In these days of coronavirus self-isolation, my thoughts have turned increasingly to food. This is hardly surprising in times of stress. Even the Bible advises: “Let us eat and drink; for to morrow we shall die.” Hopefully it won’t go that far for most of us. But food is such a simple pleasure and comfort in difficult times.
Elegant Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli observed sagely that: “Eating is not merely a material pleasure. Eating well gives a spectacular joy to life and contributes immensely to goodwill and happy companionship. It is of great importance to the morale.”
Of course, at the moment many of us living alone have to do without the “happy companionship”. Still, dining alone can have its advantages. American humorist Lewis Grizzard pointed out “if you eat something but no one else sees you eat it, it has no calories.”
I’m not a very good cook. I enjoy baking, but otherwise I’m not as inspired as the rest of the world seems to be. “Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all,” said columnist Harriet Van Horne. I decided to follow her advice, so it’s mostly not at all now. Besides, with all the enthusiastic, MasterChef-watching cooks spending lockdown whipping up culinary masterpieces, some of us have to do the tough job of eating it all.
In moderation, we tell ourselves. Gluttony is a very unattractive quality and only admissible in others, obviously. Someone preferring to remain anonymous once attempted to clarify the distinctions, with impressive emphasis: “I am an epicure; you are a gourmand; he has both feet in the trough.”
To be perfectly honest, I reckon I’ve put on a bit of weight over the past few weeks of isolation. But now is not the time for excessive self-restraint. Like comedian Charlie Pickering, I might just “go for a walk, and flatten the curve.”
My partner (who lives in separate premises) cooks for me once a week, on our special isolation-permissable catch-ups, and these are my favourite meals of all. Cooking is his “love language” – it’s how he shows he cares, and he does it with great respect for the produce as well. I do my best with desserts and the occasional freshly-baked offering in return.
I do enjoy baking bread… My mother used to bake all sorts of different loaves – from sourdough to cornbread, pumpkin bread, potato loaf, and other staples, so it’s a comfort food for me. And I like a bit of substance to my bread. Although not TOO much substance. I follow social commentator Fran Lebowowitz’s advice here: “Bread that must be sliced with an axe is bread that is too nourishing.”
I have actually found myself making both flatbread and bread rolls recently, once I managed to track down some yeast (empty shelves now being a frustrating part of our “new normal” shopping experience). They really have been delicious, though I say so myself (and frequently). Plus I’ve discovered that kneading dough is extraordinarily therapeutic, and I prefer it to yoga. What’s more, the smell of bread baking is one of life’s great pleasures.
The Washington Post’s Paris correspondent, James McCauley, reported in April that in food-loving France the longest queues have been for fresh bread: “Lockdown or no, the lines extend down the block. One person after another, six feet apart, sometimes more. They line up to buy the bread they always buy — baguettes, pain au lait, sourdough — even in a global pandemic.” And it’s the iconic classic breads rather than the fancy new loaves that are most popular – it’s all about familiarity and comfort in times of uncertainty.
When I’m in need of a treat to perk me up during this strange partial lockdown, I hunt online for takeaway food offerings from local shops and cafés trying to keep afloat: the homely and comforting roast dinners (pork or chicken, with roast veggies and gravy) from the Hill Street Grocer in Sandy Bay, or the famously mouth-watering seafood chowder from the Cornelian Bay Boat House. And my current favourite, the daily $15 three-course meal adventures from Jean-Pascal Patisserie in New Town.
Jean Pascal Lepretre is a fifth generation French pastry chef who apparently once worked for the famous Roux Brothers and Fauchon in Paris, so his desserts are spectacular, but the entrée and main are very tasty as well. I can order the day before (after the menu is added on Facebook), and nip out at lunchtime to pick it up. The long, dedicated hours at my desk working from home seem to go faster, just knowing there’s a tasty meal when I finish. And I’m not alone – the three-course meals have been so popular I suspect he and his team are doing even better now than they were before the lockdown. They certainly deserve it, for cheering up so many of us.
The other night the dessert component was a chocolate brownie, which their Facebook post advised I microwave for 30 seconds before eating. I watched in fascination as the little ball of chocolate ganache on top melted down the sides to glaze the cake below – and derived as much pleasure from the sight as the taste.
Sometimes I worry that I am eating too much dessert. But then I remember comedian Erma Bombeck, who in earlier times advised: “Seize the moment. Remember all those women on the ‘Titanic’ who waved off the dessert cart.” Good point.
Celebrity chef, author and food adventurer Anthony Bourdain also advocated enjoyment, before his sad death a couple of years ago: “Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.”
A daughter interstate, who with her partner normally enjoys cooking impressive meals from scratch, has trialled something different recently – a food-delivery service where all the fresh ingredients for three entire meals are delivered to them, with accompanying recipe cards to cook from. Not only is this great fun, I am assured, but it has the added advantage of doing away with the frustration of supermarket queues and shortages.
I make sure to support other local businesses as well – wineshops, cider-makers, and my favourite vineyards – for my own delectation as well as for gifts for family interstate. I arrange for Mona to send my daughters a Double Smoted Negroni cocktail (“unholy water”, it’s described on the bottle) so we can celebrate a memorable Mothers’ Day together via FaceTime, despite us all living in separate states. One daughter entertains us by hilariously transforming her face online via an appearance-altering app.
But I miss my little grandson so much. The last time I cuddled him was on his first birthday, back in January. I wonder when we’ll get to hug again.
My one-woman stimulus of Tasmanian business has also included bookshops. Books are, after all, food for the soul. They help keep me sane – I can travel to different lands and inhabit different lives for a time. So I’ve been devouring these even more than usual, and when an author expresses beautifully something I’ve also felt myself, illuminates character, lyrically evokes atmosphere or makes me laugh, it feels like a genuine connection. Plus I love the thrilling knock at the door, with a hand-delivered purchase (Hobart Bookshop) or parcel delivery (Fullers). I’m truly thankful.
Some days, weather permitting, I like to finish the day with a glass of something and a socially-distanced chat with a neighbour. Looking out over the housetops to the river, quietly ruminating. And thinking about what’s for dinner tonight.
When (I won’t say if, forever the optimist) we find a vaccine, I vote we make lots of happy noise. Let’s sound the trumpets – or at the very least, stand outside our homes and bang saucepans and frying-pans, or clink glasses for heartfelt toasts. In honour of good food and wine, the focussed enjoyment of which has helped many of us to get through this strange and unusual time in our lives.
I think back to a bumper sticker from the past: “It’s Been Lovely, But I Have to Scream Now.”