Saturday, April 4, 2020

Cooking With Uncertainty

Access to some items is erratic at best. The first couple of weeks I was scared to use any of the eggs in the house. Suddenly that 5 pound jar of rice looked especially empty. The ramen in the emergency pantry tripled in value overnight. 

Things have leveled off a bit as far as access goes. It’s not possible to do a perfect grocery restock, but that’s a gateway to creativity. Food is an opportunity to mix skills from the poorest of times and the richest. The scrappy desperation of the college years, mixed with skills picked up from various culinary explorations that come from reading Michael Pollan and going full vegan for a couple of years. 

There are kitchen tricks I have read about but never needed. For instance, replacing an egg with applesauce. That helped with making banana bread. Which, in itself, was baked out of necessity before some bananas went bad. It was a reminder that recipes like that originated from exactly the kind of life we are sliding into now. Depression cooking. Wartime rationing. Pre-globalism, when all produce was either in season or simply unavailable. 

So many of our holiday traditions are built around that seasonal flux. I’ve been lucky to grow up in a world where I have never, ever known want or shortage in that way. My Grandma used to say things like “tomatoes are in season.” I took it to mean that the ones “in season” were of better or different quality than the ones we had in, say, November.

This would have been around the late-70s/early 80s. What we think of as “heirloom” tomatoes were just tomatoes. A transition was happening, and the old model was being slowly pushed off the shelves, replaced by hybrids that were more larger, lasted longer, uniform, and a bit less flavorful.

The language of “in season” is all but dead in mass culture, reserved for home gardeners and farmer’s market enthusiasts. To the common shopper it is utterly meaningless. Without massive changes to the food supply chain and factory farming, our ability to feed the masses would have faltered as the population more than doubled from 3.7 billion to 7.8 billion in the 50 years I’ve been alive. In other words, I don't think the change is a bad one. 

Oh yeah, this is about cooking in a pandemic. 

I made French toast this morning. We had a dense and not entirely tasty gluten-free bread. It was what was available on the day we bought bread. I also had some heavy cream that needed to be used up before the end of the weekend. That with a couple of eggs and some spices and I was in business. French toast was originally a way to deal with stale baked goods. This is the first time I’ve made it for that reason. 

Yesterday I roasted a whole chicken. Again, not that unusual, but I did it mainly to make space in the freezer. Also, we had just a few small red potatoes left, and a few carrots with no where else to go. After dinner my daughter made chicken stock from the carcass, the carrot tops, and the end of a celery stalk. In the past that would have been an exercise in novelty. Now, waste seems... wasteful. 

For lunch I made a large batch of chili. I’ve lived in Texas 25 years, and finally capitulated to the “no beans” approach. However, this being different times, I added beans, corn, the ends of a tomato about to go bad, and garlic on the cusp of sprouting. The product was a hybrid of how I made it in my 20s and how I typically prepare it in my late 40s. 

Tonight I am cooking up some of that rice I am worried about running low on. The plan is to make a large, freezable batch of fried rice tomorrow. We have half a bag of frozen mixed vegetables that I don’t want to loose to freezer burn. Diced ham is going to be the protein. As a family we generally avoid pork. That was before. We don’t live in that world now, and diced ham was among the few proteins we could get in our last grocery order. 

I’ve been impressed how food websites have been adapting. For example, Epicurious does a video series where they have 3 levels of cooks make the same thing. It’s a way to demonstrate how anyone can enjoy food and make flavorful and interesting dishes at any level of skill. I feel like they are subtly moving towards videos of things that match the new landscape. It’s like they are anticipating shortages and supply chain disruptions. 

A number of food blogs from the big players have also been sharing receipts based on what people are likely to have access to. Aspirational cooking, cooking for entertainment, is not where are culture is right now. I think we are all going to come out of this with a different respect for waste, access, and what we really need nutritionally. 

Dry goods have been tough to find. Rice, dried beans, flour, sugar. I think a lot of people are undergoing a pretty large learning curve on how to make a batch of dried beans, for instance. It’s something we’ve been taught to buy in emergency situations, but for many there is going to be a lot of trial and error. Fortunately, those InstaPot things that everyone was buying the last couple of years may get dusted off and fired up. Nothing is easier to make than black beans in a pressure cooker. 

I think some of our heroes though this will be people like Mark Bittman, Alton Brown, Michael Ruhlman and others who focus on making food accessible. Author/chefs who can explain the underlying ideas of cooking in a way that anyone can create something good with what they have is going to have more value than cooking competitions, food tourism, and culinary elitism. 

