Shopping in the Time of Coronavirus

Today, I went grocery shopping.

“Don’t touch anything!” my wife suggested helpfully as I left the house.

We weren’t in “need” of food, exactly — we could’ve easily lasted a month or more on the supplies in our amply stocked freezer, pantry and garage before even resorting to turning on the chickens and pig or trying to grind acorns. But the half-and-half was running low, we were almost out of kale… And I was getting cabin fever. (My nascent experiment as a home-schooler parent in danger of going horribly awry.) So it was time.

Eerily quiet at the expensive Bristol Farms

The world was strangely quiet, like driving around on early Christmas morning. I got to the local Ralph’s supermarket, where there was a line stretching across the parking lot (although people were maintaining 6 feet between one another). I turned to leave the parking lot to try somewhere else, before realizing that the line was moving fairly swiftly, and seeing a sign that said, “Only 50 family groups allowed in at a time. Help us maintain space between shoppers.” This seemed fairly sensible, and as I was in no particular hurry, I parked and queued up.

The spirit in the line was jovial, people making virus jokes whilst keeping proper distance from their potential infector beside them. Inside, the store was sparsely populated. It wasn’t quite Soviet bread line shopping — there was plenty of food to be had, although the selection was somewhat picked over. And if you were Italian, for example, and having a spaghetti jones, forget it. A man near the deli counter sneezed, and the store froze. He raised his hands defensively, like a bank robber caught in the act, people exhaled and carried on.

Figuring I would want to hunker down at home the next few days and watch what happened with the viral numbers, I planned to get in as much shopping as I could. My next stop was the Vallarta Mexican super mercado. Aside from limits on tortillas and the requisite empty toilet paper aisle, things seemed more or less normal. I grabbed some pork and Oaxaca cheese, loaded up on my limit of Sonora rustic tortillas and headed out.

It was a different scene at Trader Joe’s. Whether they were limiting the number of shoppers or simply overwhelmed I couldn’t tell, but the line stretched around the side of the building and off into the distance toward the Target. I didn’t even slow down. Instead, I would head for the Trader Joe’s in Calabasas, where the beautiful people live and don’t put up with queueing. Sure enough, I parked and walked right in. Like the Ralph’s, there was no pasta. But I got lettuce and the prized half-and-half, plus beer and whisky; and everything after that was icing on the cake. There was a strict limit on many items here as well.

Heroic checkers at the Calabasas Gelsons

“Is he allowed to get two of these?” the young clerk asked her supervisor. The supervisor glanced at my half-and-halfs, looked at me, and looked at her. “The limit is for milk. But if you don’t really need two…” They had me — the implied guilt of depriving another shopper of their half-and-half. I slumped and pushed the second carton toward the supervisor.

I had just exited the store when I realized I had forgotten cream cheese for my son’s bagels, and ran back in (thank goodness for no lines!). I approached a different clerk with my single purchase. “Hey,” the kid said, “Quit hoarding all our cream cheese!”

I will take a moment here to offer a shout out to the humble grocery store clerk. Who would’ve ever thought this part-time gig would be praised for its heroism? But here they are, handling much-handled goods, facing shopper after potentially-corona’ed shopper, and doing so with humor and grace. Most without health benefits or sick leave, should they become infected.

There would be two more markets en route as I began to wind my way back into the mountains. The first was the uber-fancy Bristol Farms, where the customers REALLY don’t put up with queueing. Inside it was a bit emptier than usual. A friendly grocer stocking a shelf in the dry goods aisle asked how it was going. “Pretty well,” I replied, “You?” “Barely holding it together,” he huffed before shuffling off — a refreshing bit of transparency, I thought.

I noticed as I waited for my shaved finocchiona salami that there hadn’t yet been a run on caviar. “Do you need some?” the deliman asked when he saw me looking at it. “Oh, not today,” I replied.

At the Gelson’s up the road, there were at least a few boxes of orrechiete and campanelle on the otherwise cleared-out pasta shelves. “Don’t they know how good these are!?” I thought to myself, as I snatched up my two-box limit and slipped out.

A light rain was falling as I wound my way along lonesome Highway 27 toward the sea, a brief moment of contemplative solitude before I returned to my role of chef, waiter, co-teacher and activity director back home, wondering how long this very strange interlude might last…

I Stand with Italy

Nobody is talking about anything but the coronavirus these days.

Well, sure… a last few disillusioned holdouts are still talking about Bernie Sanders (“The establishment is robbing us!!!”) — including Bernie Sanders. But everyone else is talking about coronavirus.

A lot of talk surrounds food. “Do we have enough?” “Will the grocery stores close?” “Will we still be able to have the sushi bar Postmate dinner to our door?”

