Brian Ross, founder of the Quarantine Kitchen Facebook group, at McGraw School in Hampden where he runs the kitchen. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

When the pandemic first hit in March 2020 and Americans went into lockdown mode, Maine chef Brian Ross knew people would be living mostly off whatever food was in their pantries for the foreseeable future.

So Ross started a Facebook group, Quarantine Kitchen, where members could post photos of their resourceful home-cooked meals, share recipes, and inspire each other with their creativity. “The plan was to give people ways to use the food in their pantries,” he said. “It’s certainly taken on a life of its own since then.”

In one of his earlier posts, Ross displayed a photo of a can of Cape May brand scungilli (sliced conch) that he said was “lurking quietly in the depths of the pantry. This one might be fun!” The next day, he posted a helpful how-to video of himself cooking Italian scungilli salad and a conch fritter in his home kitchen in Hampden.

Ross’s network of Maine foodie friends joined Quarantine Kitchen immediately, and soon group membership mushroomed to include people from all over the region, the country and the world. “I feel we are creating the world’s largest dinner table and sharing in the the tastiest potluck dinner ever. Everyone seated together, sharing happily and equally, regardless of our station in life and in spite of the world outside,” Ross, the kitchen manager at the McGraw School in Hampden, wrote in a March 2020 message to members.

On April 8, 2020, Ross posted, “In two weeks we have posted 2174 times, commented 10,700 times and liked 60,300 times. All by cleaning out our cupboards!” Two weeks later, the group reached 8,000 members.

Coming up on its two-year anniversary March 24, Quarantine Kitchen now has more than 11,000 members representing at least 75 countries who have posted about 60,000 dishes in the forum so far. What started as a kind of crisis-cooking support group has become a cherished part of members’ daily lives. Many say they’ve come for the food, but stayed for the camaraderie.

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“This group was a light in a dark time and has grown to people sharing recipes and just things they are doing in their home kitchens,” said Marie LePage McLellan, of Glenburn Center. “It’s definitely a group I am so happy to be a part of. Never an unkind word spoken here, and we all cheer each other on.”

“I joined when it had a couple hundred members – it’s been so fun to watch it grow and to learn from other members,” said John Ripley of Tallahassee, Florida. “It’s like having 11,000 friends over to dinner.”

Brian Ross, the founder of the Quarantine Kitchen Facebook where people share dinner photos with each other, in the kitchen at McGraw School in Hampden where he works. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The mayor of Quarantine Kitchen

The group’s feel-good vibe emerged early on, partly in response to some negative comments on the site about some members’ dinner photos. Perhaps no other member’s postings help set the group’s highly supportive standards than Micah James Moran, of Bangor. Moran’s posts of his homemade dinners are far and away Quarantine Kitchen’s most outstanding, though not for the reasons most cooks like to stand out.

When he saw Moran’s first posts, Ross said, “I thought he was messing with me, and I know there were others in the group who reacted the same way. There are people on the internet who just like to stir things up.”

One of Moran’s dinner posts last week is typical of his creations. The dish combined two packages of creamy chicken flavor ramen, a cup of Domino’s garlic sauce, half a cup of light I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter and four frozen beer-battered fish fillets cooked in an air fryer. He stirred all the ingredients together in a bowl, breaking up the fish filets. Then he gave the whole thing a little time in the microwave, et voila!

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Micah James Moran’s 2260-calorie ramen and fish fillet dinner for March 8, posted to the Quarantine Kitchen Facebook page. Photo by Micah James Moran

Curious, Ross contacted Moran for the story behind his massive meals. He learned that Moran, 35, has been a cancer patient since he was only 5 years old, and has undergone multiple jaw replacements and extensive chemotherapy. “The treatments wrecked his mechanics of being able to chew and swallow normally,” Ross said, and also deadened his taste buds. “He’s not concerned so much about eating for longevity now. He’d rather have the experience of flavor.”

Ross, 61, has had his own share of health problems. When he launched Quarantine Kitchen, he was a stage 4 cancer patient, diagnosed with neuroendocrine cancer. “I was dying for three years,” Ross said of his situation in 2020. “I didn’t expect to be alive today.”

