending to make a cake alongside the chicken thighs, she knew as well as anyone that anything could happen in the Barefoot Contessa kitchen.
The cake wasn’t a test run for an upcoming cookbook, but a recipe that was tried and true—her Flag Cake, which she ordinarily made on the Fourth of July as well as the occasional Veteran’s Day, depending on who was coming for dinner and their party affiliation. Summer was still months away, though, and it was uncharacteristic of Ina to rally around the red, white, and blue during a trying time. But the cake was a comforting classic, one of Jeffrey’s favorites. At the market over the weekend, she’d looked both ways before setting a carton of certainly-not-in-season raspberries in her basket, then did the same with the blueberries, which she ordinarily purchased from the blueberry farm down the road from her barn. These desperate times called for desperate measures, though—desperate produce, desperate cakes. So she poured the batter in her pan and slid it in the oven.
Ina wasn’t used to a quiet kitchen. On a usual day, the pots and pans reverberated with the chatter of unexpected guests, or a garden group visiting for a tour, or a local artisan delivering freebies. Without the company, she didn’t feel like herself. She missed the bustle of recipe-testing with her assistants: rubbing elbows with Barbara at the stove, and the dance of maneuvering hot dishes from the oven to the countertop, where Lidey would snap a picture for the Barefoot Contessa social media accounts.
Almost as if she’d willed her into the kitchen, Ina’s clunky iPhone began to chime with an incoming video call from Lidey. Hastily, Ina propped the phone against a bowl of Meyer lemons on the counter and perched on a stool, fluffing her bangs. Lidey’s friendly face filled the screen, then pixelated, then returned.
“Lidey! Can you hear me?” Ina realized she was shouting only after she’d done so.
“Hi, Ina! Yes, I can hear you fine.” Lidey’s forehead pulled together in a stitch. “How are you? Are you okay?”
Ina waved her hand in kind dismissal. “I only wish I’d known you were coming,” she quipped. “I would have put on something a little more presentable.” She gestured to the deep blue, loose-fitting button-down that was her signature uniform.
“I’m sorry I pushed back our meeting,” Lidey said. “Just getting some things—” The phone crackled. “—se-settled. Is Jeffrey there?”
Ina explained that Jeffrey was in the city for the afternoon, taking a slew of meetings. University things.
“Hrm.” Lidey’s forehead scrunched further. She sighed. “Well, let me know when he gets home. I’d like to think of you both as safe.”
The concern from her protegé warmed Ina’s heart.
“Now on to business. I think—” Lidey paused, and this time, Ina could tell it was from a bad connection. “I think we might have a slight problem. With the brand.”
Ina’s lips came together in a thin line and she leaned toward the camera, giving Lidey a good view of her forehead. She pulled back quickly.
“I’ve been monitoring the response,” Lidey said, “Twitter, Instagram. We’re going to need to pivot. It’s a sensitivity issue. A lot of people are going to be affected by this.”
“Pivot to what?” Ina asked.
“Oh.” Ina sighed. Hers was a timeless voice, not a timely one, which is why she never publicly engaged in politics or world affairs—she’d left that life behind in D.C. decades ago. But Ina had kept Lidey on her staff because she tells her what she needs to hear, a trait that was becoming increasingly more difficult to find in anyone (and in young people, especially).
Lidey’s eyes traveled away from her camera, perhaps to one of the many content spreadsheets she kept on her laptop. “Looking at other chefs’ social strategies right now, it looks like we have a few options.”
“Lay ‘em on me,” Ina said, trying her best to sound like she was game for anything.
Lidey scrolled through, her screen illuminating the lenses of her tortoiseshell frames. “Well, Gordon Ramsay’s creating a lot more live content these days. It looks like he’s started a cooking video series just for Instagram.”
Ina immediately shot the idea down. “There’s no way I can film something like that myself. It’ll be a disaster.”
“Noted,” Lidey said. “No offense, but I figured as much. Well, most other chefs—Bobby, Giada, Carla Hall, even Zakarian—are doing home cooking pandemic-style.”
