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?

Crab, Coronavirus and Other Tenuously Related Subjects

“Shopping at Costco,” my friend Alex texted me one day a week or so ago. “People are going berserk. You should see the things they are buying. Giant boxes of Pop Tarts and cases of Gatorade.”

We both agreed that in the face of impending doom, you’d be better off purchasing big bags of dried beans and rice.

Empty hand sanitizer shelf at Smart & Final (photo courtesy my friend, R. Brody)

My wife was at Costco a couple days later and, swept up herself in the hysteria, was attempting to buy big bags of dried beans and rice. But they, along with bottled water, had been cleared out. I, meanwhile, was a Ralph’s, where I found a lovely pork shoulder on sale and made a pot of chile verde. Didn’t check to see if there were still Pop Tarts on the shelf. The beer hadn’t been cleared out yet either, so I bought some of that. Just to be safe.

*    *    *

Same friend Alex, a photographer by trade, posted a photo on Instagram of a live meat market he had photographed once years before in China. The same type of market crowded with caged creatures where pathogens such as coronavirus make the leap from bats to civet cats to humans.

“They’re nuts about wanting the animal to still be living right up until just before they eat it,” he said.

I was at the 99 Ranch Chinese market earlier in the day, as fate would have it. There are no civet cats there, but lots of tanks filled with live sea creatures. I was eying the Dungeness crabs clamoring all over each other in one tank. “And then I saw a few dead ones for half price,” I told Alex. “And guess what… It was gonna die anyway!!!”

“Where is it that they like to eat the animal while it is still actually alive?” he said. “Korea, I think?”

I recalled walking through a fish market in Busan, South Korea, where they were selling every slug, sponge, sea cucumber and other oddity scraped from the sea floor, all still alive. To prove the point, a woman poked a particularly phallic organism with her finger, and right on cue it spouted a urinesque squirt of salt water that hit my daughter in the face, causing her to scream. The woman burst into laughter.

I am reminded of a Woody Allen quote about oysters: “I want my food dead. Not sick. Not wounded.

*    *    *

“If things get really bad,” I told Alex, “come on over, we’ll be eating fresh chicken and pork chops!”

The chickens were out on the back property, scavenging insects and acorns, blissfully unaware of my plans for them if the grocery store shelves ever ran out of pork shoulders and beer. Henri, the pig, likewise ignorant, was napping in the sun.

A friend asked me once if we were planning on eating Henri. “No,” I said, “Although I did one day find him napping in the rosemary. And I thought to myself, ‘I could just build a quick mud oven around him, throw some coals in, and he’d never know what happened.'”

We’ve got a lot of acorns out back. I mean, a LOT. This year, more than I have ever seen before. The pig likes to eat the acorns, which sets my mind to Spain’s famous Iberico bellota acorn-grazed hams, the most expensive and delicious ham in the world. And I begin to rethink my commitment of non-violence toward Henri.

Iberico bellota

All day long, as I sit at my computer and work, I watch the acorn woodpeckers — Melanerpes formicivorus — flying from the branches of the live oaks to the side of our house, an acorn in their beak on each run. One exterior wall of the house is riddled with holes, made by Melanerpes formicivorus. And every day from dawn to dusk, the woodpeckers fly between the trees and the house, depositing their acorns in our wall. Nobody knows why they do it. They eat bugs, not acorns. Once I had to replace a rotted board on that side of the house. I took the board off, and a waterfall of acorns came pouring out.

I read a story about an old wooden water tank in Arizona that someone decided to dismantle. They opened it up, and some four tons of acorns came cascading out, the work of dozens of generations of acorn woodpeckers.

Once we’d eaten the chickens and the pig in my doomsday scenario planning, we could move on to the acorns. They are apparently nutritious, if not delicious. First, to eliminate their bitterness or toxicity, you must grind them then soak them in something or other. I watched a Chumash elder demonstrate at the local native American museum on a field trip with my kid once. He offered up samples, and it won’t be displacing pork shoulder in my diet. Unless, of course, necessity were to dictate that it does.

