Food in the Time of Quarantine

“That,” said Mark, “is very definitely the best grilled cheese sandwich I have ever had.”

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The idea popped up in an email from somewhere…I think, maybe, from a favorite blogger who writes about wonderful food: Parmesan-crusted grilled cheese sandwiches. I didn’t note the recipe exactly, but we stole the method and applied it to grilled ham and cheese…for Mark, grilled ham and cheese and tomato.

We heated the olive oil in the skillet, buttered the bread…white for James, rye for Mark and me…and gathered everything we needed to put between the slices.

Then we dipped the buttered side of the bread in grated Parmesan, put it cheese down, sizzling, in the skillet, and built the sandwiches, sliced cheese first, meat and tomatoes cradled in the middle. We took the buttered top slices and patted them in the Parmesan, too.

The scent rose, cheesy and tantalizing, from the hot oil. The sliced cheese melted and oozed. When I flipped the sandwich, the bread was golden brown and wore a crust of almost-orange parm.

We let the bottom sides cook up and flipped them onto plates, and then we sliced them so that steam escaped and American and cheddar flowed, liquid hot, together.

In my family, when the table goes quiet, you know the food is very, very good.

This was a quiet, quiet lunch.

“We’ll do this again,” I said finally, and Jim answered, “OH, yeah.”

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I am finding that food takes on a whole new meaning in a time of quarantine.

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I say things. I make vows. And then life intervenes.

Like, here’s a vow I’ve often made:

I am going to learn to make biscuits from scratch!

We used to go to a restaurant with my friend Kim; she could walk to it from her downtown apartment. James and I and sometimes Mark, if work allowed, would meet her there.

The place was called Build A Biscuit, and it was run by a beautiful, eccentric woman who had traveled all over—she sang, she told us, with a rock band in Budapest. After we’d visited a few times, a former boyfriend from the Czech Republic arrived to help her with the restaurant. They worked together easily, laughing and telling stories…Do you remember, in Paris…?  How about that time in Istanbul????

Sometimes she would call up a favorite song on Alexa, and she would sing along to it, in a rich, deep, dreamy alto. We would put down our forks and just listen.

But not for long. Because, good as the atmosphere, the talk, and the music were, the food was so amazing that we couldn’t ignore it for long. She would bring trays of the most amazing square biscuits out, steaming, from her oven in the back. She would break their golden crusts open, showing soft, snowy centers, and ask us what we’d like on top.

Jim would get a gooey cheeseburger mixture.

Kim always got some kind of healthy, vegetarian concoction; she would eat half and take the rest home for later.

I swore, each time we went, that I would try something new, but then I couldn’t help it. I always got the chicken pot pie topping.

And I always said, as we left the warmth and the rich conversation and the tangible friendship of that place,–I always said this:

“I am going to learn how to make biscuits like these!”

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And then I would try, and I would come up with small hard flour hockey pucks again.

The restaurant closed, eventually; its good people moved on to their next adventure.

Kim left us, the cancer finally getting the upper hand.

Those days morphed into memory, but memory laced with longing: if I could make a biscuit like THAT,–well, some of that richness might come back to us.

And then life would get busy, of course, and I’d think, well, biscuits. Maybe NEXT week.

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But now, it IS next week; now we live under stay-at-home orders. Now there is no excuse.

And this week, remembering everything I have been told about biscuit making, I pulled up a recipe a wonderful cook friend had sent, and I combined those ingredients with very, very cold butter, and Joy of Cooking’s recommended process for mixing biscuits  in a food processor, and I tried one more time.

And damn: didn’t it work, just? Didn’t I get golden brown, high fluffy biscuits?

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We cracked them open for dinner, poured shredded chicken gravy over the top, and talked about what we could do NEXT time.

Instead of making round biscuits, we could cut them into squares like that beautiful singing restaurateur did. We could brush the tops with butter just as they came out of the oven. We could make chicken pot pie filling to ladle onto the tender, steaming insides of these imaginary biscuits.

We could create a time as wonderful, as memorable, as rich and full of meaning, maybe, as those lunches we spent with Kim in that little café.

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There are jokes on the Internet, jokes about a day coming, in the far distant future, when we’ll all, after wearing elastic-waists for the whole of the quarantine, have to try to buckle up our big girl pants.

And that will be hard, because we’ll have been comforting ourselves with food.

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We are trying not to let that happen. We get up in the morning; Mark showers and dresses for the kind of work he does in his home office, connecting to the real office, plugging into meetings and webinars.

