September 23, 2023 | Rome, Italy

The half-full glass, with thanks

By |2020-06-22T12:01:48+02:00June 22nd, 2020|"Suzanne's Taste"|
For corn tortillas... polenta.

’m supposed to be writing about food. But it’s disturbing to see images of cars in California lined up to get food packages, nice cars, too, not just oldies. If the fairly-well-off are looking for food supplies, imagine those living in crates or cardboard boxes or under bridges or in doorways.

Not easy under these circumstances, and from my southern France vantage point, to talk about my well-stocked pantry, my delivery service from a lovely fresh fruit and vegetable stand, my curbside pick-up at our little supermarket, where a friend has gathered items on our grocery list, sent the total amount by cell phone, and we simply show up in a mask with gloves on and a check.

Until recently, farmers in the United States were dumping their produce because there were no stores open to receive it. Now, thank heavens, enterprising helpers are picking up the food and distributing it to the needy. What a world.

Still, here we are, in isolation for who knows how long, by choice (we are both well over 50), and I am the cook, also by choice. But I am so fortunate to have a golden palate partner who comes to the table fully accepting whatever strange dish might appear upon it (our lockdown food choices have been varied).

I cannot complain.

Farmers were dumping their produce because there were no stores open to receive it.

We eat well, very well. Our marvelous fish store is closed, and I’m not happy with getting things from the butcher even as most of our neighbors have gone back to their old habits.

But the meat and and vegetable stand and open market were also closed for some time, and during those weeks I had to improvise with frozen ground beef patties and white fish and vegetables, a first for me. See how spoiled I am?
What was challenging, and turned out to be great fun, was the exploration through my staples to find meal beginnings. My polenta stash turned out to be great for making corn tortillas, and because I’m a baker, we never lacked for breads while our local boulangerie was shut down tight.

Still, I felt like Lewis and Clark as I discovered a strange little can of cocktail tuna spread that someone had brought to a dinner party, and what was that little bottle of purée de piment lurking at the back of a fridge drawer, another gift from somewhere. Friends are always giving me things like lemon marmalade or olive paté, one of which helped to make a chutney for now-weekly curry (my lemon tree had to be stripped before spring to let new flowers emerge) and the tapenade went onto a focaccia before baking and changed its life.

I’m still finding things in my pantry to create new tastes. Lentils soaked until soft and ground up with an onion, a piece of ginger, coriander (before it went to seed) from the garden, and a touch of that mysterious little bottle of hot pimiento sauce made an Indian croquette called varday, dropped by spoonfuls into olive oil and browned on both sides.

We could live on these for weeks if necessary and may have to, but thank you, Amazon and so many other food supply stores, we could re-order lentils and breakfast grains, flour and yeast, when most of the US was finding bare shelves in their markets.

And yet, everyone got cooking again. A miracle in America where take-out is the new dinner party fare and expensive kitchens have never seen a cook.

We had lentils and breakfast grains when most of the US was finding bare shelves.

In lockdown, I was inspired to share recipes with a WhatsApp group, started by locals, called Jailbirds. Inspiration at its height, and we even made a couple of baking videos in our spare time. But that’s the thing, there never seems to be enough time to do anything, even while our other life languishes until.

Yet I do cook, and love it even more than before, if that is possible. I revere my Veracruzana sauce of onion, garlic, fresh tomatoes (my fresh foods stand opened again and delivers), white wine and capers, created for often tasteless frozen fish filets, and the next day it is heated up with that funny little can of tuna pate to put over penne.  Pasta we ALWAYS have, thank heaven.  It has saved our bacon, which reminds me that before lockdown, I had not had a BLT for about a gazillion years, but we’ve had BLTs when the cupboard is between deliveries, along with omelets, poached eggs on toast, anything with eggs. Lots of those around these farm parts.

Even made hamburgers from frozen meat, my semi-vegetarian inclination out the window when toasted buns, lettuce, tomato, mayo, Dijon mustard reminded me that I hadn’t had a burger in about 10 years!  Did I mention ketchup?  Wow, no wonder it’s popular.

Still, my thoughts go to food lines, whole poor communities waiting for hours for a bag of what? Rice? Canned vegetables? Certainly not even frozen fish sticks, I imagine. How to close this gap, everywhere. How to even out the playing field. And the food field is most important right now, with the children of the children of America’s poor undernourished, often starving, while farmers burn their wheat.

This period has affected people in such different ways.

Easy and interesting and stimulating for me. A horror for others. I have no quippy final remark this time around. Only a wish that there be big changes after this pandemic relents, changes that benefit all of us, not just the ones with a stash of tuna paté in the pantry.

About the Author:

Suzanne Dunaway, a longtime major magazine writer and artist, is the author and illustrator of "Rome, At Home, The Spirit of La Cucina Romana in Your Own Kitchen" (Broadway Books) and "No Need To Knead, Handmade Italian Breads in 90 Minutes" (Hyperion). She taught cooking for 15 years privately and at cooking schools in Los Angeles, and now maintains a personal website and a blog. She divides her time between southern France and Italy.