Reader letters: We are how we eat
The soothing calm of the garden guru
I have a backyard vegetable garden. I plant everything from seed, I weed, and then I harvest. Vegetable gardening is like yoga or meditating for me — soothing for the mind. There is a rhythm to the work.
This spring it helped me to remain calm. Nothing was certain, but the seeds were in my shed, in my hand, in the ground. One thing during COVID-19 was normal. Knowing we could eat this spring, summer, and fall despite the chaos of the world around us was comforting.
Though I post photos of my vegetables or a dinner made with only what I have grown, I never really thought anyone noticed. This spring I received many requests for advice regarding vegetables, gardening, and self-sufficiency. Suddenly I was a growing guru. I helped friends, to the extent I could, via computer. Maybe the first harvest will make them happy. Maybe they will to see how hard it can be to grow food. Maybe they had that yoga calm.
I hope that sharing has made my friends feel something positive in a time when everything is so negative.
Karin D. Beebe
Ah, kitchen experimentation! . . . oh, never mind
When all of this started, I resolved to attempt a few recipes from historic railroad menus. Since it was part of research for an ongoing book project, I assured myself that I would be improving my cooking abilities and making progress on my manuscript. How convenient, no?
Given my modest abilities in the kitchen, I found myself overwhelmed by simple instructions, such as “Scald milk in double boiler” and “Braise the onions and salt pork in the lard.” Also, I wasn’t even sure if the pork I had obtained was salted in the proper fashion, much less being ready for a bit of braise-ry.
After a few smoke-filled hours in the kitchen, I set aside these recipes and decided on a more attainable goal. I would dedicate my time near the stove top to crafting a well-made omelette. After all, there is no bad time to eat an omelette, and it would not require a double boiler. I don’t even own one.
Lessons from providing daily meals to students
I’m a school leader, and our district staff and volunteers worked hard to provide daily meals to students who needed them during the school closures. However, at my school, we discovered that some students, especially those from immigrant families, had difficulty eating these meals. We quickly collaborated with a local church group to provide these families with cultural staples they could cook themselves.
I’ve learned that as we address inequities in areas such as technology, Internet access, instruction, and food, it’s important to consider students’ cultures and listen to them and their families. These lessons should inform how we feed our students next year if we continue with remote learning.
Waging a campaign for the old-fashioned ways
Since the beginning of the lockdown, my wife the lawyer has been working from home, and she has usurped the job of chief cook, which, for 29 years, has been my prerogative. On the whole, the experience has been highly agreeable, a pleasure to sit down to a tasty meal after a day’s work around an ancient house that seems to need constant attention.
But one disagreement has arisen: I liked to make potato pancakes the old-fashioned way, by grating the potatoes by hand. She maintains that this is why food processors were invented. I have dug in my heels, and I insist that only hand-shredding will do. In fact, if I had my way, I would ban food processors throughout the country and have everybody do it by hand.
You guessed it: I want to make America grate again.
The ABCs of cooking at home during a pandemic
Always, wine with dinner.
Baking makes a happy family.
Comfort food — meat loaf, soup, casseroles — is just that.
Desserts are mandatory.
Eat less and you may not gain too much weight.
Favorites and new recipes create a nice balance.
Grow vegetables and herbs.
Home cooking is healthier than takeout.
Ice cream (homemade) is summer’s best treat.
Jalapenos and hot peppers for hot weather.
Kale is not necessary for a healthy diet.
Lettuce salad every day.
Meatless meals can be special.
Olive oil is healthy.
Processed foods: Avoid when possible.
Query the Web for new recipes.
Ratatouille now that summer’s here.
Smoothies are great for breakfast.
Try baking something new, like scones or crostatas.
Up your use of herbs and spices.
Vary the menus.
Why not fire up the grill?
Xavier soup. Try it.
Your cooking has already improved!
Zucchini or ziti? Combine into a main course.
Learning resilience and respect
We moved to the North Shore from Cambridge at the end of March, when everything was starting to implode. As a retiree and an enthusiastic home cook, I used to have the luxury of spontaneity and access. The pandemic has changed all that. In greatly limiting my mobility and access to purveyors, it has taught me to adopt a more global approach to our meals.
I have always been conscientious about using all of the ingredient: parsley stems as well as leaves, meat bones for stock, cheese rinds for flavor. Now, as humble ingredients assume larger roles, this has been essential. As in Italy, bread becomes a major ingredient. Meat dinners once or twice a week, reappearing in different iterations. Many meatless dinners, potatoes as the star of the show.
And through all this, immense appreciation and respect: for the vegetables, the fish, the fruit; for those who provide us access to food and are now struggling to keep their businesses alive.
What is more, I feel immense gratitude in still being able to have my family share a weekly dinner together, albeit at tables spaced 6 feet apart.
A deep dive into baking
The Globe’s Food section has been the ruination of my figure. Early in the pandemic, I needed flour and found the shelf practically empty. What did this mean? Was everyone suddenly baking? I wanted to bake too.
The Wednesday paper featured a luscious Depression cake. Made it twice. There was an article about Toni’s Own iced Lemon Bursts. I had to have them. The anisette cookies too. I researched recipes from archives of the Globe’s Confidential Chat. There I found recipes by A Fireman’s Wife, from the 1920s through the ’60s: white bread, oatmeal bread with copious amounts of honey and molasses, cinnamon swirl bread, fudge, mocha cake, and many more. When the stores were out of flour, I ordered directly from King Arthur. I waited weeks for rye flour. When will it end?
Added ingredient: candlelight
For decades we’ve enjoyed fine dining by candlelight at cozy romantic spots. It was our primary splurge and the first thing we missed when life took this sad, isolating turn.
The pandemic gave us the opportunity to continue this meal experience at home and save money. Taking cues from our favorite restaurant memories, and regardless of the menu, we elevate most our dinners with dim lights, lots of candlelight, thoughtful table settings, and low music. It helps turn the typical into a magical atmosphere and really adds to a relaxed, peaceful shared meal.
Our food can be quick-frozen pizza, basic premade salads, or local takeout, yet our dinner becomes a richer experience just by adding candlelight.
In Georgia, in Watertown, and in essence, in the same kitchen
Delancey has taken up baking. She’s my 10-year-old niece, and we’ve wanted to bake together. But she’s in Georgia, and I’m in Watertown. How can we share our passion and joy?
It’s the time of COVID and of Zoom. We meet on a Sunday morning after agreeing on a recipe. We make sure that we have the ingredients and utensils and that our ovens are preheating. Last week: chocolate snack cake.
Delancey reads the notes and directions aloud. We assemble our baking pans, bowls, and whisks. We measure together and try to synchronize each step, whisking dry ingredients in a smaller bowl, chocolate and boiling water in a larger one.
This recipe calls for mayonnaise! We talk about that and figure out how to measure the stuff without decorating the kitchen. It’s a chance to discuss the chemical reactions of acids and bases: Vinegar in the mayo reacts with the baking soda to provide leavening. I suggest she try an experiment of adding a bit of baking soda to a small bowl of vinegar; her eyes twinkle as she imagines the reaction.
“How long does it bake?” I ask.
“Thirty-four to 38 minutes,” says Delancey, “so, 36.” This is declarative. We set our timers for 36, chat a bit longer, and end the call.
Later, a text: a photo of a perfect cake, showered with confectioners sugar. When I ask how it tastes, she texts back:
“From one to ten . . . 14.”