I do my hair, and I put make-up on. I do NOT wear yesterday’s clothes. I iron a batch of shirts each week, and I think about what necklace to wear with today’s choice, and whether it’s a day for cologne or perfume.

We wear pants that buckle and snap,–no elastic involved.

We do our morning work, and then we go for a morning walk, trying for a different venue (the fitness trail! The college! Mission Oaks Gardens!) each day.

We are here; we are trying hard to engage mindfully in this temporarily truncated life.

But it is true, for sure: food has become very important.

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Food is important because shopping is an issue. We do not want to go out into that retail miasma any more often than necessary. After our last foray, we swore that we would not shop for another two weeks, at least.

We tried to anticipate every single need, and we figured that if we didn’t anticipate something, we probably don’t really NEED it.

Knowing that we can’t run down to Kroger to scratch a sudden yearning, we make food last. We eat the leftovers for lunch the next day. We make Pasta Rustica using the three slices of bacon we didn’t gobble down and the lonely remaining chicken breast. We use stale crusts to make croutons or bread crumbs, or we crumble them up into a breakfast bake.

We read in today’s paper that stores will now have to limit the number of people inside at any given time, and I wonder how that will work. Will you show up at door and have a guardian say, “Sorry; you’ll have to wait…”? Will we get numbers, or make appointments? Will we circle the parking lot until a person leaves the store, running to be allowed in next?

Only one family member can shop at a time, too, the regulations say.

Shopping will not be a pleasant, exploratory meander. It will be a goal-oriented mission: get the stuff and get OUT of there.

It all seems scarily complicated. So much easier not to shop, to make the food we have last.

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But in a time when staying home is what we do, the food we eat means more than just nourishment.

So my dear friend Debbi, whose husband, Randy, passed far too young from cancer, is home by herself for the duration. Debbie is a phenomenal cook, and she loves to cook for other people. Her house is a warm, wide open place where friends gather and wine flows, and the food is good, good, good.

Normally, Deb says, she doesn’t fuss just for herself, but right now she’s changed that plan.

“So far,” she writes, “I’ve made chicken and broccoli crepes, and lobster risotto [her favorite] and even homemade lemon curd…”

She’s treating herself like company. She’s celebrating her time with herself.

I love that idea.

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“I’ve been bringing out old family recipes—dishes we loved but, in the hustle and bustle, they’ve fallen by the wayside,” writes another amazing cook, Terry. She’s making lighter things, too,—fresh fruit salads, for instance, and choosing recipes that will freeze well, so leftovers can become future meals.

Terry and her husband Paul, who are known for their hospitality, their pies, their love of hosting big family gatherings, are sheltering in place together. Meals are important for them, too.

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I remember stories my parents told, Depression kids both, about foods that were treats for them growing up—my father talked about the exotic wonder of having cold cuts; my mother remembered something called Depression cookies that were made by soaking cubes of cheap white bread in condensed milk, rolling them in coconut, and baking them.

“Do you remember…?” my father would say, and Mom would build on that, enlarging and recalling; they wove a little symphony of meaning from an experience, and an era, and a deprivation, they shared.

And we will do that, too, I think; we’ll talk excitedly about food discoveries we’ve made during this compressed, at home time. We’ll brag about substitutions we made (“It’s better than the original recipe!”)  because we didn’t want to brave the store, or because the store was out of pasta, or peanut butter, or whatever that one ingredient was we needed.

God willing, if we’re all together ten years hence, enjoying the crunch as we cut into parm-crusted grilled cheese, we’ll be saying, “Do you remember when we found this recipe? Remember COVID 19, when we stayed home for six weeks?”

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We’ll remember and we’ll share, because it’s important, isn’t it—the food we eat in quarantine?

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What are you eating these at home days, my friend?

Gifts of Food in a Thankful Season

It is a cold, gray, wet afternoon, and the streets are coated with leaves, sodden and slick.

I talk my self out of the walk I should take and decide to make some soup instead.

I find a baggie of red pepper slices and a package of boneless chicken in the freezer. It occurs to me that we have not had chicken corn chowder in a long, long time. I rummage in the cookbooks and find The Reader’s Digest Great Chicken Dishes (copyright 1999; Mark and Jim got this for me long years ago). I open the book; it flips right to Chicken Corn Chowder. We have made this recipe many, many times, especially during the law school years.

The kitchen becomes a bustling place. I put the solid, frozen poultry block  in a big skillet, pour water in up to its knees, set it to steam on a slow burner. The chicken was a deal Mark picked up when he and Jim were in Westerville; they stopped at Fresh Thyme and snarfed up bargains, including boneless chicken: 1.69 a pound.

