Comedian Jena Friedman is the furthest thing from a cook, and she’s the first to admit it. But during the past few months of the global COVID-19 pandemic, hunger, desperation, and distraction from what she calls “our grim new dystopian reality” led her to uncharted territory: her kitchen. In a series of four videos for Reboot called The Joy of Quarantine, Friedman attempts to make Ashkenazi Jewish dishes, with varying degrees of success. A balabusta she’s not, but her culinary (mis)adventures are funny and endearing.
Friedman’s improvised offerings include everything bagels made with pizza dough; a potato-broccoli-green bean kugel; chicken cholent; and a pumpkin-applesauce babka, its dough rolled with a Slivovitz bottle. “I don’t really have a lot of cooking equipment and I’m not great at following directions,” Friedman says, explaining her sometimes imprecise recipes.
Her boyfriend Josh Epstein, a musician for the band JR JR, appears in disguise and serves as official taste tester. “I had to twist his arm to be in it,” she says. (Playing the role of sous chef, their Chihuahua, Potato, is not as camera shy.)
Epstein gives the bagels, which remind him of a Montreal-style bagel, a thumbs up, but pronounces the babka “a little raw in the middle.” Still, it’s better than her first attempt at the bread, a misshapen loaf she shows the camera. Epstein also provides appropriate musical accompaniment: he can be heard playing Fiddler on the Roof’s “Sunrise, Sunset” on guitar in episode three.
“I think the funniest part about quarantine is people cohabiting and trying to figure it out. We’ve hit a groove now, but there was a point where we were exhausted and stressed out that was captured in the show,” Friedman says. “We’re both touring artists and all of a sudden we’re stuck together in a small space. I’m sure somebody has already pitched that [series idea] to NBC.”
Originally from Haddonfield, N.J. near Philadelphia, Friedman grew up in a Conservative Jewish family and channeled her flair for writing and comedy into jobs that utilized both. She was a writer for The Late Show With David Letterman, a field producer for The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, created Soft Focus With Jena Friedman for Adult Swim, and has appeared on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore, Nat Geo Explorer, and MSNBC. She sharpened her stand-up skills in New York and Chicago, and became known for edgy, political comedy commentary.
She was about to start a new stand-up tour when the pandemic hit. “This is a cool departure from what I normally do,” she says of The Joy of Quarantine, but it was a welcome chance to keep working, and lighten the collective mood. It was also an opportunity to give back: each episode includes an invitation to support the Los Angeles Food Bank.
While she misses performing live, Friedman is taking advantage of her time at home to write and develop new projects. She’s not sure if there will be more Joy of Quarantine episodes, but she’s interested in attempting to make more Jewish comfort food, with matzah ball soup at the top of her list. “I’d also like to find a recipe that gives me any excuse to use my great grandmother’s brass mortar and pestle that her mom brought over from Odessa,” she says.
For now, however, a recent oven breakdown has put her cooking streak on hold. Epstein’s taken over in the kitchen, making simple meals based on fruits and vegetables. And like most people in lockdown, they’re leaving a lot of the cooking to the pros, she says. “We’re ordering in a lot.”