*    *    *

I think I may have already had the coronavirus. A couple weeks ago, I had a strange cough with no runny nose or sore throat that lasted two or three days.

Armed with that rationale, I venture out per usual, buying all the delicious things at the grocery store the Pop Tart hoarders pass by, enjoying the relative quietness of the streets. I don’t wear a face mask, and I hardly ever wash my hands.

The World’s Most Dangerous Foods

One of my favorite places to be is in the coastal Mexican town of Puerto Vallarta with one of my favorite people, my pal Donnie. Admittedly, we haven’t been there in a few years. But I still think of our times there often.

One of our favorite things to do in Puerto Vallarta is to stop under a bridge on the beach route from the house into town and eat raw oysters and patas negras — blood clams — on the half shell. Blood clams — this was something I had never seen before. Housed in a dusky black and gray shell, these bivalves actually have hemoglobin, which makes them a bit, well… bloody. But they are also bloody delicious, and Donnie and I would eat them every chance we got.

Patas negras under the bridge

A couple days ago, I was marketing in the valley and stopped by my favorite Indonesian market. (Do YOU have a favorite Indonesian market where you live!??) And what should I discover in a pile of ice in the seafood section but BLOOD CLAMS! I purchased a dozen, and promptly texted Donnie:

“I got you something special. Because you are my friend and I love you.”

Donnie and I operate on a special wavelength — food. So I knew that he knew it was going to be something good. Then I sent him a photo.

“I guess I better plan to come see you soon.”

Donnie eating a pata negra in Mexico

We made dinner plans with the Schneiders — Don and wife Monica, sans their kids and our kids, who used to be a fun addition to our evenings together but are now teenagers.

I was in the kitchen prior to their arrival, and pulled out the clams. I thought I would prep them in advance, so that when they arrived, I could present a platter of beautiful, dressed bloody clams. Beautiful, at least, to Donnie and my eyes. Lacking experience shucking blood clams, I went to the computer to see if there was any particular trick I should know about. But my Google search brought up something startling. Several of the top ten hits had the same title: “The World’s Most Dangerous Foods”. A couple had the variation: “Foods You Should Never Eat & Why.”

I once did a series of posts on this very blog called “Things You Would Never Consider Putting In Your Mouth (And Why You Should)”. As trying exotic foods go, I’m pretty unskittish. I’ve not merely tried grasshoppers in Mexico — I’ve intentionally ordered them. Aside from Iceland’s popular rotting shark and Japan’s fermented squid guts, there’s pretty much nothing I won’t try out of the ocean. But this had me a little nervous.

According to Salon’s top ten list: “…the blood clam can ingest viruses and bacteria including hepatitis A, typhoid and dysentery because it lives in lower oxygen environments.” Another website cautioned: “In 1988, 31 people died from eating these clams. 15% of people who consume blood clams gain some sort of infection.”

Donnie and me in Mexico doing the Patas Negras Dance after we’ve eaten our fill

Further research revealed that problematic blood clams had originated in Asia, and those from Mexico — where I’d eaten them many times, and from where the ones in the kitchen hailed — were considered “generally” safe. The Asian variety are banned in the United States. Furthermore, also included on the list of “most dangerous foods” were things like raw cashews and cassava — not exactly panic-inducing exotic delicacies. Nonetheless, the platter of bleeding bivalves in the kitchen were looking less appealing than they had been just a few minutes before. And I wasn’t feeling like playing the odds.

“Where are the clams?” Donnie inquired when he arrived a little while later.

I pointed out the window to the woods beside our house, and then explained. I would let the coyotes and bobcats fight over them, and if in the ensuing weeks I discovered no wildlife staggering through the trees in a hepatatic stupor, perhaps I would revisit the Indonesian market and give them another try. Or, more likely, I would wait until the next time I was under the bridge in Puerto Vallarta.

Fortunately, the sting of not getting his clams was alleviated when I presented Donnie with a beautifully composed plate of plump red prawn ceviche — less exotic, perhaps, but enjoyed without any looming sense of doom.

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.

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