Doctors removed a tumor from below his bladder later in 2020, and he has been in full remission since. “I’m in way better physical shape than I was,” Ross said, adding that he’s dropped 65 unwanted pounds from his 5-foot-9-inch frame. “The experience changes your perspective on life. But I could identify with Micah as a cancer patient.”

So when Ross saw that some of the young man’s dishes were attracting critical comments in the first couple of months, he would directly message the commenters to explain Moran’s relationship with food. “All the comments became positive,” Ross said. “You came to realize that all of these weird, bizarre flavor combinations were actually helping him thrive.”

Chef Brian Ross, foreground, met with Micah James Moran, “the mayor of Quarantine Kitchen,” in the Bangor Mall mid-2020. Photo courtesy of Brian Ross

Moran’s over-the-top dinners match his proudly flashy fashion sense. “His outfits look like a Halloween costume designer had a seizure while working,” Ross said, his tone equal parts awe and affection. “He’s very happy with who he is.”

For one of Moran’s big-bowl suppers last month, he mixed together half a pound of liverwurst, a quarter pound of blue cheese, two supermarket ready-made spicy chicken salads, a cup of fat-free ranch dressing, half a cup of light Italian dressing from Olive Garden, and a Velveeta single. What’s more, Moran eats these creations – usually in the neighborhood of 2,000 calories, which he calculates and includes in each post – all by himself.

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“I have ADHD, Asperger’s and OCD, so I count calories,” Moran said. “It’s kept me same clothing size since 2014.”

“He’s become a cult figure within the group. He’s the mayor of the Quarantine Kitchen,” Ross said. “To me, it’s the crowning success of the whole project.”

Even playing field

Moran’s dinners may represent one end of the Quarantine Kitchen spectrum – with some serious foodies and professional cooks on the other end – but the group has plenty of other less experienced but enthusiastic home cooks who are unabashed about posting their efforts.

In Quarantine Kitchen’s first few weeks, Ross posted a compilation of various members’ dinner photos. Photo courtesy of Brian Ross

Professional food stylists could easily find fault with some of their images of pale roast pork or mish-mash side dishes, or even the shots of wonderfully browned casseroles or pizzas photographed whole and untouched, though they cry out to be scooped or sliced so you can see the gooey goodness within.

But finding fault is not how Quarantine Kitchen rolls. In what seems like an unspoken code, if members don’t have anything good to say, they don’t comment on a post, period. Comments on the group’s site are almost universally positive and encouraging, free of nasty wisecracks and unsolicited advice or criticism, constructive or otherwise.

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“The group is completely non-judgmental, and very supportive of everyone. And I’ve cultivated it to be like that,” Ross said, noting that he has been vigilant about keeping the group forum free of political talk, COVID complaints, or self-promotional business plugs.

Quarantine Kitchen’s member base includes food pros like Dave Eckert, the Kansas City, Missouri-based member who is the group’s most prolific poster, according to Ross. Eckert is an Emmy-winning television producer and host of the series, “Culinary Travels with Dave Eckert.”

Like the range in their cooking ability, members’ food budgets also vary widely. Ross said he knows some who live in trailers and others who are millionaires. There’s even a private chef working on a yacht who has posted from Monte Carlo. “It doesn’t matter at Quarantine Kitchen,” Ross said. “It’s an even playing field.”

Help for the homesick

Other groups named Quarantine Kitchen launched on Facebook at the start of the pandemic, too, including a New York City-based group with 71,000 members. But it’s Ross’ group that expat New Englanders join to keep home in their hearts.

“I am from Massachusetts living in Virginia,” said member Pat Dame. “I follow this group to feel close to my New England roots.”

Irene Mayer, who lives in Florida but is formerly from southern New England, said she follows the group because “the recipes and the stories swapped here are a wonderful reminder of my childhood memories and keep me in touch with my deep New England roots. It really is wonderful.”

Ross said a Quarantine Kitchen cookbook is an idea that he’s batted around since the start. The group has actually amassed enough recipes to warrant a cookbook series, Ross said.

A cookbook would take loads of work, though, from recipe testing to securing publication rights, so Ross said the project is on hold for now. “Still, this all has really been a fantastic ride so far.”


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