Two Loaves and Choices (Plague, Day 22, March 25, 2020)

You know the world is in the shithole, when I start baking.

I do not enjoy baking. I don’t like measuring cups, the fine dusting of flour over counters, meticulous reading of recipes, timers. Last night’s pot roast is more of my style of cooking — throw a bunch of good things in a pot and then walk away for two hours.

Also, I’ve so been conditioned by middle age diets to look at all carbs as things of evil. Little slices of heaven, too. Have you ever had a slice of pizza, after restraining one’s self for a couple of weeks? OMG. Your brain explodes. So, there’s a lot of complicated feelings wrapped in bread right now.

But with everything going on, I felt a deep need to kneed. Yesterday I pulled out my super easy recipe for bread making and spent the afternoon making two loaves.

Two loaves, almost identical, cooling on a rack. Which one to cut open first? Either way, there is no bad choice.

***

But now our president is ready to make a choice between two evils, as he sees the options before him. He can either badger the country to stay in the house, shut down businesses, keep the schools closed, which will very quickly lead to massive Great Depression-like levels of economic strife.

Or he could let business do it what it wants to do. Open those restaurants. Open the factories. Let people fly wherever they want. Money comes in, but the virus will spread. People will die, but people die every day, he said. We can’t stop the economy to save a handful of old people.

He later added geography to that calculus. Mostly, the problems are going to be in the hot spots, like the New York City metro area, so it’s unfair to rural areas in Texas to conform to rules that are appropriate for NYC. And those people in NYC are doomed anyway, so let’s just move on.

Those are bad choices: the economy versus dead old people. To be fair, the economy doesn’t just mean that some rich CEOs will suffer. It means that a whole of lot of minimum wage workers will be laid off, won’t be able to pay their rent, and children will go hungry. So, in the spirit of fairness, let’s revise that equation: hungry children versus dead old people in one part of the country.

But that equation still isn’t quite right. The dead people are starting to pile up around here, and they aren’t just 90-year olds in a nursing home. Our church just sent out an email asking for prayers for a 20-year old, a former high school athlete, who is in ICU.

I live in a virus hotspot, though things will be worse on the other side of the Hudson River, in the heart of the city. Anybody paying attention knew that this was going to be a big issue. The mayor took too long to shut the schools and get people off the streets and subway. Too long.

Friends who had an outlet and a brain to see the writing on the wall got out of the city seven days ago. They are in seclusion already in second homes and in the guest rooms of extended family. Others are trying to get out now.

My in-laws live in the shore of North Carolina, where those communities have shut their doors to outsiders. Police demand proof of home ownership before letting people cross the bridge to the barrier islands. Locals say they don’t have enough beds or bags of flour for the New Yorkers heading their way. No room in the inn.

I reject the presidents’ choice, because I think he’s wrong. I have faith in charts and trajectory curves. If we say, “Fuck this flattening curve stuff. Give me the high peak and get the pain over with quickly,” the losses will be too significant and probably won’t save the economy anyway. I say let’s save lives first, the economy second.

***

I’m not the only one baking like crazy. Flour, like toilet paper and dish detergent, is not to be found in any supermarket right now.

Why do we bake during a pandemic?

For many of us, we associate bread with comfort. It’s a way to nurture our families, when they’re in the midst of stress and pain.

We have time. Yes, the lucky among us are still working on our laptops and computers just a few feet from the kitchen. It’s not hard to let some dough rise in a bowl on the counter for forty minutes in between Zoom meetings with co-workers.

Bread is something Biblical, an ancient tie to the Gods. Mosaics in 2,000-year old churches in the Mediterranean depict the miracle of the loaves and fishes.

Matthew 14:13-21: “Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he [Jesus] gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.”

We bake because we are in the midst of an Old Testament-like plague. This doesn’t feel real. It’s an ancient evil, not something that belongs in our worlds of sterile Apple stores or smart cars. An ancient evil must be fought by an ancient good. For some, that ancient good might come in the form of God, an old man with a beard. For others, the ancient good is formed by women with large forearms over a fire.