While it poaches, I chop veggies: the pepper while it’s still frozen-crisp, potatoes, and onion. And I remember that the potatoes and onion are freebies. Visiting a friend, I went to her local supermarket and discovered an amazing sale. If I bought a plump chuck roast, the store would give me nine other pot-roast-y items free. The onions and potatoes were in the mix. I filled a cooler and brought my goodies home to unpack and ponder.

The roast was so big I cut it into three hefty pieces. We used one chunk that night, making beef fajitas. I froze the rest, with hazy thoughts of soups and stews.

But now I dig into the sack of small potatoes, wash them well, dice them fairly small, put them in a bath of cold water. The chicken sizzles and spits; I add another inch of water, and I flip the fowl, which breaks apart into separate, still pinkish, cutlets. I sprinkle on light seasoning—just a little salt and pepper—and go back to my chopping.

I peel my freebie onion, toss the skins, and dice that too.

This is a pantry-shelf kind of dish. While the chicken completes cooking through, I search my cupboards and shelves. I pull out a can of creamed corn; way back, I find a can of evaporated milk. I measure the half cup of milk I need and pour the rest into a plastic container and slide it into the fridge. In the back of my mind, thoughts about how we can use that extra milk begin to simmer.

I dig out the packet of herbs de Provence I bought at the farm store. This recipe calls for a little cayenne, too.

I chop the chicken, thinking that Jim won’t eat the chowder, and I remember there’s a jar of Alfredo sauce in the pantry. That came from a burgeoning basket we won, and James loves chicken Alfredo.

I fill the big pasta pot, drizzle in some oil, and put it on the simmer burner to warm up to the boiling point.

The chicken is done. I turn off the flame, look at the clock, and head off to pick up Jim from work.

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We need a dessert, I think, and I pull a butter wrapper from the freezer. I shine up the insides of my baking pan. While the chicken cools, I boil together corn syrup and sugar. When they are bubbling hard, I turn off the heat and stir in a cup of peanut butter. It’s a thick, hot, viscous syrup, and I pour it over the crisp rice cereal I’ve dumped into the pasta bowl.

I stir, vigorously, and rice krispies fly everywhere, until they are tamed into obedience by the sweet syrup. They tumble into the pan; I press them down and melt chocolate in the microwave to spread over the top. Buckeye bars, we call them, sweet and chewy and not a shard of gluten in the mix.

I put the pan, warm and heavy now, on top of the toaster to cool.

Jim chortles over something he’s watching in the family room.

The rain begins again, hard and insistent.

I pull chicken from the frying pan, I get the big knife out, and I chop.

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Mark comes running in, glinting rain droplets, a little after five, and exclaims about good smells. There are three pots simmering on the stove. The chowder lifts and bubbles, lofting herb-scent into the warm, steamy kitchen. The Alfredo sauce heaves sullenly, weighted down by its own richness and its bounty of chicken chunks. The pasta water is popping, jittery and anxious.

Jim decides he’d like linguine noodles, and we pull them from their plastic package and satisfy the agitated water shivering in the pasta pot.

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Mark lights the fire in the fireplace to cut the chill, and we gather over steaming plates. And it comes to me, rich and fast, the meaning of thankfulness, the reality of bounty. We have enough and plenty; we have true gifts of food…food we bought with the pay from our labors, food that was gifted to us in surprising, delightful ways.

Mark savors a spoonful of chowder.

“Such good flavors,” he says. “Remember how Cheek used to love this?”

Todd, a young law school classmate, used to pass Mark notes in class when he was in need of a home-cooked meal.

“I like chicken corn chowder,” the note would say.

Soon, we would cook up a batch, and Mark would invite Todd and other friends over.

Tonight, this food has the savor of herbs and the comfort of memory.

The canned Alfredo sauce, Jim says, is really, really good. And when I washed the jar, I discovered it was beautiful and decorative, a stamped mason jar…something we can use, maybe to pack up some kind of savory Christmas goodies.

There’s past, present, and future in this meal.

And a call to remember and be thankful, in this month of Thanksgiving; we have much to give thanks for, and that is not true, we know, for everyone tonight. A call to action; a time to reckon how we can share our gifts.

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I take a long, sharp knife and cut the rice krispie treats into bars. We carry dishes to the dishwasher; we fill the sink with hot soapy water. Jim wipes the table. I lift burners with a potholder and sponge off the dappled, overworked stove top.