Tortelloni ready for duty

A friend was telling my wife about the pellet gun he had to shoot bunny rabbits in case things got real bad. “But then what would the coyotes eat?” I said.

Things are really bad in Italy, where people have to stay home and eat unending quantities of pasta. (I guess that’s better than being stuck at home with your pantry in Iceland.) As we in Topanga settle in with schools closed and the kids at home for a couple weeks of social distancing, plus the added benefit of rain and more rain in the forecast, my mind, too, turns to food.

It’s a natural instinct to want to cook comforting dishes in uncertain times. Digging around in my freezer in my eternal Sisyphean quest to clear out space, I found a bag of brodo. Brodo is not an intrepid hobbit from a Tolkien book; rather, it is a rich stock made from chicken, pork bones, vegetables. A central ingredient in one of the foodie mecca of Bologna’s most famous dishes, tortelloni en brodo. Basically, tortelloni in a rich broth. Sounds simple enough. Except it’s one of those “sums of its ingredients” dishes where the higher the quality of the two components, the better the dish. You could make a perfectly enjoyable version for you and your kids with Swanson’s chicken broth and grocery store tortellini. But to be truly transcendent, the broth should simmer and reduce for hours, filling the kitchen with steamy, savory scent; the tortelloni lovingly folded around thumbs with homemade egg pasta stuffed with minced pork, mortadella, prosciutto and parmesan. I just happened to have mortadella and prosciutto in the fridge. Tonight, this was the tortelloni en brodo I would make.

I do sometimes think about what we would do, after panic toilet paper shopping, if there was a real emergency — say a big earthquake or breakdown of society — that caused us to be at home for a long period of time without grocery stores. I know we can eat the hundreds of pounds of acorns that fall from our oak grove (and which the acorn woodpeckers have kindly granaried in the siding of our home), though apparently they require a drawn-out process of soaking to render edible. Our flock of chickens produces a fair number of eggs each day, which would keep us afloat for awhile and which this day would be a key ingredient in my tortelloni.

Tortelloni en brodo — yes please!

When I begin wondering if I should be out panic purchasing toilet paper, kneading and rolling out egg dough for tortelloni returns me to my center. The soup was rich and nurturing. Even though we were supposed to be social distancing, pal Steve and his daughters showed up for soup, because he didn’t have any brodo in his freezer, and they needed nurturing too. The spontaneous arrival of guests meant fewer tortelloni for us, but it was nice to have the company.

*    *    *

I also stand with Ireland.

Because, well, I’ve got a lot of Irish blood. And also, it’s almost St. Patrick’s Day, and I have a feeling this bloody virus is going to ruin that happy holiday this year.

I went to our local Ralph’s supermarket the other day, where people had absolutely lost their minds. The lines stretched to the back of the store, the potatoes and toilet paper were gone, and people were just grabbing whatever meat was available. An elderly lady in line in front of me filled the little space left in her basket with a dozen or so boxes of Blue Diamond Nut Thins — never know when you’ll run out of those. Bottled water was cleared out — because the coronavirus is going to cause water to go away? Relatively untouched, however, were rows and rows of packages of corned beef. Did people just not know how good corned beef is? “We’ll have an early St. Patrick’s Day meal!” I said to myself.

My retirement plan

The other advantage of the corned beef is you can stretch it and make multiple meals out of it. I bought the largest one I could find, a hulking four-pounder. Unsurprisingly, the seeded rye bread and sauerkraut had not yet succumbed to panic purchasing, so I grabbed one of each. I could see reuben sandwiches on my horizon!

There was no cabbage, so after my 45-minute check-out process at Ralph’s, I swung by Gelson’s — where ungodly prices seemed to be keeping the hoarding more muted, and paid $5 for an organic cabbage. Even there, the toilet paper was gone.

We enjoyed our first family-only social distancing dinner, an early St. Paddy’s Day feast, on an unnaturally quiet Friday night. The following morning, as promised to my breakfast-loving 16-year-old son, I made corned beef hash with fresh fried eggs (“From the chicken’s butt to your plate!”) that were a crowd favorite. “You should make soup with that!” daughter Imogen had said the night before, peering into the pot of corned beef cooking liquid. Excellent thinking! So an Irish lentil soup also bubbled on the stove. And in the fridge, the makings of the future reuben…

Because who ever said this panic-demic had to be all suffering?

The United Tastes of America

What exactly is American cuisine? I found myself pondering this question after the most unlikely of prompts — a political conversation.

The context was the dismantling of Confederate statues in the south — a point my friendly rhetorical rival argued is the erasing of an important part of the legacy of people in that region. My counterpoint was that for people of African American heritage, these monuments were painful symbols of slavery. And, by the way, were also celebrating men who were technically guilty of treason against the United States. “You can’t equate it with baseball and apple pie,” I said.

