“It’s a dangerous business, walking out one’s front door”
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
If I could sum up in three words how I feel about the general state of our world right now, it’s the shift from ‘I don’t know’ to these words.
Very well, then.
To me, these are three words that speak volumes. They are used when we’ve established the facts of the matter, and it’s time to stop ruminating, to make a plan. Grieving for the people we are losing, and those that are hungry or in danger of losing their homes will go on, but now it’s time for us to lace up our boots and get to work figuring out our new normal. Grieving time for our past world is coming to an end, more or less, and it’s time for us to get on with things.
It doesn’t make what we’ve lost less sad, just that there’s only so much dwelling, in both senses of the word, that we can do.
Covid-19 is not going away. We are not going to hug or go to concerts or return to normal, mask-free life for a long time to come. A vaccine is wildly optimistic at 12-18 months, so it’s likely we’re looking at years. And while the curve is flattened in many cases, the virus has not agreed to negotiate, there’s no white flag raised. A resurgence is almost inevitable, once we all leave our bubbles.
Like those who have been subjected to a prolonged bombardment, we are emerging to both sunshine and rubble, but emerging knowing it isn’t safe to do so yet. Still, sunshine calls.
Very well then.
This is where we are. If we cannot go back, we must learn to live with it. And so now comes the endless decisions about what to do, and what not to do. And how to do it to balance our need to do things (work, school, care for family members and so on) and safety
I find myself changed. I miss restaurants and still have no desire to be at one. I miss working with my team, but I don’t see traveling to see them for months yet, maybe even not this year. Financially, we are battening down the hatches. We have hundreds of decisions to make, small and large ranging from whether to get a haircut – equal parts fear and oh please yes – to whether to postpone our long-planned house reno. I’ll probably bite and get a haircut at some point, and we will push out the reno a year. I will likely learn to cut the kids hair, at least for now. Will we go on vacation? Summer camps? Can the kids see their friends and be safe? I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.
I’m watching, waiting and talking to the adults around me about the plan. As it formulates, I’ll share more. Until then, I’ll stay here with my family, and my garden. But always thinking about how and when to do what’s next.
I’ve never really understood mangoes. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I like them, immensely, and in almost anything. In salad, as salsa, in my breakfast smoothies, as a sweet offset to savory Asian food of almost any variety, you name it, mangoes always make it taste just that much better.
But I’ve never quite gotten the hang of how to dissect one (yes, yes, I know, there’s almost certainly some tiresome YouTube guru who can teach me this in a four minute twelve second video if I just took the time. Being perfectly honest with you, I almost certainly will, but I don’t really want to) and I’m completely mystified about how one end of a mango can be completely ripe, if not over-ripe, and the other end can continue to be hard as a rock. It’s not like they are that big, just over the size of a softball in most cases, so it’s not as though each single fruit is ripening in multiple growing zones. Also they have the biggest pits – a huge chunk of the mango is actually the pit part. Pit overachievers, are mangoes. So I just peel them and slice off a bunch that isn’t pit, and it seems to work out. But I’m sure there’s a better way that, in all likelihood, I’ll never actually be curious enough to discover.
This is the funny thing about adulthood. It’s almost as much about what you aren’t willing to do as you are. There’s those things you have to do, and those things you do because you like to, and the things you do because it’s what responsible people do, like making sure your children bathe on the regular, even if sometimes you care a little less than you are supposed to about whether they washed behind their ears properly (they look and smell clean, ok?). There’s also the things that you would do, as time, money and opportunity present themselves, like exploring Fiji or reading a Bill Bryson book while tucked up in bed with a glass of wine, which is a great way to spend a Saturday evening.
And then there’s the things that you jettison because you simply don’t care enough. For me, this includes skiing, which everyone around me seems to enjoy, but from my perspective seems just a lot of up and down in cold weather (this from the person who can run for miles without a goal of actually getting to any particular place), watching informative videos, which would bore met to tears but are too boring to elicit that much emotion, or going on cruises, which I’ve always viewed suspiciously, and now that they are Covid-19 hotbeds of infection, seems to be validating my general skepticism of why anyone would want their hotel to be swimming in the ocean when there’s perfectly good land nearby.
So my list of things is almost certainly not yours, and that’s all good. But one thing we should probably agree on is that the idea that everyone needs to master cooking before actually doing some cooking is just silly.