Of course, we can’t be saved by bread or prayers or by loud curses at the tv during presidential press conferences. Let’s just be safe, friends. Using whatever comforts and crutches that we have around us, let’s stay in our homes for another few weeks.

Me? Despite an afternoon aberration with baking, my real crutch is writing. Words are my loaf of bread. So, I’ll be here, as long as I can manage it.

Internet Slow Down

Over the past 16 years that I’ve monitored traffic statistics on this blog, I’ve learned several things: 1. People have a hard time getting their brains back to work on Mondays, so they use the Internet to procrastinate for a while. 2. People use their summers for good stuff, like vacations, and unplug. 3. People are too busy to look at the Internet between mid-December and January 2nd. 4. But after January 2, they’re back looking at their screens.

Online writers, like myself, and editors are probably the ones that look at unplugged time as bad things. We demand your eyeballs! I had an article accepted in late December, but everyone decided to hold it until January 2. I have to do some serious cuts on it before then, so I should get in a couple of hours this morning.

Then I have to prep the kitchen for more cooking, because friends are stopping by. We’re doing a super casual dinner with Steve, my mom, and I all making something different at the same time. Short ribs and polenta are on the menu, along with lots of other little stuff. I can’t get too loaded, because I’m running a 5K tomorrow morning at 11am.

Here are some things that we’ve been talking about IRL:

Obama’s best of books, movies and TV shows of 2019. While I was watching Fleabag, I kept thinking, “I’m going to have watch this all for a second time.” It was THAT good. We’re in the midst of Watchmen and loving it. We also enjoyed: Working Moms, Game of Thrones, Schitt’s Creek, The Crown, and Russian Doll.

The crazy dude who stabbed people at the Rabbi’s house in Monsey is a big topic here, because we live about twenty minutes from Monsey. My brother, who is a local reporter, spends a lot of time covering similar communities in the area. Anti-semitism is disgusting and should be called out with equal vigor as other forms of prejudice.

Check out the house where Harry and Megan spent the holidays.

What are you all doing for New Year’s Eve?

Apt. 11D Gift Guide 2019 – Food

I usually have the TV on in the background as Steve and the boys get out of the house in the morning. Lately, Dan Buettner, the National Geographic writer, has been talking up his new book, The Blue Zone Kitchen. When he comes on the TV, I usually stop putting away dishes and organizing my daily to-do list, and watch the segment.

Buettner has made an entire career around looking at the five areas of the world where people live the longest — Sardinia, California, Japan, Greece, and Costa Rica. His questions are always the same: What are those people doing right? What can we learn from them? The answers are clear. It’s lifestyle.

People in those areas have a life purpose that doesn’t end when they turn 65. They don’t immediately retire from a job, plop down in front of a tv, and remain there until heart disease and loneliness destroys them. The grandmas take care of grandchildren. The men keep fishing and providing for their families. They walk everywhere. They eat communally. All good stuff.

Now, he’s focusing on the foods that they eat. What are the commonalities? The answer is low meat consumption, lots of beans, vegetables, and fruit, low dairy. It’s interesting because so many of the fad diets put lots of those foods, like beans and squash, on the no-no list. Because we eat a pretty standard Mediterranean diet here, I am a fan of Buettner. In fact, this book is the only cookbook that I’m interested in right now.

We eat a lot of vegetables. At Sunday’s farmer’s market, Steve and I load up on at least four bags of vegetables. It’s fairly random. I grab whatever looks happy that day — leeks, cabbage, lettuce, corn, beets, radishes — and then figure out recipes later. The Sunday before Thanksgiving was the last day of the market until May, so I loaded up on squash, potatoes, carrots, and onions — items that would last in the bottom shelf of the pantry for a couple of months.

Because I work from home, I’m able to experiment with cooking. I probably spend more time in the kitchen than most people these days. If I was working in an office in the city, I might maintain our diet by planning ahead and cooking bigger batches of food every three days. But right now, I do this in my own disorganized fashion starting at 5:00 every day.