Mark is elbow-deep in soapy water, telling a story about a very nice person from his office who went home for lunch and never had time to eat. Outside the last sip of sky-light is gone and the sky gentles into full dark.

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Dishes done, table cleared, I take my book to the reading chair. I munch a Buckeye bar and read about magicians in the Victorian era, and my socked-up feet toast in the warmth of the fire.

Warm and dry and sated, family safe around me, I am struck, physically, by my luckiness, a luck I enjoy, but did not, particularly, earn.

The rain still comes down, relentless, steady.

 

 

 

 

Name That Food! (A Loolie Tale)

Monkey bread from pinterest

Ah, young love: a wonder to see, even when it’s broke, hungry, and gnawing on its own foot.

Kerri and Joe came to visit on the Saturday after New Year’s Day.  They were headed to Cincinnati to visit friends, and they figured out a clever plan to avoid hotel fees.  They’d leave in the middle of the night, get to our house in time for breakfast, and then nap for four hours. Then, fed and refreshed, they’d make the last lap of the journey.

They were coming from Loolie’s house in western New York, and so there was some subtle pressure on Lools to call us and smooth the way.

“Do you mind?” she asked me.  “Kerri will call herself and set things up, but she wanted me to kind of see what you thought and whether you were busy.”

We had no plans that weekend; of course we were delighted to have them. And we were delighted to have the opportunity to meet Joe, of whom Loolie has come to approve.  His obvious respect and devotion for Kerri have overcome any misgivings.

“He’s kind of a knucklehead,” Loolie told me. “He doesn’t have a real filter; what’s in his head comes out his mouth.  But it’s usually pretty intelligent and engaging stuff.  And he thinks Kerri hung the moon, so I know he has good taste.”

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They arrived at 8 AM Saturday morning, pulling up in Kerri’s van. Before we could even get the back door open, she was off the lift and wheeling her chair through the carport.  Joe (tall, bespectacled, with a round and pleasant face) boosted her over the two steps to the door and then they were in the house, hugging and exclaiming and introducing.  Mark poured coffee and discovered that Joe, too, prefers a nice strong cup of morning tea–they eyed each other approvingly.

I had a little gift for the two of them–a coloring book created from photos of Kerri throughout her life*, ending with a picture of her and Joe on Hallowe’en 2015, in their costumes as a Roman centurion (Kerri) and the horse that pulled her chariot (Joe: back end).  They loved it, and they attacked it with the new crayons I gave them as I put the finishing touches on breakfast.

They asked about the process of converting photos to line drawings, and I told them a computer science student at the College had worked that magic for me via Photoshop.  There were websites that would also provide that service, I said, but Joe, a bit of a techno-geek, was pretty sure he could figure out the process.  They started planning coloring books Joe could use in teaching and Kerri could make for part of her graduate coursework in education.

Then the eggs were scrambled, the steaming coffeecake inverted onto a serving plate, the sausages sizzling and hot.  Jim appeared with an owl-y muddled morning veneer; Mark poured juice.  Kerri and Joe passed plates and silverware and we all tucked in.

There was silence for a moment, that gratified and gratifying silence that betokens enthusiastic young people enjoying their food.  Then, when Joe’s first plateful was empty, and as he reached comfortably around the table, refilling, he began to ruminate out loud.

“You can get to know people from the food they cook, don’t you think?”  he asked the room in general.  We all looked at him, interested, waiting to hear more. “For instance,” he said, “I was a nervous wreck when I met Loolie.  But when I saw the food that she’d prepared, I knew she’d gone out of her way to provide something nice for someone Kerri cares about.  I knew that we’d be okay after that–it told me she was open.”

He went on, talking about some of the wonderful dishes Loolie had served him. He talked about how Kerri’s adventures in cooking–she is experimenting with several different ethnic cooking styles and methods–says a lot about her personality–show she is warm and welcoming, non-judgmental, adventurous.

“Even the NAMES of foods people choose to cook,” Joe expounded, “tell you something about the person, don’t you think? Like Loolie cooking Hoppin’ John on New Year’s–isn’t that perfect?  The name Hoppin’ John just reflects Loolie–all that energy and movement! And how about this coffee cake you made?” he asked me.  “I am guessing this is reflective of your personality! What do you call this?”

There was a tiny silence, during which Kerri turned away and covered her grin with her napkin.

“Well, gee, Joe,” I said.  “We call this Pig-Pickin’ cake.”

Joe’s mouth dropped open.

“Joe,” said Mark, pleasantly, conversationally, “did you just call my wife a PIG?”