The average life expectancy of an adult in the United States is 78.4 years. If you remove the first 18, in which it seems likely that others do the bulk of the cooking, that leaves 60.4 years in which you need to feed yourself, on average 3 times per day. That’s just over 22,000 meals you have to eat, and if you happen to get married and have a couple children, that’s a lot of food. And look, I like a bowl of Cheerios for dinner as much as anyone, but there’s only so much of that you can do before you have to do something with food that requires heat and seasoning.
Let’s skip the math of servings for 40 years of marriage and 18 years of kids plus college summers and all the friends of your teens that come over and eat the pantry empty and dinner parties for a bunch of people in which you make 6 kinds of taco fillings because it seemed like a good idea when you were planning the party 2 months earlier but then partway through you realize you never want to eat another taco as long as you live or at least for a week or two, because who gets tired of tacos, really?
Still, you have to feed yourself at some point, and while you can outsource that pretty well, having mastery of at least a few dishes is a great confidence builder. After all, no one other than your spouse needs to know that you only really know how to cook 3 things, and presumably your spouse likes you for other reasons.
So if you cannot cook do not rush out and try to overachieve, and master some intricate meal with expensive, single use ingredients. Am I going to tell you to roast a chicken with mascarpone? Or how to bone a duck? No, no no. You should first master enchiladas. And if you are so inclined, a quick mango salsa to go on top.
Why? Because enchiladas are incredibly filling, and equally incredibly forgiving. You can modify almost any part of the recipe. And mango salsa is delicious and super classy looking. These two things together will wow a potential date, future in-law, or colleague, and you can post them on Instagram and everyone will ooh and ahh. Who cares if you haven’t actually folded laundry in 2 years? You can still achieve Kitchen Godhood.
This is a photogenic meal. One that a single person could eat for days on. I just ate some leftovers for lunch and it’s just as delicious the next day.
I need to stop and note here that my husband is the enchilada maker in the family. His are so good that I don’t even bother trying. These are not fancy food, they have simple ingredients like enchilada sauce from a can – yes, you can make your own, but that’s an endeavor for later – taco seasoning and cream cheese. This is accessible cooking at it’s finest, and that’s the first step into the more complex stuff, should you so choose. It’s simple, it’s pretty, it’s affordable, and it’s cheesy. What more can you ask for?
Simple Mango Salsa
2 mangoes, medium sized, peeled and chopped
1/3 of an English cucumber, chopped small
1/2 medium red onion
1 lime, juiced
Couple dashes cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper to taste
Chop everything, put in a container with a lid, shake well. Let stand about 2 minutes and shake again before serving. Also, start with this. Once you are done chopping and you have a pretty bowl of salsa in front of you, you will probably feel as though you have superpowers. Whether you put on a cape is up to you. I don’t judge.
A note on the enchilada recipe – this is a consolidation of my husband’s notes and my editing. All pictures are by him.
E’s Enchiladas 2 pounds of chicken breast cut into 2-3″ chunks 4 ounces of cream cheese, more or less Taco seasoning, half packet 2 10 oz. cans red enchilada sauce (we go with mild, because children) 1 yellow onion 2 plus cups shredded cheese, Mexican blend 5 to 8 flour tortillas Salt & pepper to taste Olive oil as needed
Chop an onion somewhat fine
In a well-oiled pan, place chunks of chicken breast and cook over medium-low heat.
When they are cooked most of the way through, one at a time, remove them to a cutting board and shred with a couple forks (you can also cook them in the instant pot with some broth to make them shreddable, about 12 minutes if, like wife, you have no patience for this step)
Put chicken back in the pan, and repeat with each chunk until all chicken is shredded. Toss in your onion, a bit more olive oil, cream cheese and taco seasoning. Once everything is cooked together, toss in a handful of shredded cheese. If you want to add some herbs, jalepenos or some other veggies like peppers, now is the time
While chicken finishes cooking and cheese is melting still on medium heat, coat a baking dish with olive oil. A 9×12 baking dish is great, but enchilada sizes are flexible so your dish can be, too. Just remember that metal will heat faster than glass, so keep an eye on your dish as it cooks andreduce heat by 25 degrees if using metal.
Gently pour in one can of enchilada sauce over oiled dish, set aside. Using a clean baking sheet for work surface (cutting boards also work) place a single tortilla on the pan, and fill and roll.
Note from E: I wish I could say there was an art to rolling an enchilada, and maybe there is but I don’t care to learn it. Just put a blob of gooey chicken mix toward one end and roll toward the other. Just remember to place them into the baking dish seam side down.
