Those of us in charge of shopping and cooking for our families during the coronavirus crises are under tremendous stress. We struggle daily to fill our pantries with staples like flour, sugar, and bread. We scramble to use up fresh produce before it goes bad while online price gouging and misleading product descriptions have us questioning humanity. For those of us who eat out often, shopping for groceries and cooking meals are skills we must quickly master. Many of us have a full house since schools and universities shut their doors, moving classes online. Who knew kids ate so much? Then there are those of us who cannot afford the groceries to feed our families right now and are faced with hard choices. Pay rent or serve breakfast. We are shedding our old lives at an unprecedented speed, and yet, at least two or three times a day we are to gather the resources, imagination, and courage to feed ourselves and the people we love.
Living eighty miles from a grocery store takes strategic planning, so I keep a running shopping list handy, adding to it often. Everything from spices, produce, and dairy to personal hygiene needs, pet supplies, and paper products ends up on that list, and I am lost without it on those rare occasions I forget it on the kitchen counter when I go to town. The last time I was able to find everything on the list was Friday, March 13, the same day Trump declared a national emergency and our nation’s collective spirit of goodwill was upended as we flocked to stores, filling shopping carts and clearing shelves before someone else grabbed the last roll of paper towels.
I come from a long line of Irish and Bohemian, God-fearing Catholic women on my mom’s side who had to make do during tough times. My great-grandmothers, great-aunts, and grandmother provided for their families during the Great Depression and WWII by growing gardens, canning produce, and making meals stretch by adding rice, noodles and potatoes to what little meat they had. Those women were raised on farms in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin and possessed the skills to provide for their families in their bones. My grandma on my dad’s side was an only child who grew up in Green Bay. Living in the city presented different challenges during hard times. Many of her recipes, which I still make today, include canned vegetables and ground beef.
My mom followed in these traditions. As a result, we always had a big garden, home-cooked meals, and homemade desserts. My sisters and I were taught the art of canning and how to cook and bake on a limited budget. After all, my parents were raising four daughters who went through a gallon of milk a day and nine loaves of homemade bread a week.
With roots like these, it is no wonder my love of cooking and baking began when I was very young. It is also no wonder that I picked up the cautionary tales of food sacristy and the fear of hunger while working alongside these women in their kitchens. The voices of these strong, ingenious family matriarchs spoke the truth and prepared me for a catastrophe like Covid-19 when I was still a girl. The residue of their stories manifested in a recurring nightmare that began when I was very young, maybe five or six. In the dream I am a little orphan who, with other little orphans, come across a gypsy camp in the middle of the night. There is a campfire burning and covered wagons scattered among towering trees. The other children and I crouch down on the forest floor to watch. A few men play music on violins and accordions while women and children dance around the campfire. There is meat roasting on the fire, and I realize that I am starving to death. The cold wind enters my bones. I stumble in the dark looking for a blanket and realize the other children are gone. I know in my heart I am a gypsy orphan, but these gypsies are not my people. I am afraid to ask for food or a blanket. My young mind cannot grapple with the hunger and cold, and I wake crying. I have carried this dream like a memory all these years. So, on February 29, when Seattle officials announced the first coronavirus related death, my survival instincts kicked in.
I had been reading about the spread of the virus in China, Iran, and Europe, and our government’s continued lack of response. But when it reached our shores, those warnings from long ago propelled me into action. I took inventory of the kitchen and basement and added canned vegetables, dry goods, and cleaning products to my shopping list. I combed the internet for bulk supplies, pain relievers, and cold medicine. By the end of the day, I had ordered batteries and flashlights. I went to bed exhausted, ready to defend against the invisible enemy.
Over the next two weeks, the house of cards fell. I called off the CWC and open mic nights following the news that the Tucson Festival of Books was canceled. Cochise College wrestled with keeping some semblance of normalcy until administration conceded and sent out a notice that students would not be returning to campus after spring break. On March 16, the stock market closed with its third worst day in its history. By Saint Patrick’s Day, our pantry and freezers were full.
Ron and I are currently hunkered down at the ranch working on projects until the wake of this storm is over. The stories and lessons of my past continue to drive me. Each day I scour the internet for things we are running low on and alternatives to fresh produce until our garden and orchard bears fruit. The welfare of our animals is also important. Having enough cat litter and canned dog food is a concern.
Last night, we barbecued rabbit, quail, and dove, and I served the meat with homemade mac and cheese and creamy coleslaw. The cabbage had seen better days. I usually peel off the outer leaves and put them in our compost, but this time I added them to the slaw as the wise voices from my past echoed off my grandma’s copper-bottom pots and pans that hang above my kitchen sink. I hope these words help you, too during this terrible, terrible time. God bless.
We don’t waste food in this house (the golden rule) … Eat that. It’s good for you… You may leave the table after you eat everything on your plate… Don’t ask for seconds when company comes… Don’t ask for seconds when we are visiting your aunt… Say please and thank you, no matter what your aunt serves… Eat what is put in front of you… Leftovers are good for you… Don’t order the most expensive thing on the menu. Never mind who is paying… We’re taking that home in a doggies bag.
You can use mayonnaise instead of eggs in a pinch… lard makes pie crust flaky… Add a little apple sauce to make a cake moist… Make sure you have flour, eggs, sugar, and butter in the house… A pie is done when you can’t see the fruit coming through the bottom crust… Start Christmas cookies early. They freeze well… Yeast rises best in a warm kitchen… Serve bread and butter with every meal. It fills you up…Use the leftover ham for pea soup or scallop potatoes and ham… Fry eggs in bacon grease… Chicken bones add flavor to soup… Use the old vegetables for stews and soups.
Plant Memorial Day weekend. Harvest Labor Day Weekend… Never mind the instructions on the packet. Think of the plant before sticking seeds in the ground. How much space does that plant need?… Poke your finger in the ground, pull it out and stick a seed in the hole… Let the raspberry patch go wild. The fruit comes in sweeter… Pick vegetables as soon as they are ripe. If you wait too long, the plant will stop producing… Plant peas early along a fence so they can climb… Don’t water every day. Plants need stress to grow strong… Tomatoes need sun… Give plenty of room for squash and pumpkins to sprawl… Pull weeds often, or they’ll choke the garden…Shuck corn before you bring it in the house.
Make sure you follow the instructions on Sure Jell, or your jam won’t set… Make sure the jars are clean and dry before you put the lids on, or they won’t seal… Make sure the boiling water covers the lids, or they won’t seal… Pickles, jam, and tomatoes will keep forever if the seal is good… Freeze corn, peas and beans… Keep canned goods in the basement on clean shelves; same with squash and potatoes… Check to make sure the seal took before you eat anything… Rotate jars every year…Eat up the previous year’s food before you start on the new.
Table Blessing Before Each Meal:
Bless us our Lord, and these thy gifts,
Which we are about to receive, from thy bounty,
Through Christ, Our Lord.