Which got me thinking: “How American is apple pie, anyway?”

When I looked “apple pie” up on Wikipedia, it said: “Origin: England.” Or course, the French would likely argue that. The broader point being that there were no apples in the New World when the pilgrims arrived. Nor were there any much earlier when the first people to set foot in North America crossed the Bering Land Bridge during the last Ice Age.

The British brought apples. That is, when they immigrated to North America. The French probably brought them when they immigrated, too. And they probably argued about who made the better crust for their apple pie. (I would likely favor the French, but that’s neither here nor there.) Before the European migrants, there was no apple pie in North America. There was corn and “natives” — who, as we have already established, had themselves migrated here.

Let us not forget that Marco Polo brought the noodle to China. Or, wait… did he bring the noodle back from China??

Apple pie, photo courtesy Betty Crocker

When I was a kid, we didn’t go out for “American” food. There were five restaurants we frequented in our 1970s suburban Los Angeles neighborhood — Sierra’s, a dark labyrinth of vinyl booths and enormous platters of rice, beans and enchiladas or rellenos or whatever main you ordered; Papa Tony’s, your classic red-checker-tableclothed spaghetti-and-meatballs joint; Twin Dragon, what we would later understand to be “Cantonese” style regional cuisine but what back then was just Chinese; Joy of Tempura, where I learned to use delicate chopsticks and developed an early love for bonsai trees and raw fish; and Papillon, a jewel box that served snails and where my parents liked to delight the waitstaff by having the 6-year-old me order the Pouilly-Fuissé. Cooking and serving and bussing in each of those restaurants were happy Mexican, Chinese, French, Japanese and Italian people who came to America or were born to parents who did, bringing their traditions as they crossed the desert or the sea following the American dream.

Cecilia Chiang, pioneer of the famous San Francisco restaurant, The Mandarin, recently turned 90. She may be one of the most American chefs of all. She was born to a wealthy Chinese family, escaped the Japanese occupation in 1942 by walking for six months, fled Mao after that, and wound up in San Francisco in 1960, where with no experience she opened a Northern Chinese restaurant, betting Americans would be open to exploring authentic Chinese flavors beyond egg foo young and chop suey. Likewise, Wolfgang Puck, whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting on several occasions. A Carinthian kid with a dream of a different kind of pizza — a uniquely Austrian/California/Italian mash-up only possible in Hollywood.

Growing up in Los Angeles, a burrito was American food. A few decades ago, my friend, Saul, came across the border in the trunk of a car. He got a job bussing tables at a deli, where he met a jewish waitress whom he eventually married. He got into construction, earned his contractors license, built a house and became a citizen. A few years back, he travelled back for a visit to his family’s village in Jalisco, where he grew up in a small house with ten siblings and no plumbing.

“What would you do when you had to go to the bathroom?” I asked.

“We’d go out in the field,” he said.

“What about toilet paper?”

“We’d find the smoothest rock we could find.”

He came back with a large wedge of cheese for me — queso cotija his mom had made from unpasteurized milk from the family cow. It was one of the most delicious cheeses I’ve ever had, and I guarded over it like it was gold. My American friend Saul, and his mom’s Mexican cheese.

The best apple pie I ever had was at a street festival in the northern Japanese city of Aomori, which is known for its apples. Apples originated in Asia, don’t you know. How did they get to England and France? I don’t know, maybe… migrants??

And that, my friends, is about as American as apple pie.

When we think about immigration, we might think not of walls but rather of fences — the low kind we lean our elbow on as we talk to our neighbor next door whom, upon finding we have much humanity in common with, we invite over for a glass of our family wine or to sit at our table for a slice of whatever apple pie is our tradition. And toast to the fact that we all started out someplace else. And brought our food to America with us.

MSG = Monosodium, Good Mate!

I was at a pizza & wine cookoff recently — me with a few bottles of my family wine versus my pal Craig, with his family wines, making pizzas in the wood-burning oven of my friend and Craig’s brother-in-law, Chris. Basically, dads showing off for their and their friends’ wives.

Somehow we got on the subject of foods-that-used-to-be-taboo-that-have-been-redeemed — perhaps we were talking about eggs from each of our backyard chickens. Maybe it was butter, I can’t remember. I said aloud, “They’ve even determined that MSG is harmless.” Chris looked surprised. “Really??” However, his mother-in-law — his wife Mary’s mom — who had also joined us, looked aghast.

“Oh no!” she said, “MSG is terrible. It gives me headaches and irregular heartbeat and flushed skin!!”

I didn’t follow up.