Place each rolled enchilada in the oiled, enchilada sauce-filled pan as you go.
Now that your enchiladas are all in a row or the shape of a series of poorly cut floor boards in the baking dish, (and your pan and cutting board are soaking in the sink), pour the second can of enchilada sauce over the top. You can coat the whole surface for maximum goo factor, or leave some exposed tortilla, up to you. Sprinkle the remainder of your shredded cheese over the entirety of the dish. Use as much as you like, the “2 cups plus” noted above is just a suggestion. We love cheese, so Eli goes wall to wall with it.
Bake at 375 for 30 to 40 minutes, covered except for the last 10 minutes. Remove from oven when cheese is browned at the edges and bubbling. Devour.
All of a sudden, spring finally arrived at Sithean. The cold nights have gone away, the days hover near 70, everything is so very green, and the lilacs are finally starting to bloom, weeks late. The asparagus bed is producing almost more than we can keep up with, meaning we’ll be making some well-received donations in the coming days. The chickens get to roam most days, with leaf cover protecting them from hawks and it being time for them to do their job of bug-eating.
For us, as we see states reopening and infection rates and deaths continue to grow, we’re slowly formulating our plans. It seems likely that I won’t be traveling for work until fall, at least, and our social schedule isn’t going to resume anytime soon. Everyone is still working, at least right now, and I don’t see that changing either, thankfully. The economy gets worse every week as well.
So budget and sustainability are top of mind, and we definitely are not alone in that.
On our rocky, tree covered acre and a quarter, complete self-sufficiency isn’t a likely option, even if we turned the entire front yard into food-producing crops or grazing land. And for me, what that equals to is exhaustion and a zero-enjoyment life. At least right now, radical food production isn’t on the table. What is?
Taking the long view and making the investments a little at a time. Investing in the things that we believe to be the most financially rewarding as well. And re-looking at our budget for more radical cost-cutting. I call it the ‘go easy’ method.
How does that work? Every year, as time and budget allow, we add. Sometimes it works out, sometimes not. Baby fruit trees, even with protective cover, don’t always survive the winter. Last winter we lost one of the apricots, the fig, and an old apple tree that finally died. We put in 3 apple trees and 2 cold-hardy cherries this year, and we’re going to replace the fig and apricot next season. One more older apple tree looks to be dying as well, and I want to add at least one more peach tree, as well as more asparagus crowns. But that’s next spring.
Last fall, when gardening supplies went on sale, I bought 6 tomato cages, and I’ll get a few more gratis from my neighbor. I have 2 metal cucumber trellises as well, and we’ll build some bean supports. Other than the additional bricks we need to finish garden beds, and some compost and grass seed, our investment in the garden is complete for the year.
I have plenty of seeds, and other than onion seeds and a few other things, most seeds last more than one season, so I’ll need fewer next year. I’m also, 4 gardening seasons in, starting to learn what works for us and what doesn’t in conjuction with our CSA, although I may have to rethink it a little, depending on how CSA pickup works this year. And we have our Misfits Market box every couple weeks, but we’ll put that on hold most of the summer. Our chickens are likely self-sustaining at this point, and at some point we’ll let them raise a batch of babies. I don’t expect to have to buy any eggs for many years to come. I think this year we’ll can enough salsa and pasta sauce to get us through the winter, along with pickles to give away. And those fruit trees – we already get apples, and this year I’m going to manage to protect at least a few peaches from the squirrels.
We have infinity raspberries, and hopefully at least a few strawberries this year. I don’t buy asparagus ever, because the stuff from the store is tasteless compared to the fresh-picked spears from my garden, so it’s become a seasonal thing, although hopefully we will have enough to freeze for a couple of winter meals. In short, I don’t have everything planted, but we do continue to grow our repertoire so there may come a day in a couple years when buying fruit is a rare thing for us.
What I’ve learned over the years is if I try to do it all, we fail. There’s simply not enough of us to go around. So our planning involves a cadence of expenditures of both money and time. We paint and patch around one room a year. When we renovate, we’ll do a lot at once, but trying to do it all at once sends both our budget and our time completely off kilter. We want to be as self-sufficient as possible, but we also recognize that our limited family time is precious. Life is often about what you choose not to do as well as what you choose to.
Is this a lot of work still? Sure. But these are investments, and in the long haul, they will pay off. Instead of paying someone to cut the lawn, this year we spent $3600 on a really good lawn tractor and another $200 on a string trimmer and we will do it ourselves. In 2 years, they will pay for themselves because we are no longer spending money on a service, and after that, it’s money in the bank. So too is it with fruit trees and raspberries and seeds.
