Sun. May 26th, 2024

The Covid-19 pandemic affected the whole world. Many people lost their jobs, mental health issues worsened, students fell behind academically and inflation was at an all-time high. Jessica Sontag, 57, on the other hand, used the global pandemic to share her love for cooking with the world. 

It started one day in September 2020 when she approached her friend Dominga with an idea. “[Dominga] made all these dishes that I’d had before that were just okay, to me. When I had her version, they were the best I ever had,” Sontag explained. “I approached her and said ‘I think more people need to taste your food. What do you think about you and me cooking for the public?’ And she thought that it was a great idea.” 

It became a family affair. With Sontag’s whole family home for lockdown reasons, she and Dominga were able to turn her kitchen into a fully functioning Mexican restaurant. They called it, “The Wandering Cantina,” based in Malvern. Weekly menus would be uploaded to Facebook on Tuesdays and orders were due Sunday. The following Monday and Tuesday were dedicated to cooking authentic Mexican food (such as chicken pozole, taco salad and tortilla soup), packaging and labeling orders and eventually delivering those orders to customers. 

“Packaging the orders was the best part,” Sontag recalled. “I just loved looking at all of the food all laid out, all colorful, going into bags, making it all come together. You’d have, like, rows of rice, rows of beans, rows of whatever and then you’d start going down the orders and you’d start putting it into bags with a menu for the next week.” 

Sontag’s love for sharing food didn’t start there, though, as she recalls forming a cooking group called “The Dining Divas” in 2007. “I found an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer that was all about this cooking group of women that met on Meetup.com and they had been together for over 10 years. I set up an ad and had about 24 people respond so I had to make two groups. The one group totally flopped and did not last. The other group, we’re still going.” In the article found in the Philadelphia Inquirer archives, Sontag explained that The Dining Divas met once a month until the pandemic hit, where occasionally, they met on Zoom. Each month the group picked a different theme and each person cooked a dish to share that somehow incorporated that month’s theme. Past themes have included Thai, Italian, Chocolate, Potato, Spicy and more. They never ran out of ideas.  

During the pandemic, while running The Wandering Cantina, Sontag was asked to teach cooking virtually on a corporate platform. She set up a filming studio in her kitchen and taught Zoom classes up to four times a week with the number of participants ranging from 2–100. Sontag explained that most of the time everyone’s cameras were turned off and people were silent. She encouraged participants to ask questions but recalled that most of the classes were 100% silent.  

Plenty of educators have stated that teaching classes on Zoom was torture. A March 2021 article from the Washington Post recalls those tough times. C. Thi. Nguyen, a professor at the University of Utah explained, “I told my students that I had no problem with them leaving their cameras off. The result, in retrospect, was entirely predictable: Every single student chose that option, and I ended up lecturing to a sea of black squares. This turned out to be exhausting, isolating, miserable and my teaching suffered badly. I hadn’t even realized how much my teaching — and the joy I get from it — depended on that facial feedback. Without it, I became just a guy, alone in his basement, shouting into a blank laptop, hour after hour, day after day.” 

Eventually, Sontag expanded her audience and began teaching classes once a week out of her home through Chester County Night School. Inspiration for these classes typically starts with Sontag finding a recipe that inspires her, and then working to adjust it so it can meet her menu criteria. She strives to cook food that is vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free and egg-free and as a result, anyone with dietary restrictions can be accommodated and included. Sometime during the week leading up to the class, Sontag will cook her whole menu to ensure that she is happy with the results. 

Back in September, I was actually able to assist her in one of these trials. I peeled about 100 chickpeas to make hummus and I was able to try falafel for the first time. Sontag’s in-person classes typically consist of two to eight people and have always gotten positive feedback. With this opportunity from Chester County Night School, Sontag has been able to teach locals and once again share her love for cooking with her community. She explained, “What I really love about the Chester County Night School’s audience is that it’s people I wouldn’t have met otherwise, you know? They’re not in my circles and they’re not on my social media, they’re just like out there. It gives you this little cookie-cutter community feel. Everybody who’s here feels it. You’re eating and you’re sharing with people from your community and then that you’re in somebody’s home just makes it more intimate.”  

 


Sophie Stair is a first-year English major with a minor in Journalism. SS1029515@wcupa.edu.

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