Ina blinked. “What do you mean, ‘pandemic-style?’”
“Followers seem to be wanting easy recipes,” Lidey said. “Meals they can make using things they already have in their pantries. Right now, they don’t want anything that’s going to send them on a wild goose chase to three different grocery stores and two farmers’ markets and the wine shop.”
Ina nodded, for she understood, though it was a tough pill to swallow. She loved the goose chase most good recipes required, filling up her wicker basket on her hunt for the perfect ingredients. She already missed it (especially Park Place Wines, who’d sadly announced that they’d be closing for the foreseeable future due to the virus).
“So,” Lidey continued, “I figure we should ride the ‘how easy is that?’ train to the end of the line.”
“Right,” Ina said, grateful for her social media guru’s insightful strategy. “So… what do we do?”
Lidey instructed her to come up with a few recipes in the next couple of days so they could batch some posts for the coming weeks. “Seriously, just take a look at your pantry. Use anything you have that the average American might also have on hand.”
After hanging up with Lidey, Ina took a peek in her walk-in pantry. Average American, she kept reminding herself. But examining her pantry’s contents, she realized she hadn’t been an average American in quite some time; not since she’d become the Barefoot Contessa. Would any of these ingredients do the trick for a pandemic dinner?
She snapped a photo of the shelves to send to Lidey with the subject line “???”
“That’s perfect!” came her fast reply, as well as some stockpiled photos from recipe tests of yore. She knew Lidey meant to lighten the load, but to Ina, they were a last resort. Just because she wasn’t exactly a spring chicken anymore didn’t mean she couldn’t handle her own social media for a few weeks.
Oh! she thought. The chicken! The sight of the savory thighs, nestled in their juices and bubbling happily, gave Ina heart. As did her cake, steadily rising to fluffy perfection. Ina breathed deeply—talk about aromatherapy—and did what she had always done in times of uncertainty, from the time she was a little girl. She hit the books.
Out in The Barn, Ina surveyed her bookcases and returned to the house laden with cookbooks. She stacked the Barefoot Contessa tomes on the end of the table along with her handy cookbook index and pulled out a fresh legal pad. She hit play on the Bose and the soothing sounds of Novo Amor surrounded her from speakers nestled around the room. She took a quick break to plate herself a chicken thigh and another to frost her Flag Cake, adding the blueberry stars and raspberry stripes with practiced efficiency. Knowing how pleased Jeffrey would be to come home to something savory and something sweet after a hard day made her enjoy the act even more. Both interludes buoyed her spirits, giving her the boost she needed to return to her lists.
Methodical as ever, Ina started at the beginning, with The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook. It was hard to believe it’d been over two decades since the book debuted, and it was the only cover without her face to grace it. She sighed, remembering the early days of the shop and its first blooms of success. Back before she was the Barefoot Contessa, she’d wanted to be her, whoever she might be. This first book was a testament to the oxymoron: regal, but humble. Elegance and luxury in your own backyard. Maybe not quite right for a national lockdown. Ina moved on.
Pages of handwritten notes and—Why not?—a Cosmopolitan later, Ina felt a warm hand on her shoulder. Jeffrey.
She took off her reading glasses and stood to kiss him. His cable knit sweater was still toasty from his BMW’s heated seats. Years after tying the knot—fifty, to be exact—they were still as romantic as ever. Around other couples at dinner parties and galas, Ina couldn’t help but notice that the married ones rarely, if ever, showed one another affection (with the exception of the Obamas, of course, who couldn’t seem to get their hands off each other—understandably so). But not a day went by when she wasn’t happy to see her Jeffrey.
Before she could regale him with her sweet and savory treat, he was on the scent of it. Sniffing the air, he gasped. “Is that chicken I smell?”
Ina laughed and nodded. “Guilty as charged.”
He raised his bushy gray eyebrows. “But it’s not even Friday night! You mean to tell me this is a double-chicken week?”
“Given the state of the world—and the state of our stock portfolio,” she said, whisking away to the fridge, “I figured it was the least I could do to make you feel better.” She dug into the fridge for the chicken, careful to hide her flag cake surprise from his view.