So self-sufficiency homesteading – is it in the cards? In total, no. But carefully chosen elimination of dependencies on the outside world is.
This morning I woke up to snow outside, and my relentlessly blooming Hibiscus gazing out the window, as though it was longing for summer, not unlike the rest of us. It’s May already, and Mother’s Day is tomorrow.
Fortunately the snow dissapated quickly – by the time I sat down to eat around 11 am, it was gone and the sun was shining, but there’s a frost warning in place for tonight, which meant we needed to cover up our delicate baby fruit trees and flowering shrubs. I brought in firewood and sent my wonderful husband to the hardware store to get something to cover the garden beds. We spent about 45 minutes tacking plastic over the trench bed, the front garden, and the baby snap peas and lettuce in the gardens, as well as covering our fruit trees. It wasn’t work I planned today, but I’m grateful if it keeps my gardens safe.
This past week found me overwhelmed a lot. Between work, kids and life in general, plus the fact that my energy levels nearly 5 weeks after last feeling truly ‘sick’ are not back to normal. I have the energy to walk in the mornings, but after work and dinner, I’m wiped during the week. I needed a reset. So on Friday after a couple of morning meetings, I called it, signed off for the day, and proceeded to spend some time doing non-work things like housecleaning and spending time with the family.
This morning I woke up refreshed, and decided that I needed to better plan to get more control over my time and energy. Key to that is a meal plan.
I made a menu through next Saturday. I tried to focus on the things we have, but even then I needed some additions. So then a grocery list, and even found a store with a pickup window for this morning. I’ve been experimenting with delivery, as well as going to the store, and drive-up-and-they-put it-in-trunk style grocery acquisition, and I have to say I like that last one best. I’ll still need to go in stores occasionally, but the combination of meat and vegetables delivered every few weeks plus a few trips out seems to be keeping us well-stocked.
And honestly, while I don’t want to over-buy and reduce what’s available to those that need it, making sure our pantry, refrigerator and freezer stay full is part of my plan now. We are in uncharted territory from an economic and disease perspective, and I am behaving as though an abundance of caution in almost every aspect of our life is necessary. We are in for a long road, and my eternal optimism is becoming tempered. Food, we will spend money on. The garden too – we planted 2 cherry and 2 apple trees this year, and Mulberry and Witch Hazel trees are both on the way. Add to that my lemon tree, which I will work to keep alive during winters in the house, the existing fruit trees, chickens and the garden, and we start to become just a tiny bit more self-sufficient every year.
To our Walden Local Meat subscription, as well as Misfits Market, we now get bread flour on subscription too from One Mighty Mill. Sustaining a more local food supply is necessary, even as we see more and more supply chain interruptions. True, it can be expensive, but right now it’s an expense worth extending for. For those of us who can afford to weather the storm right now, local food and farmers are great places to put dollars. I don’t like to indulge in fear-based thinking, but I also don’t think there’s a fast path out of this. None of us will be unscathed at the end.
But if this is a long-haul situation, anything that gives a sense of control is good. And to that end – the meal plan I mentioned. It helps in myriad ways – I can do food prep early in the morning to ensure that food is ready at dinnertime, just as I am wrapping my work day, rather than stepping away from my desk and staring vacantly into the fridge, as if hoping that amongst the peppers and tofu is a tiny, chilly Oracle with an idea of what we should eat. It means that we’re typically eating healthier, as from-scratch food is almost invariably healthier than packaged. And it means we’re working our way through the vegetable drawer, which is critical to conserving dollars and preventing waste.
So what are we eating this week?
Tonight, a pot of chili, some popovers, and veggies.
Tomorrow my husband is in charge of food, with me trying to do as little cooking as possible
Monday through Wednesday it will be just Eli and I, so one night we will have fish with tumeric-roasted cauliflower, and another night sticky chicken meatballs and sauteed veggies with salad, and then a bbq chicken Cobb salad saved for whatever night is warmest
Thursday and Friday will be kid-friendly, with spaghetti and meatballs taking center stage one night, and homemade pizza another. Either Friday or Saturday we’ll do our once-every-few-weeks takeout. So far, Indian food is the greatest hit, but we also got all the ingredients to make Onion Pakoda, and we’ve mastered butter chicken and saag already so maybe we’ll opt to skip the taking out.
