At Least Isolation Is Teaching People a Better Way to Cook

Bean stew in a pot
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

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For those people in the U.S. who have never been food-insecure, the past few weeks have been an unwelcome revelation. Although reporters like my colleague Aaron Mak tell us that the grocery supply chains are going to hold up, we’re still haunted by questions about household food availability. People afraid of spreading or catching the novel coronavirus while buying groceries are trying to stretch a single shop over two weeks instead of one. Habitual home cooks used to finding any ingredient they want at Kroger are wondering what to do without onions, yeast, or flour. Parents are fretting over their now-home-schooled children’s habits of carelessly snacking throughout the day or leaving half a precious banana to molder on the counter, uneaten. And, of course, the fact that record numbers of Americans are currently jobless and wondering about their ability to pay bills in the next weeks and months makes every bit of food seem all the more precious.

This sense of ambient anxiety around food supply is why we’ve got articles and posts recommending what to do with potato chip crumbs or how to cook all those newly acquired sacks of dried beans. It’s the reason for the appearance of scarcity-themed content from celebrity chefs, like Alton Brown’s “Pantry Raid” series of videos about sprucing up staples or Nigella Lawson’s tweet recommending the use of leftover pasta water or potato water in making bread. These one-off tips are helpful, as far as they go. But what a lot of us are going to realize during this period of isolation and quarantine is that it’s our Before Times kitchen systems—reliant on takeout and frequent grocery shopping, and productive of far too much waste—that may need a rethink. We lucky Americans who are used to having plenty of food aren’t so much in need of a new recipe for lentil cookies as we are of a paradigm shift in the way we feed ourselves.

That’s why I’ve had Tamar Adler’s wonderful book An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace on my mind. Adler’s book has some recipes in it, but it’s mostly about process—about what happens in a kitchen when you commit to using everything, letting one meal’s leftovers and the spare bits of ingredients left over from today’s prep inspire what you cook the next day. As Adler eloquently puts it: “Meals’ ingredients must be allowed to topple into one another, like dominoes.”

I remember thinking, when I first read An Everlasting Meal, that to adopt this economical approach you need to spend a lot of time in the kitchen. You aren’t likely to learn Adler-recommended habits, like chopping and quick-pickling your kale stems from tonight’s pasta to garnish tomorrow’s eggs, if you are only cooking once or twice a week or are accustomed to being able to get recipe-specific groceries and prepared food whenever you want.

But now, many more of us are in the kitchen—if you’re isolating or quarantined, where else are you going to be?—and I think Adler’s way of cooking is going to become a lot more natural to a lot of us in the coming months. “When we cook things, we transform them. And any small acts of transformation are among the most human things we do,” Adler wrote in An Everlasting Meal. “Whether it’s nudging dried leaves around a patch of cement, or salting a tomato, we feel, when we exert tiny bits of our human preference in the universe, more alive.” This is the time—anxious, trapped—to get that “I’m alive” feeling out of cooking, if you can.

“This is a weird moment that fits the way we live,” Adler said of her family, when I reached her by phone and asked if the COVID-19 pandemic had changed the way she cooks and shops. (We talked while she was on a walk with her preschooler, and our conversation was frequently—and delightfully—interrupted by questions about decaying possums and the reasons nobody can ring a neighbor’s doorbell right now.) “We have a chest freezer, and when this started, we probably had enough food around for about a year. We put stuff up all the time. I’m like an Italian grandma, or a Mormon, in the body of a New York journalist.”

Adler is now working on a cookbook about leftovers—an appropriate project for the times, it turns out. “I feel a little like Cassandra. I’ve been saying for a very long time that in order to really live on this planet, we have to deal with resources differently, and trying to do what I can to help people learn how to use those resources differently.” She admitted to feeling a bit cynical, witnessing the recent boom in bean-buying and glut of advice for cooking pantry staples in food media. “OK, so you’re going and stocking up on beans when you probably had enough food in your house already, and that’s going to result in some people who really need beans not having beans,” she said. “Also, for the last 10 years we’ve been told again and again that we need to eat more pulses and beans and this is the way to eat better at home! Most of the world has been living on beans and rice this whole time. There’s this kind of commodification of catastrophe, and dramatization and performance of economy, that I roll my eyes at a little bit, and also find quite interesting.”

