Measuring Pandemic Time by Meals

Cocktails were in order. An old friend was visiting, and that felt like reason to celebrate. We went downtown. We reminisced. We ordered another round.

My husband, friend from high school and I shared a few drinks and a humble hummus platter, not realizing as we caught up that it would become such a benchmark.

The. Last. Night. Out. Before. Lockdown.

In many ways, it felt like old times. We stayed up way too late, talking and laughing well past midnight just five days before Washington state started sheltering in place. Soon, we would come to realize that the pandemic would persist much longer than we might have originally thought — and we weren’t prepared.

That night in the dimly lighted lounge, almost every table was full and nearly every seat at the bar was taken. We had to raise our voices to be heard over the music and din of the crowd. Panic-buying hadn’t yet begun. Mask-wearing wasn’t yet mandated.

My friend flew out the next day and, shortly after that, my husband and I hunkered down. We watched, one by one, as events were canceled and eventually just stopped being planned altogether. The commonplace things we normally looked forward to  — dinners with friends, after-work cocktails with colleagues, parties of any kind — disappeared from our daybooks. The months started stretching into each other, melting into one long lost year.

Instead of looking at the calendar or thinking that something happened last week, yesterday or even this morning, we talked in terms of risotto and roast chicken, Pasta Night, Pizza Night and different kinds of cake. We needed something to help mark to passage of time, so we turned to the heart of the home. We turned to the kitchen; we started measuring time by meals.

At first, it wasn’t intentional. But the days had somehow slowed to a crawl against a newly stressful and complicated landscape. And we found ourselves asking what would be for lunch or dinner almost as soon as breakfast was over.

All we want to do during this persisting pandemic, it seems, is cook.

Handmade pasta. Gnocchi from scratch. Sourdough bread. So many frittatas. French onion soup. Julia Child’s boeuf bourguignon. Grandma’s pierogi. Tamales. An apple tart. An Earl Grey tea cake. A peach upside-down cake. Several apple cakes. Crêpes. Rosemary crackers. Chocolate chip cookies.

We already enjoyed being in the kitchen together BC, or Before COVID-19. Isolated in our home, the rituals of preparing scratch-made meals took on even more significance. They weren’t just things to do but activities that offered tangible and edible results, along with the simple satisfaction of creating and producing something. The process of preparing and enjoying breakfast, lunch or dinner — no matter how simple — made us feel like we were somehow in control of something — no matter how small — in the face of so much uncertainty.

At some point during the initial stay-home order, we began mapping out Lockdown Dinners for the coming week and dreaming of birthday, anniversary and holiday menus. Meal-planning became a way to break up the monotony of our quasi house arrest. In late spring, we started talking about what we might serve for Pandemic Thanksgiving and Quarantine Christmas.

Meantime, Thursday became Pasta Night.

By then, the supermarket had become a stressful place. Each trip for groceries felt like risking exposure to the novel coronavirus. It also felt somewhat surreal, especially early on. Shelves were emptied of rice and beans, pasta and canned goods. Entire aisles were nearly bare.

Other peoples’ early pandemic panic buying was making us nervous. So were the numbers. As the news became more ominous, my husband and I put off going for groceries and got creative with whatever we had on hand.

Pantry staples dwindled, and we marked time by the last of everything: the end of the dairy milk, the final fresh fruits, the remaining bottle of wine. We remembered the obvious: fresh is better than frozen, frozen is better than commercially canned.

We wondered: how long could we last on what we had in the cupboard?

We also wondered: If we had known on our last night out what was to come, would we have splurged on steak? Ordered dessert?

Fridays, we found ourselves craving something rich, creamy, carby and comforting, a reward for making it through the new Zoom-based workweek. No-stir Instant Pot risotto was our answer, and it was perfect in all forms. When we ran out of Parmigiano-Reggiano, we used sharp white cheddar. When we ran out of sharp white cheddar, we substituted cream cheese. Stock went from scratch-made to boxed broth, then bullion cubes. Herbs went from fresh to dried.

Cautiously, we returned to the grocery store. But the pandemic changed the way we shopped. We made more intentional trips, but with much less frequency. We joined a coffee subscription service from a favorite local roaster, receiving 2 pounds of espresso beans each month. We plugged in the freezer in the garage.

Restrictions loosened. Cases increased. Anxieties mounted. “Winter is coming,” we joked to each other in June. Seriously, we were concerned what might happen when college students moved back to town, and cold and flu season set in. Sometime in early summer, we started worrying about winter.

Through October, we stocked up at the local socially-distancing farm stand and drive-thru farmers market. We already had a habit of shopping seasonally and locally. In the throes of the pandemic, we made it even more of a priority.

Whole roast chicken rubbed with plenty of smoked paprika became a once-a-month specialty, typically on a Sunday. We stretched the leftovers for days — tacos, tamales, burritos, sandwiches, soup — boiling down the bones for stock. These are things we would’ve done anyway, but the pandemic made us even more aware of reducing waste and extending ingredients.

As the holidays approached, warnings escalated. Restrictions returned. In November, a friend’s uncle came down with COVID-19. So did another friend’s aunt, still another friend’s mom and brother, and yet another friend’s sister, brother-in-law and child.

In December, a close friend contracted the virus. My friend’s uncle was intubated. My other friend’s aunt died. We stayed inside.

For the first time, we didn’t do a turkey for Thanksgiving. It was just the two of us this year, so we opted for chicken and mashed potatoes, and Zoomed with family in two states. We still made our bourbon gravy. We still said what we were thankful for. We also talked about the things we look forward to — returning to restaurants and bars without worry and masks, among them.

For now, we remain hunkered down, marking time with our morning coffee, weekly pasta, monthly roast chicken and the occasional cake. Friday is still for risotto, and it just might stay that way well after we’re vaccinated.

By Adriana Janovich