In a world where every choice we make is possibly deadly to our loved ones and to our wallets, simplification is important, as is controlling what we can.
The other night, my husband and I were alone and simultaneously not consumed by work taking up our attention 24/7 for the first time in weeks. Spring is exploding all around us, even as the worldwide deaths climb to nearly 250,000, 65,000 in the United States alone. Massachusetts is a hot spot, and we remain in lockdown until at least May 18, but perhaps longer. As we hear the news around us, and continue to isolate from the people we love, we are trying to focus on the things we can control – working hard, taking care of the kids and the house and yard, tending our animals, each other.
And like so many others, our focus is often in the kitchen.
Since we were alone and wanted time together more than anything, I made Beef Burgundy in the instant pot, and we settled in to start watching Julie & Julia, a movie I hadn’t seen in nearly a decade and he hadn’t ever, and we realized something – Julia Child’s obsession with food was much like my own, and Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci’s portrayal of Julia and Paul Childs reminded us of ourselves to an almost silly degree, only I’m not as tall or permed or talented as the amazing Julia was.
But the love of food, on that matter, there’s no question. No matter what is going on, if I settle down to fresh eggs from our chickens or a delicious home-cooked meal, it invariably makes it better.
I love food, the process of making it, the magic of turning flour, water and yeast into the most delicious bread imaginable, the delight of mastering a new recipe, the joy of when someone says “More please!”.
Almost everything I do is surrounded by food. Hence the regularity with which I exercise. And also, while so many people around me focus their charitable dollars on medical research and other important things, for me, it’s making sure children and families eat. All the places we can put our dollars matter, but for me, it’s the basics.
Without food, we cannot thrive. Without food, our brains don’t develop or function correctly. Food is a basic requirement of our survival, and so many lack it. Food is literally right there with shelter, water and bathing. It’s a basic building block for all of us.
Yesterday while talking to a neighbor I may never agree with politically, we both worried about famine as a result of our new reality. Here. Food is something we can all agree on – we all need it. In a polarized world, food may be a common ground we all can share.
It’s also why I’m endlessly driven to the garden, to find yet another local food source, to source from another local farm. Because as much as I love the grocery store, and oh, I do, I also know our food chain is fragile, dependent on shipping, low-paid workers, and the continuation of farms that we need but seem, as a society, not to value nearly enough. For those of us who can, diverting our food dollars – even a few more than we usually spend, to local food makes a huge difference. It ensures a safer food supply – Tyson doesn’t need your dollars, but these guys do. Find someone near you at LocalHarvest.org. So does Onemightymill.com, who grinds wheat in Lynn, MA, right down the road from me. And WaldenLocalMeat.comhas been supplying our meet for 6 months now. It’s honestly some of the best meat we’ve ever had. That Beef Burgundy? Made from there, with the produce mostly from our Misfits Market box. I love my MisfitsMarket.com box – they rescue organic produce that the grocery stores think looks too imperfect to sell. We use them in the winter now, while our CSA and garden aren’t producing. While it isn’t as local as I would like, it’s preventing food waste, and they are trying to add SNAP to their list of ways to pay. I like a company with morals like that.
We are about to enter the season where food is plentiful in the northern states. Snap peas and lettuce are peeking out in the garden, and either today or tomorrow we’ll harvest the first asparagus. We’ve been relentlessly planting fruit trees. I’ve begun hardening off our seedlings on the porch, and dropping extras to friends. We have several friends and acquaintances on our regular egg consumption list. I cannot feed the world, but I can provide a dozen fresh eggs to a short list of people every couple weeks. And help out our local food pantry. And start extra seedlings. For me, feeding people gives back.
I can cook for my family – a physical demonstration of love for them.
Tonight, I stir fried ground beef with rice noodles, onions, broccoli and fresh chives from the garden, which are always amongst the first things to come up.
I added to that Connor’s fresh bread, and if anyone gets hungry later, we have leftover chocolate pistachio cake, dropped off as part of the Mom’s weekly baking program, and sliced strawberries. Sometime this week I’ll take my parsnips, sweet potatoes and turnips and turn them into latkes. I have several mangoes lying around, so I’ll make a simple mango salsa. What are we going to put it on? Who knows, maybe the latkes.
The love of good food and cooking is one of the best ways I can think of to cope with the loss of normal life. Getting lost in the growing of it, and the creating of it is, to me, a reminder of the infinite blessings we have.
And if you want to feed those in need around you, here’s some ways.