DERBY — Natalie Guillette is a visual arts teacher at North Country Union High School, and the founder of the wildly popular social media group Cooking Through COVID-19, a Facebook group she launched at the outset of the pandemic to create some kitchen comfort for she and her friends, who she was missing.
In an interview on Thursday, Guillette said the first week she founded the group she was calling it Cooking With COVID-19 and she realized “that doesn’t sound too good, so we edited that.”
The page took off quickly, she said, “It was like wildfire, it was very unexpected.”
While the page has grown to an audience of more than 5,200, including members the world over, Guillette said, “There just seems to be 9 degrees of separation with the folks on the page and the Northeast Kingdom.”
Guillette said she was missing her friends, being at school with her students in-person, and also missing the foster child she and her husband had with them in their home from birth, and who left their care in the late winter, just as the pandemic hit.
“My husband and I are foster parents and we had a child for 19 months from birth, and we lost the child right before the quarantine began,” said Guillette. “It was a devastating loss. It’s the name of the game, it’s the job we do … but it was a big hit and a big loss. That coupled with losing my students and all my friends, it was kind of borne out of a great loss. I am a very social person … all of a sudden everything changed, everything shifted.”
“When COVID began, and we went from being a family of three to a family of two, and as an artist, the kitchen became a studio in a sense,” explained Guillette.
The thought to begin the group with a close friend to help ease that difficult time is how Cooking Through COVID started — in the kitchen, of course.
“Allyson Howell and I are like, food friends, we are good friends, and we love being experimental in the kitchen … we love to try new recipes and follow chefs on line,” Guillette explained. “We love getting together and cooking really good food, and coming up with experimental things.”
Guillette said a few days into quarantine, after school had closed its doors, she was cooking something, and she was missing Howell, who she calls Ally, and “in that moment I thought, I’m just going to start a little cooking club with my girlfriend, so we can cook and be in the kitchen together … I started it because I was missing my girlfriend in the kitchen.”
Guillette said she and Howell initially shared the group with 10 people and almost instantly, many people began inviting their friends and it exploded.
“It just took off really quickly, it’s really cool,” she said.
There have been few issues with posts on the page, and the members police comments and report to them when there are concerns, which have only been a handful.
Guillette said, the kitchen table has become a unifying force during a tense time. She has a few friends who help her to administer the busy social media page.
“It’s simply a place to talk about food,” she said.
NEK Members of Group
One of the NEK members of the group is Cathy Dellinger of North Danville.
“COVID has turned the world upside down for foodies,” she said. “Yes, I’m that too. I’ve been part of several cooking groups — NYT Cooking, Politics of Food, but Cooking Through COVID-19 has brought a more local flavor to this social media scene.”
She said, “Seasoned cooks, first timers, old friends, new friends are just sharing what they love to do, and it’s fun. And, boy do we need fun right now.”
Members of the group share gardening help too, as so many have turned to stepped-up backyard gardening during the ongoing pandemic.
And of course, gardening is part of cooking. On Thursday, a member of the group, Anna Rose Shedd, a group member from Cape Elizabeth, Maine, posted a photo of her dinner, and the fact she had gotten her kids to eat zucchini.
“YOU GUYS! I finally found something to make with zucchini that tastes really good,” she posted. “I present the garlic cheddar zucchini crust-less quiche! Secret ingredient: I added pancake mix! The kids loved it!!! The kids actually ate zucchini!!!”
Adding Resources, Help
Guillette said the group has shifted as the pandemic has worn on.
“About two weeks in I started to think about food access, here we are posting pictures of all this beautiful food and we are in a place that has access to fresh, local food,” said Guillette. She said at the top of the page, there is a space which allows people to share food access information such as a food drop.
“We also try to promote small businesses that are food related, because we recognize that small businesses were being dramatically impacted by COVID,” said Guillette. She said a few of those businesses, including a taco place in Derby, thanked her and the page for sharing their business information, “Saying they had some new customers.”
She said the trends on the page mirrors real life, where the fads going on in people’s lives are showing up, such as making bagels. “I feel like the page keeps evolving with what we’re all going through now,” said Guillette.
The page helped to share information when certain supplies like flour were tough to get.
A neighbor traded her a bag of her “insanely good bagels” for a supply of yeast.
“It became a resource for people,” said Guillette.
An Event? A Cookbook? Maybe
She said the next step for the social media group may be a foray into “what it would look like if we were to host some sort of Cooking Through COVID weekend potluck,” and a business has reached out wishing to help host such an event, “This place has the facility to host something, they have lodging. It would be like come to this place where we have lodging and camping and we can build our local economy … We can’t even begin to build that idea right now … It’s on the horizon.”
“We talked about compiling a cookbook,” said Guillette, who also runs two side businesses.
She operates a paint and sip business called The Creative Buzz and a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm, Cedar Creek, with her husband Corey.
“We’ve always had a farming undercurrent going on in our lives, we’re busy,” said Guillette. “It’s just been this very cool, positive space… and there have been a few laughs along the way, too.”
A cookbook could potentially raise money she said, for a cause that the group decides is worthy. “If you’re putting energy into something personally I’d like it to be profitable … why shouldn’t it benefit someone?” she asked.
The page is taking nominations for health care workers and plans to send a pizza party to thank that person and their team — such as a nurse chosen for the honor, and his or her team on duty that shift, explained Guillette.
There are members from Thailand, Vietnam, and other parts of Asia, as well as New Zealand, Germany, Costa Rica, Italy, and more and of course all over the United States — and many Vermonters, too, both in-state, and natives scattered across the world.
“It’s just caught the attention of Vice Magazine, we had a little sound bite on one of their news magazines,” said Guillette.
In a video message she posted on the page, Guillette said to the thousands of members who now are a part of one another’s lives, “I had no idea that that one lonely evening in my kitchen wanting to cook with one of my best friends would turn into such a wonderful and inspirational forum for us to share comfort food, some of our adventures in the kitchen, being inspired by each other.”
“This has turned into something really cool,” Guillette said in the video.