Food

What’s Cooking During the Pandemic Like for a Family of Four in New York City?

Dwindling grocery delivery options and limited stockpiling space are forcing some changes. For one thing, no more forgotten vegetables.

Canned food, the glare from a window, a spoon, and a gloved hand holding a tray of kneaded dough.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by djedzura/iStock/Getty Images Plus, -slav-/iStock/Getty Images Plus, and Enrico Mantegazza/Unsplash.

Due to the “stay-at-home” and quarantine orders necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic, many of us are finding ourselves cooking more than ever before. In Pandemic Kitchen, we’ll hear from home cooks—experts and newbies, those with plenty of access to food and those with less, the avid and the reluctant—about the culinary struggles, and unexpected joys, of this time of social distancing, for however long it lasts. If you would like to be interviewed for this column, please email humaninterest@slate.com with “Pandemic Kitchen” in the subject line and brief description of your cooking background and current situation.

This interview, conducted by Rebecca Onion, has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Family size and situation: Two parents, two kids (ages 8 and 12), living in an 850-square-foot two-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side of New York City.

Pandemic impact, so far: Both parents are working from home and have retained their jobs, so far. Kids are remote learning. One parent has lost an uncle to the coronavirus. “Beyond that, I don’t think that anyone we regularly deal with around New York has gotten sick, yet—that we know.”

Diet requirements: “We aren’t vegetarians, and don’t follow any special diets.”

The Before Times

Usually, two days a week, we have a sitter/housekeeper who comes in and cooks dinner and deals with the kids in the afternoon. She’s a really good cook—she has a real mastery of various Chinese-style pancakes and dumplings. The rest of the week, dinner was my responsibility.

My wife cooks some; she usually handles breakfast. She wakes up better in the morning than I do. So most mornings, in the normal times, she gets the kids set up with breakfast and then I’m in the kitchen packing the lunches, or the lunch, depending. The younger one got school lunch; the older one rarely did. Usually that was leftovers. Inventory management was “Make sure everybody gets a nutritious dinner, and that there are enough leftovers to send off to school, at least one lunch.”

We would place a FreshDirect order on the weekend, and that would set us up for Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and then the sitter/housekeeper would do Tuesday, and then by Wednesday it would be time to think about going to the store and getting something else.

I miss the ability to bail out on any particular night and just be like, OK, we’re gonna let somebody else cook dinner tonight. … In terms of specific foods I miss, there’s a fairly new ramen place, a really tiny place nearby us, that serves it with yuzu chili paste, and I really miss that option. It’s much more constraining not to be able to go out and get ingredients to make a nice dinner. Just to be like, “I think I’m going to go to the fish counter at Citarella and see what looks good that day.” That’s a big change and challenge.

The New Normal

So much more food is getting eaten. Seven nights a week, putting dinner on the table, and then making sure that there’s lunch, an actual nutritious lunch, including a vegetable, for everyone.

We aren’t getting any takeout or buying any prepared food at all. There’s some fear of transmission, but then also, it’s just one more interaction with the world, at a time when we’re trying to have as few as possible. We didn’t talk about it, make a big decision, or anything; we just kind of agreed on this: “We’re going to be making all our meals at home.”

We’re basically just getting one big FreshDirect order each week. I didn’t book the slot as a recurring weekly appointment when I should have, so it just has worked out so far that we’ve been able to get a big order the last couple of Thursdays. As soon as the spots open up, I just try to grab one, if there’s one still left, and then this week hopefully I’ll turn that into a recurring delivery, since obviously we’re in this for the long haul. [Update, a few days after we did this interview: “Now it’s impossible to get a FreshDirect slot at all. …  I think I may have to go out for meat and fish soon.”] So yes—a once-a-week delivery, and we have to make it last. I tried to put together a FreshGoGo basket and it just has no appointments. Everything is listed as “suspended.” The list of days on the pull-down menu is just not there.

None of the grocery budget is being distributed among, like, getting a sandwich anywhere or me picking up a meal while at work. So the pure grocery amount has gone up, and then, we’re laying in more pantry goods than before, steadily building out a supply of canned stuff and frozen stuff in a way that we didn’t before. We’re spending less on paper products and cleaning supplies, because we can’t buy them!

“Stockpiling” in New York

The toilet paper panic hit before I’d realized that I really should be stockpiling. I did find a mom and pop pharmacy that kept having some toilet paper in stock; I actually should go over there and see how it’s doing. We’re not in a desperate situation, but you know, if supplies remain unavailable, we’ll have a problem.

I started getting more canned goods fairly early in the food accumulation process, before the grocery delivery system got totally slammed. But when it comes to stockpiling … the question is, what am I really prepping for? In the event of a total collapse, we just wouldn’t have the pantry space, in this apartment, to survive it. This gesture of laying in nonperishable food supplies feels like you’re doing something to prepare yourself, when if the supply chains ever collapsed to the extent that we were living on canned goods, we would probably just need to flee.