“Ack,” said Joe in a tiny little voice.  The table exploded in laughter, during which Jim took the opportunity to make sure he got a portion of the Pig-Pickin’ cake that was left.  And that did it: Joe was part of the family.

We ate all the breakfast, and then we shuffled Joe and Kerri off to beds–they ostentatiously insisted on separate bedrooms–so they could sleep until 2:00 PM.  We woke them up and fed them again, sandwiches, chips, and cookies this time, and then we sent them off on the last leg of their journey–the three hour trip to Cincinnati. Kerri texted on Monday to say they’d had a wonderful time with their friends,and Joe respectfully wondered if I’d be willing to share the recipe for Pig-Pickin’ Cake with him–a recipe, he said, which reflected the warmth and sweetness of my hospitality.

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I told her I’d be happy to email it to her.  Since it’s written down anyway, I thought you might like to see it, too.

Pig-Picking Cake

Two tubes of refrigerated biscuits
Cinnamon sugar (one quarter cup or so)
One stick butter or margarine
One cup brown sugar
Bundt pan

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Cut each biscuit into quarters; put the quarters in a plastic bag with the cinnamon sugar.  Shake until each biscuit morsel is coated. Arrange in the Bundt pan.

Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat; add the sugar and stir until mixture starts to bubble.  Pour over the biscuits in the pan.

Bake at 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes; the top will look dry and browned. Invert onto a LARGE serving plate; the syrup will run, and it’s HOT and sticky, so be sure the plate is big enough, and has a lip to catch all the drips and NOT drip syrup on your hands. Serve while warm; let people pull their portions off with forks.

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And…here’s a link to the Hoppin’ John recipe Loolie uses–from the Lee Brothers’ cookbook…

http://www.thetakeaway.org/story/8183-new-years-day-food-traditions-lee-brothers/

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‘Pig-pickin’cake’ (monkey bread) image from Pinterest.com

*Idea from Jodi at http://lifeinbetween.me/

 

Soup to Nups

He was new to the city, was Devin;
he enjoyed his exciting new work.
But he was lonely: how could he meet folks?
(Went to a bar, but he felt like a jerk.)

“The heck with the hook-up!” he reasoned.
“I’ll work to make positive change.”
A soup kitchen operated quite near his flat.
in the building that once housed the Grange.

They put him to work in the kitchen
with a sassy, glinty-eyed cook.
She waved him in with a wooden spoon.
Well. That was about all it took.

Kiss the Cook
Her name was Annie.
She was making cookies.
And suddenly, Devin’s tongue was tied.
He couldn’t think of a thing to say, so,
“Whaddaya call THAT?”
he tried.

Annie paused in mixing in
chocolate chips.
“He’s an idiot,” her look said.
But she replied quite sweetly.
“What, this dough?
I call it ‘Fred.'”

“Ah, FRED!” Devin acknowledged.
“I used to know him well.
I’m interested to meet ALL the food.
What are their names, do tell?”

The potatoes, whipped to a frenzy-
well, of course she called them ‘Gale.’
The salad–of course, that was Sallie.
“And asparagus–that’s my friend, Al.”

She dubbed the roast beef Trudy.
And, duh. The coffee’s Joe.
The fancy punch was Erik the Red.
What else did he want to know?

He floundered.
“How’s your carbon footprint?” he squeaked.
(Her apron, borrowed,
read “Kiss the Cook,”
and all he could think was
he’d like to.)

She answered him gravely.
She often walked.
But if the trip was a distance,
she’d bike, too.

He sighed in relief;
his bike was out back.
Tomorrow–perhaps they could go
for a pedal?

She gave him a look,
both up him and down,
and agreed to test
his mettle.

They took some rides,
they saw some films,
went to museums
to wander and look.
They drank quarts and quarts
of coffee,
and yes, he kissed
the cook.

Fred and Joe

She called him her Souper-Hero.
She was his Zuke-Annie Squash.
Love bloomed, full-flavored and hearty–
not a thing that a skirmish could quash.

Her wit was a zest;
their passion simmered like sauce;
their love grew like dough
imbued with leaven.
Within a year,
a diamond appeared,
and Annie married Devin.

Friends and family all gathered
at the soup kitchen, of course
And they couldn’t neglect
to include these friends en force:
Sallie, Trudy, and Gale,
Annie’s old friend Al,
dark, bold, Joe,
and Erik the Red,
and of course,
plates and plates
of Fred.

“A Recipe for Happiness’–
the words on
the wedding cake
said.

Soup kitchen door