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?