Here are a few books I like that may be helpful. 

Friday, April 3, 2020

Now We Are 21

When you turned 49 on November 12, 2019, you started to get serious. All those things you kept putting off started to seem urgent. Creating videos, drawing more, writing more, being kind to your creative self. You also resolved to focus on pushing your career ahead into new areas at work. There were some large plans, but they were manageable. I wasn't going to waste time now that 50 was looming.

Here's a note from the future outlining what your world will look like exactly 4 months later.

On the evening of Friday, March 13 you and your lovely wife MJ will go to dinner at Goodfriend. There will be about 4 other diners there, which creates an eerie silence in what is typically a festive space. The server will be wearing blue rubber gloves, like the ones people dye their hair with. You and MJ will be concerned that the menu touched the appetizer plate. You and MJ will debate which one of you will use the potentially infected plate to eat their half of the turkey burger and sweet potato fries. You will both know with 0 uncertainty that this will be your last date for a long time because restaurants aren't safe now.

I know you are saying "that sounds like a pretty dumb dream to have," but it is 100% real.

Over the weekend you will go grocery shopping a few times, and each trip will be a bit stranger. On day 1, you will stay 3 feet from everyone at Target. The Lysol wipes, toilet paper, feminine hygiene, and diaper aisles are all empty.

On day 2, you will do your best to limit what surfaces are touched at Aldi. Everyone will have toilet paper and water in their carts. You will see 1 person wearing a face mask, like the Asian woman who got the window seat on the plane when you flew to Canada in 2008.

On day 3 you, MJ and your daughter, MC,  will go to Albertson's. They will be wearing the same gloves that the waitress wore 3 days ago. Your hands will be wrapped in Lysol wipes. You won't touch any public surface. The woman in front of you is wearing a black mask with a plastic filter on it. You talk with her. She is a health care professional. "I wear this all the time for an immunity issue. We are getting ready though. All of my friends were told that they were to get ready to be General Practitioners again, no matter what their specialty. They are rushing to relearn the basics." She pauses to pay, then leans in as close as she dares to get and whispers "It's going to be at least 4 weeks. Get ready."

You won't leave the house again for the rest of March. Your son-in-law, PD, will work another week, then be put on furlough. MC's job is already closed. MJ starts working from home. You've worked from home for 8 years, which makes you the lucky one in this scenario.

Twenty-one days pass. It's now.

Now I walk the dog every morning, just like before. Now, I go to work in my home office, just like before. My job is mostly managing how other people are handling the new reality in cities across the US. It's emotionally exhausting.

Now, we disinfect grocery deliveries in bleach and soapy water. Packages are left for 24 hours, then handled with gloves to get to the goods inside. Liquor delivery is expensive but necessary. Now, the car sits covered in oak pollen, and started only to keep the battery in good shape. Gas is under $1.50 a gallon, but half the population barely needs any.

Now, our society is divided into classes along new lines. The workforce is made up of healthcare workers, grocery and supply chain people, essential infrastructure, delivery drivers, and people who can work at home. Everyone else is in an unemployed class made up of people who are not healthcare workers, grocery and supply chain people, essential infrastructure, delivery drivers, or able to work at home.

The day you started to shelter in place, there were 2200 known US cases. There are now 250,000. The dead have gone from 52 to 6000 in the US. This is in merely 21 days, with at least 6 more weeks to go.

There is a new common language around this. We all adapt to the jargon and terms quickly.

Social Distancing
Viral Load
Flatten the Curve
Essential Business

There will also be a lot said about "panic buying". I have a strong opinion on that. You cannot tell a whole country that they will be staying inside for 2 weeks or longer, give them zero guidance on what that looks like from a resource perspective, then get mad when everyone acts individually to quickly plan before going into lockdown.

FEMA has long provided published guidelines for what you need in a 72 hour emergency like a snowstorm or hurricane. No such guidelines were created for this pandemic. A simple list of essentials for a family of 4 along with guidance to stores to limit purchase quantities and supplies would not have run out on the scale they have or as quickly.

 Don't create a panic, offer no solution, then get mad about the panic.

The worst places stand to get worse The best places stand to get bad, then worse, then worst. It's everywhere and nowhere, invisible but all encompassing. Covid-19 is a virus than infects culture, language, and people. It is fear and anxiety. It is a critique of the health care system, traditions, institutions, economics, leadership, freedom, and authoritarianism.

It is everything to everybody, and can pass right through one person on its way to kill someone else.

My family has been sheltering in place for 21 days. There is nothing special about our circumstance. Our story so far is essentially a happy one. These are the good old days.