I do all this, not because it’s super healthy, but because it tastes good. I like the challenge of turning something humble and even ugly, like a turnip, into art. Because I was raised by the Italian side of the family, I associate food with love; it’s how I show my family how much I love them.

So, let’s talk equipment. What is in heavy rotation in my kitchen these days? What needs regular replacement?

The key to cooking vegetables properly is knowing how to clean them and cut them up. Everything else is simple – you roast them, sauté them, steam them, stir fry them, eat ’em raw. But you can’t get past square one without the prep work. Mostly that takes some practice, but good equipment is also important. So, you need the following items: three or four great cutting boards, an excellent set of knives, a colander, and a sharp peeler.

I like to pile up my cutting boards on the counter, because the wood is a nice accent in my white kitchen.

Another important, but often skipped step to cooking dinner is to transfer the food from the pots on the stove into serving bowls on the table. I know a lot of busy parents skip this step and just serve the food out of the pots on the stove, but that simple transfer of food from pot to bowl is essential. It keeps the food from over cooking. It makes everything look more appetizing. Somehow that two second step turns dinner time into an event.

I’m lucky enough to have a new kitchen with deep drawers where I pile up my various serving platters and bowls. I heavily rely on a set of really basic white bowls from Crate and Barrel, as well as some super colorful bowls from Le Souk. I just picked up an inexpensive set of three nesting bowls from IKEA that I’m using a lot.

We finally got an Instant Pot, but that’s Steve’s baby, so I can’t talk about it much.

Alright, this post is long enough. My running buddy is pinging me to meet up with her.

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I make homemade chicken broth for Ian yesterday, as he recovered from wisdom teeth extraction. Here’s more blog posts about chicken soup and here.

I’m feeling bummed out about journalism today. Pacific Standard (I’ve written for them) shut its doors. A freelancer for NPR was fired for a political tweet. So many people that I know are jumping ship. What happens when journalism dies?

This article about Roman cooking in the New York Times reminds me of my husband.

Did #MeToo go too far on the college campus?

OK, now I’m fascinated with Tardigrades.

Image is from a 1920s architecture textbook.

Living Well

I love these two profiles at the New York Times about Dan Buettner, a longevity expert.

I entered a cooking depression last week. Sometimes it feels so pointless. All that work goes into a product that is instantly gone. It’s not a book or a painting that will be there for eternity and has the potential to be appreciated by thousands. A meal is for a handful of people for an hour at most. When I started logging my calories into the iPhone app, food became a number, which made the whole process of cooking even more dull.

But there is more to food than a number. It shouldn’t be an artform either. It’s best when it’s fun and simple and honest.

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Recipe: Spinach With Pancetta and Feta

I’m such a food blogger wannabe. Indulge me. I’m having fun taking pictures of food.

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Spinach With Pancetta and Feta

Sassy spinach — Not overcooked and with a lot of flavor.

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup(s) red onion diced
  • 1/4 ounce(s) pancetta small cubes
  • 1-1/2 bunch(es) fresh spinach chopped
  • 2 tablespoon(s) olive oil
  • some feta cheese crumbled
  • salt and pepper

Preparation

  • I was tempted to use garlic and red pepper in this recipe, because that’s how I do most greens. But today I was in a dainty mood.
  • If you want to be especially fancy, then lay the spinach out on some paper towels to dry. Less water in there, means a nicer presentation.
  • Sautee the onion and pancetta in olive oil. Add a little salt and pepper while it is cooking. Salt helps the onion break down faster.
  • Add the chopped spinach. Use tongs to flip it over and over, so it cooks evenly.
  • Cook it until it’s 90% done. You want a little crunch and sass left in your spinach. It takes some practice to get to that 90%, but no one is going to the emgency room from ingesting undercooked or overcooked spinach, so worry not.
  • Put it on the plate and add two big spoonfuls of feta cheese.