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. 

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