(Later, Adler sent me a recommendation to listen to the podcast Scene on Radio’s episode about the New Deal, which features audio from the Studs Terkel Archive. The episode opens with an interview with Clifford Burke, a retired transit worker from Chicago, remembering how the Great Depression hit black and white Americans differently. “If I go home and take some beans or anything home, my wife, she’ll fix that,” Burke explained. “We’ll set down, we’ll eat it. It isn’t exactly what we want, but we’ll eat it. But this white fella that’s been making this big money and he go bring this home, his wife isn’t gonna accept this.”)

Yes, it’s definitely a little cringe-inducing to watch everyone rush to put their new COVID victory garden on Instagram—but at least this backward-looking fad for food economy is a move in the right direction. “The thing I think is wonderful, the flip side of that commodification and dramatization, is that we’re going to be excited about exactly the things that you have to be excited about,” Adler continued. “We have to be excited about cooking beans, because in order to go on living on this planet, beans are what we’re going to eat, right?” Restriction and scarcity, Adler said, “is where the great cooking in the world comes from. … Think of ribollita, or refried beans, or migas, or fattoush”—all dishes that use leftovers, loose parts, and stale bits to create something new and delicious.

This past week, I finally read the book that inspired Adler to write hers. M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf, originally published in 1942, is about wartime cooking, not pandemic kitchens, but it’s the best thing to read right now if you want to dispel some of your anxiety around food in uncertain times. As Fisher herself writes: “It is good, now when war and its trillion grim surprises haunt all our minds, to talk with other older humans about what they have done in their days to fool the wolf.” (“Trillion grim surprises” sounds like the coronavirus in a nutshell.) The book is wryly hilarious, and full of reminders that for decades of the last century, American cooks “made do” with a lot less than most of us have right now. How to Cook a Wolf is about rising above panic through the exercise of ingenuity—using the art of cooking economically to both feed and calm yourself, in the bad times.

Reading Fisher’s passages on hayboxes (when fuel was scarce, people used to insert a boiling pot into a box packed with hay, to tap into its insulating power) and her recommendations to habitually stuff any turned-on oven with a full complement of pans (stale bread being turned into Melba toast, apples roasted against future need), one realizes that most of us are, so far, doing a lot better than those grandmothers and grandfathers. At least most of us still have heat to cook with and refrigeration to extend the life of our food. And though there is a recipe in Fisher’s book for a “sludge” of ground meat, grain, and vegetables she recommends making if you ever find yourself trying to live on 50 (1942) cents a week, this passage functions more as reassurance than actual recommendation. If worst comes to worst, she writes, armed with a little information, you will be all right.

Like Adler after her, Fisher’s advice is all about maximizing, about getting everything you can from every item that comes through your kitchen. Fisher recommends keeping two old gin bottles in the “icebox”—one for your drips and draps of fruit juice, and one for your random ounces of vegetable juice. “You can add what’s left of the morning tomato juice,” she writes. “You can squeeze in the last few drops of the lemon you drink in hot water before breakfast, if you still do that. You can put canned vegetable juices in. You can steep parsley stems in hot water and pour their juice into the bottle. In other words, never throw away any vegetable or its leaves or its juices unless they are bad; else count yourself a fool.”

“These petty tricks seem somewhat more so when gas flows through the pipes and firewood is available and electricity actually turns on with a button,” Fisher wrote in an annotation to the 1942 text, added in the flush of plenty that characterized the postwar period in the United States. “But in each one of them there is a basic thoughtfulness, a searching for the kernel in the nut, the bite in honest bread, the slow savor in a baked wished-for apple. It is this thoughtfulness that we must hold to, in peace or war, if we may continue to eat to live.”

And so, if we are lucky enough to have enough food in our kitchens right now, even if we don’t have exactly what we want, I suggest we take this time to be more thoughtful about our plenty. Google “what can I do with kale stems” instead of pitching them; pour hot water in your empty honey jar to get simple syrup out of the dregs; use bacon grease for shortening, as in Fisher’s recipe for “War Cake.” This terrible, weird, cooped-up time is also a chance—at least for some of us—to make fundamental changes in the way we think about home cooking. I, no fool, am starting a vegetable juice jar this week. Who’s with me?