Shortages, Strategies, Adaptations

FreshDirect’s supply ebbs and flows from session to session. I do a lot of looking on the website and reopening my shopping cart and lurking there. There was a period when it was totally cleaned out of canned beans, or whatever. Right now, salmon salad is not going to be a future option, because it doesn’t have salmon—and I think we first started getting canned salmon because [FreshDirect] ran out of tuna. Meat supply looks super thin for this week; the pork especially seems to be really cleared out.

I had this magical belief that however much food we needed to have would naturally fit into the storage space. Usually, of course, we don’t have seven full days of food on hand. But I thought, “The fridge is where we put the food, so if we get seven days of food, it’s going to fit in the fridge.” Turns out that’s not true. So when I got the food the last time around, there were certain cooking decisions I had to make. I was not able to do my usual thing of procrastinating as long as possible before trimming and preparing artichokes, because the artichokes just would not go in the fridge. I had to cook them the first night.

We’ve been doing things like eating sardines, making the sardines into a sardine salad, interchanging different kinds of canned fish, making salmon salad. Cooking different cuts of meat—cooking boneless beef short ribs like steak, which worked OK, but not as well as a steak would have. I accidentally bought the wrong thing, because I was just so excited to see ground pork that I clicked on it and got it, but it was actually sausage meat. I had been thinking I’d do ground pork and green beans with salted duck eggs, but you can’t really sub sausage into that one. So I ended up making a stir-fried beef with green beans, which I’ve never done before, and used the sausage in some sauce for penne.

I’m using canned crushed tomatoes now. … That’s what I grew up with, but somehow I’d fallen into the habit of thinking it wasn’t fresh enough, or something. Using fresh tomatoes every time I make a sauce. Now, I’m like, “I can just open a can, put this in, and it’s fine!” (I don’t get the kind with the weird spice mixture, just plain crushed tomatoes.)

I’ll use half a can for the pasta sauce and then put the other half of the can with some shallots in the bottom of a roasting pan, put some pork belly on top of that, and then slowly roast it. Then I had some shisito peppers I had cooked for a vegetable at lunchtime, left over; I chopped those up and put them with what was left of the tomato shallot stuff the pork belly roasted on, and then cut up the remaining pork really small and added beans, so it was like pork and beans, and that was another lunch. That worked all right.

Tonight for dinner, we’re at the point in the week where we have to bridge the gap: The obvious things to make are gone, and we need to get to the next FreshDirect. I’m going to make chana dal, Madhur Jaffrey’s recipe. People in my house usually want some kind of meat in their meal, but they’re willing to eat that.

The kind of waste that used to happen, with some vegetable left in the bottom of the vegetable drawer until it’s too late, or leftovers that get shoved to the back of the fridge until it’s too late to do anything about them … that kind of waste is a thing of the past. Nothing has the chance to be forgotten.

Cooking All Day

Being home all day means there’s a lot of things where you’re just throwing a big chunk of meat in the oven and letting it cook slowly while doing other stuff. There’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t require a great deal of attentiveness. And then to try to remember things that are fairly quick and easy that I might not think of otherwise, like canned fish salads or egg salad … you gotta remember to set up a steamer with the eggs so they’re ready when you want to eat the salad, but it’s like, what else are you going to be doing right now? So you just do that and then go do something else for 11 minutes. You learn to integrate it into the schedule pretty well.

I did make a loaf of bread, which is a cliché, but like … I don’t know where I’m going to get bread! The places I get bread, one of them is closed and the other one, every time I’ve been in there, they don’t have bread. The supply of sliced rye for sandwiches, I have been able to keep in stock, but a nice crusty loaf of bread? No. So I’m making bread. I haven’t done that in a long time, but our yeast wasn’t entirely dead.

The kids have been troopers. They eat what they get and don’t object. They were really psyched about the bread. We’ve also made a coffeecake for breakfast. I wish we could do more to teach them to cook; the younger one, especially, is interested, but the apartment’s kitchen is a galley and it’s just so long and narrow. It’s hard to get more than one person in there at a time.

We sit down and eat lunch and dinner together. The apartment’s so small it’d be hard not to. We all sit down and eat together, which also keeps us on schedule to load the dishes into the dishwasher and run one of the multiple dishwasher loads of the day.

Feelings

Part of the destabilization of right now is not knowing what food is going to be like on the other side of this. What local businesses are going to weather this? One thing I feel really bad about … on the way to the elementary school and the playground, there’s one of those spaces where restaurants keep failing. And there was a new one that just opened up in there, trying again. Now this brand-new restaurant, that’s closed … something about them opening in a doomed restaurant space and being killed by something else [was rough]. Like, this restaurant might not even get a chance to die the death that it deserves.

You can’t help but feel anxious about groceries, especially at this stage of it, when you’re counting on the grocery delivery. Watching supplies dwindling away, I feel a baseline responsibility for it, since there’s not a backstop. I feel like, if I fail to have gotten enough food for everyone, it’s not going to be easy. There’s not enough food to go around, or somebody’s going to have to take what’s now an extraordinary measure to go hustle some more food up somewhere. So that makes it more stressful.

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