I don’t know about you, but I’ve developed a reverence for food during these shelter-in-place days. I grew up on a farm where my mother canned and froze fresh vegetables and fruits. She cooked and baked. She used what she had in the cellar, freezer and pantry. I saw then – at least as much as young people take in – all the work involved in feeding a family.
But over the years, I became jaded because of the easy availability of everything I might want to eat. I could pick up a bite at fast-food restaurants on my way home from a gym workout or church service. I had my choice of grocery stores. I could dine out, or I could cook.
I don’t believe I was grateful or intentional enough about buying what I needed and using what I bought. Now, I have the time to reevaluate and appreciate home cooking and all that process involves.
About a week ago, when I cleaned out my pantry, I discovered a box of Jiffy corn meal muffin mix. I knew it had been in the cupboard for some years, but the box had no “best-if-used-by-this-date” notation. (Perhaps that should have been a red light.) Excitedly, I noted that only three ingredients were needed, and I had all three: 1 egg, 1/3 cup milk and the box of mix. I was on the fast track to enjoying some warm muffins with honey that a friend had given me from a beehive on his property.
Even before opening the box, I heated the oven and beat the egg in a bowl. I greased the muffin tins and lifted the milk carton from the refrigerator. Ready to dump in the mix, I tore off the box top and opened the little plastic sack. There, nestled in the yellow corn meal, were a host of tiny dead, brown weevils. Now, experts say that eating weevils will not hurt us and that their presence actually hints at no pesticides being present in the product. But, I chose to pause and evaluate my options.
On the one hand, I wanted so badly to use that mix, not to throw away something that had cost me money, not to admit that I had kept the mix too long. I wanted to be that waste-not-want-not person. On the other hand, I couldn’t trick myself into believing that the weevils would provide needed protein and would look like little poppy seeds in the final result. So, I tossed the packet into the garbage can and moved on.
Luckily, while the beaten egg waited, I found all the other ingredients I needed, including yellow corn meal that I wisely had stored in my refrigerator. I ended up turning out a dozen delicious corn meal muffins, and enjoyed the process because I had the time to do it. I also felt creative and productive.
I’m not alone right now feeling fulfilled in the kitchen. A friend of mine just moved from Wausau, Wisconsin, to Durham, North Carolina, with her parents and 8-year -old son. This is what she says about the strange new life she has in a strange new place during a strange new time:
“I’m not being a fabulous mom; I’m not being a fabulous teacher; I’m not being a fabulous daughter. If I’m doing anything at all well, it’s cooking – my parents are both uninterested, and J has too short of an attention span, but the practice of understanding the contents of fridge and pantry, obtaining food, and planning two original meals per day with the ingredients I have, considering everyone’s preferences and nutritional requirements – I’ll hang my hat on that for the moment. I haven’t cooked this much in years, and it definitely does feel worthwhile.”
Shaw Media, too, included an article on how to best reheat all those leftovers, and Joan Oliver wrote about polishing her cooking skills. Each day, I and many other cooks have an almost religious dedication to planning meals while considering the following: (1) What do I have on hand? and (2) What needs to be used before it spoils?
In a frugal flash from the past the other day, when I was microwaving bacon for a quiche, I had an urge to find an empty Campbell’s pork and beans can and, like my mother used to do, save the leftover grease. In memory’s eye, I could see the can, sitting off to the side of the old wood cook stove. Whatever spare grease remained from frying bacon or fatty ham, Mother would pour into the container for later use. I was surprised by the intrusion of this memory. I wondered if my mother were prodding me to find my own tin can and restart the process – now.
When this historic shelter-in-place period passes, I will never view food as casually as I once did. I may never pop into a store to pick up only one or two items. I may frame my mask. I definitely will continue to salute the people in the food supply chain: the farmers, the distributors and the retailers.
These last few months have changed me – for good.
• Jan Bosman taught English and business for 32 years. She also is a published essayist and poet, and is a member of the Atrocious Poets of McHenry County.