Jeffrey came behind her at the fridge to rub her shoulders, suggestively brushing a finger across her chambray shirt’s buttons.
Ina elbowed him away, laughing. “I think we’ll have plenty of time for that once this lockdown starts.”
He receded once he spied the chicken thighs through the Tupperware’s plastic lid.
Ina had studied the day away, straight to cocktail hour. As she closed her cookbook and moved the pile to the credenza, she had the grim thought that she was closing the book on a halcyon era. Then she saw Jeffrey at the kitchen sink, working his way around a chicken bone. My hungry hubby, she thought, reaching for the martini shaker.
As the week crept along, the whole world wondered if all this social-distancing would become the norm. Ina drank her coffee and watched the bees buzz around the patio iris. Nice to see someone being social. She was thankful for so many things, but she was lonely without her usual routine.
Instinctively, Ina looked to Jeffrey, enjoying his French press in his bathrobe at the other side of the table. Little tufts of gray hair poked out between his lapels, and his glasses perched precariously at the end of his nose. She touched her head. Her glasses perched on the end of her nose, too. Love is blind. She had to chuckle.
Yes, they were lucky, that much was true. Jeffrey was teaching his lectures online; Ina was meeting daily with Lidey and Barbara, forging ahead with the cookbook launch. She had recipe plans for each week thanks to her trusty cookbook index and was learning her way around photo filters and lighting. She was busy—busy as a bee—and it wasn’t saving the world, but it was something. Seeing her fans engage with her Instagram posts and thinking of them rummaging around their own cupboards for a weeknight Bolognese made it all seem worth it.
Ina found herself wondering, What would the Barefoot Contessa do?, and she had to correct herself. The Barefoot Contessa would throw a party, of course. Have her friends over for impromptu brunch and a beach stroll. The Barefoot Contessa was an entertainer, but crowds were hard to come by these days. Instead, a small voice in the back of her brain had started to ask, What would Ina do?
Across the table, Jeffrey poured himself another cup of coffee. “Is today Thursday?” he asked. “Or Friday?”
Ina thought about it for a moment—indeed, the days had begun to bleed into each other—and remembered that she had a meeting scheduled with her Food Network producer that afternoon. They’ve had their meetings on Fridays for years now, but usually her producer would make the drive to the Hamptons to see her. Ina always loved the company, testing out her new recipes for upcoming Barefoot Contessa episodes and cookbook projects on the production staff. But in COVID times, they had to settle for Zoom, which Lidey taught her how to download on her iPad.
“Friday,” Jeffrey said delightedly. “That means I only have my global econ graduate students, and not until the afternoon.” He stared out into the garden, where rows of hydrangeas bloomed in puffs of periwinkle. “It’s a beautiful morning to have off.”
“Speak for yourself,” Ina said with a groan. “I have so much to do with the cookbook, and my producers are breathing down my neck to get me to film some episodes of the show on my phone. Can you believe that?” She slipped her glasses up to perch atop her head again, bringing her bangs up with them. “They even had the nerve to tell me that Ree Drummond had committed to a whole season in this pandemic format. I couldn’t think of a nice way to tell them that I am not The Pioneer Woman.”
“Whoa, whoa.” Jeffrey stood from his teak chair, coming around to Ina. “Easy there, Ms. Rosenberg.” He placed his hands on her shoulders and gave them a comforting squeeze.
Ina laughed, then leaned into his familiar touch.
“Looks like somebody’s already got a case of cabin fever,” he said, continuing to work his relaxing touch along her neck.
Ina stood and tugged at the tie of Jeffrey’s robe, releasing the plaid lapels and the heady scent of her husband.
“Mm, you smell better than bread,” she murmured into his neck. Jeffrey laughed without pausing his search for the source of her tension. By the time they moved to the couch, her morning anxieties had melted away. Pioneer Woman, Swedish Chef, what did it matter? She was Ina Garten.