A few weeks ago, I was cooking a test dinner of a sample menu for a briefly-mentioned-in-my-last-post-restaurant-possibility with some shall-not-yet-be-mentioned celebrity dinner guests who would be involved. My potential-restaurant-partner quizzed the guests about what their favorite kind of chicken was, and one of them replied, “KFC.”

Now I will pause here briefly to say that anyone who has ever told you they don’t like KFC is lying to you. It is @#$%ING delicious. Why? Well, there are those 11 secret herbs and spices. There is also the pressure frying which keeps the meat tender and thoroughly cooked without overcooking the crust. But there is also a fair helping of MSG.

My MSG

The bad rap MSG got from the beginning was largely bogus. It’s simply a protein isolate attached to a sodium molecule. The bad rap also dates to the 1960s, when people reported experiencing strange symptoms after eating Chinese American food. In a famous article exploring “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” the author proposed a number of possible suspects — huge quantities of sodium, equally heroic amounts of oil… or, a heretofore unknown substance called monosodium glutamate. It was the latter that captured the public imagination — especially after some well-meaning scientists injected pregnant mice with 30,000x the amount of MSG any human could possibly consume and discovered problems in the resulting offspring.

If you are afraid of MSG, consider that you likely consume half a gram of the stuff daily in the foods you eat. That’s not counting naturally occurring MSG, which is chemically the same as the additive, and found in foods from mushrooms to cheese to fish.

I wanted my guests to really like the chicken. So I purchased a bag of MSG.

I was a little ashamed as I brought my contraband to the check-out line. But then I remembered I was at the Japanese market, and the Japanese still dig MSG. They were the ones who brought it to the world! Anyway, in terms of my meal, it would not be the main component of the dishes I was making; rather, it would merely enhance the flavors of garlic, salt, sugar, pepper, spices and so forth. I used a very small pinch in my spice mixture, a bit in my brines, etc. How was it? Delicious — and a bit better than it would’ve been without. My celebrity guests were on board 100%.

And I am now onboard too. With MSG.

Don’t shame me, well-intentioned food extremist. I realize yours is a small, flavorless world in which your self-righteous indignity to my defense of the world’s most hated food additive will provide you a temporary sense of purpose. I give you that. With a side of kale.

Just give me a KFC thigh and wing, please. And some kung pao chicken on the side.

Pretentious Plating and Other Random Thoughts

I had meant to do my periodic sort-of annual “Trends for the New Year” post for 2019, but all of a sudden it’s late March.

What happened to February? How is it one day we are hugging and ringing in the New Year, and then suddenly the year is a quarter over?

I haven’t been blogging as much as I used to. I’ve been quite busy with potential movie projects, potential restaurant projects… and paintings sets for my daughter’s elementary school musical.

I’ve also been spending more time on my @skinnygirlsandmayo Instagram account, where I have a bazillion followers and advertisers pay me untold figures to endorse their products as a social media influencer. (Actually, I don’t really have that many followers, and sometimes I worry that advertisers will actually charge me for doing whatever the opposite is of appealing to their all-important 18-34 demographic). It’s fun to just post photos and not have to write anything about them. But then, since I am technically a “writer,” after awhile I miss writing and so return to my blog.

I follow a hashtag on Instagram called “Art of Plating,” that features chefs, foodies and restaurateurs posting shots of beautifully photographed plates of food. Examples:

This was something I could enjoy looking at! So I followed it for a couple months, and then realized that all the photos kind of looked the same. There were lots of flowers and microgreens, nasturtium leaves, creatively smeared or dotted sauces, ingredients cubed and brunoised, food all pushed to one side of the plate… Everybody is doing beautiful food now!

Sometimes I do beautiful food. I do admit that. (And then usually have to go out on the back property afterward to chop some wood.) But all this Instagram “Art of Plating” was beginning to feel a little precious and pretentious. So I decided to have a little fun with #artofplating.

My first submission was “toaster hash brown with ketchup”:

The response was positive.

Whether people were picking up on the joke, or perhaps overly serious foodies were saying to one another, “Look at what he manages to do with a simple hash brown!” I do not know.

This was followed a couple weeks later by my next beautiful food shot, “fish nuggets with tartar sauce and parsley”:

I had something here.

Perhaps I could do something with Pop Tarts. Then, of course, there was Hamburger Helper.

In the interest of full transparency, I may have been subconsciously inspired by a photo my pal Jon sent me many years ago of his dinner — mac n’ cheese with chicken nuggets randomly dropped onto the shiny plasticine surface.

I often wonder where the food world can possibly go next, especially now when everyone is doing beautiful food. What is the next trend — ugly food? And while they may be beautiful, it is fair to ask — how many people really enjoy eating flowers??

 

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