Afterward, Ina propped a pillow between her head and the couch arm, while Jeffrey lazily massaged one of her feet. Her gaze coasted over the kitchen, the tidy open shelving, the cake stands, the bar cart. The late winter light landed softly on a bottle of Grey Goose. Ina sat up.
“I’ve just had a brilliant idea.”
“Am I really that good?” Jeffrey pulled gently at her heel and chortled. Ina indulged him with a look, then grabbed his robe from the armchair beside her.
“I’ve got to call Lidey,” she said. “I think I’ve cracked my Instagram dilemma.”
“Only you could make pillow talk productive,” Jeffrey said, and Ina could feel his admiring eyes on her plaid-covered bottom as she hurried away to fetch her phone.
Later that day.
“Shortbread?” Ina waggled the cookie platter in front of her laptop camera teasingly. Her producers groaned at the out-of-reach treats. “I’m too cruel,” she said, tucking the cookies out of sight, and getting into the meeting agenda. With a month, or more, of lockdown on the horizon, Ina was confident she could work double-time on her cookbook and maybe even revamp some classics for the pandemic kitchen.
“And what about social?” one of the execs asked.
“I think you’ll really like this,” Ina said and pulled a gigantic martini glass on screen.
“I figured out what’s missing, Lidey,” she’d said that morning. “I was so focused on comfort food, I forgot about the other important piece of being the Barefoot Contessa—fun, of course!” She talked Lidey through her idea for a short video, a cocktail tutorial, but a big one. She’d get an outsized martini glass and shaker and show her Instagram audience how to make the largest Cosmopolitan known to man.
“Ina,” Lidey said when she’d finished. “I think you might go viral.”
“Viral in a virus. How do you like that?”
Somehow, her producers seemed even more pleased than Lidey did. They all gasped on the Zoom call.
“Like moths to a flame, those producers were, the moment I brought out my glass,” she told Jeffrey that evening once he wrapped up his global economics class. The martini glass (which was more of a bowl than anything else, or perhaps even a vase) still rested on the kitchen counter beside her closed laptop, a little less full than it was when she first mixed the Cosmopolitan during her meeting. “I mean, how easy was that?”
“So I take it we’re having Cosmos with dinner this evening?” he asked, ogling the brimming glass.
Ina took in the bottomless concoction as well. “I suppose we must.”
“Well, I believe it’s going to take us a while to get this one down the hatch,” he said, holding up the gigantic pink concoction. “So I better propose a toast so we can get started. A toast to…”
“To Cosmos?” Ina asked, grabbing a fresh straw from the bar cart.
“Yes, to Cosmos,” he said. “Cosmos with my Ina. Oh, and to all those Sex and the City broads, wherever they are now.”
“I never thought I’d hear the day my husband would use the word ‘broads,’” Ina nudged.
“Well,” he said, “I don’t know about the rest of them, but Cynthia Nixon sure would’ve done a better job with this virus than Cuomo seems to be doing.”
“No politics at dinner, darling,” Ina cooed, sticking her straw in the giant glass to take another swig. “I thought we agreed on that during the Clinton administration.”
“You’re right,” he smirked. “Well, what’s for dinner, then?” He sniffed the air and smiled. “I don’t smell chicken, do I?”
Ina shrugged. “Y’know, I thought I might’ve seen a chicken walk in off the terrace and slip itself in the oven at some point during my production meeting.”
Jeffrey set the glass down, shaking out his wrists before giving his wife a gracious squeeze. She embraced him in return. She breathed into his neck—he was never a tall man, but she, of course, was never a tall woman. Always just the right height to place her chin on his shoulder, to reach under his arms and pull him closer. She’d wanted to rest her chin on that warm, perfect shoulder since the moment she first saw Jeffrey Garten on that sprawling Dartmouth Green. And even now, there was no one she would’ve rather sheltered-in-place with, whether or not a virus was ripping and roaring just out past the garden. There was no one who made her feel perfectly herself.
The oven dinged heartily—ding!—and the promise of a roasted chicken hung in the air. And even though Ina could feel Jeffrey’s grumbling stomach against her own, he didn’t let her go.
By Rebecca Joy and Hurley Winkler