Keeping despair at bay (part 17)

Food has been front of mind for many of us since the pandemic began a year ago. For some, this has translated into more home cooking than ever before; in April, a colleague told me she had done more cooking in the preceding few weeks than in her entire adult life. Others have used pent-up energy and anxiety to create elaborate meals day in and day out. A lot of people in my neighbourhood seem to be indulging in take-out fast food and pre-made meals like never before: the night before garbage pickup, recycling boxes are full to overflowing with take-out pizza boxes, hamburger and French fry wrappers, empty jars of spaghetti sauce, TV dinner and frozen lasagne containers and the like. Of course, some have shown more self-discipline and, rather than just moving to loose tops and pants with elastic waistbands, have taken advantage of being confined at home to clean up their eating habits in a campaign to be healthier.

Home-cooked meals

I have always cooked a lot. It’s a favourite pastime of mine; something I do to unwind and put my work aside. Even so, I have never cooked as much as I have in the past 12 months. Especially, I have never cooked so much for just two people.

My partner also enjoys cooking and is good at it, but over the decades I have pretty much pushed him out of the kitchen. Now, I am working hard to relinquish some of the control I have insisted on having in front of the stove, and we are beginning to share responsibility for getting dinner on the dining room table (or on TV tables, when we are completely tapped out conversationally). When I stop thinking I know better than anyone else how things in the kitchen should operate, I really enjoy sitting down to meals that he has prepared.

We have eaten out only twice in the past year, both times many months ago. We almost never order take-out, although we have succumbed occasionally to our desire for a greasy hamburger and onion rings or Chinese food.

Whatever approach you have been taking towards food in the past year, there is no doubt that the cultural rituals associated with the preparation and serving of food have changed dramatically.

“The befuddlement of grief”

As anyone who has dealt with the death of a family member or friend since last March will already know, one of the cultural rituals that has changed – well, not so much changed as vanished — is the funeral luncheon, as it is called in rural Ontario. It’s a little difficult to sidle up to a buffet of finger sandwiches and little squares while physically distancing and even more difficult to eat those treats while masked, so they are no longer on offer by funeral homes and church ladies’ auxiliaries.

As Grace Dent wrote about her mother’s death in a recent Guardian essay:

“My mother loved sweet things and, by God, if I could, I’d provide them. I’d fill that trestle table in that imaginary back room until it was groaning. . . The nips of Bell’s whisky would be more than a finger; they’d be generous, cheek-warming and numbing. No mourner would leave without a take-home treat in their handbag. But that cannot happen right now. We bury our dead, sad in spirit and very much empty of stomach. Full of love, but not of egg mayo and cress sandwiches, cut into neat triangles and piled on a stainless-steel platter. It’s an odd sort of grieving, is this.”

Of course, it is not just the sandwiches, sweets and whisky we miss; it’s the chance to reminisce and share laughter and tears with others who cared about the person who has died. As we found at my father’s memorial service last fall, without food to hold us together, we all dispersed quickly once the formal event came to an end.

“You just have to have faith”

However you have managed your approach to food over the past year, I am willing to bet it doesn’t come close to Suzanne Crocker’s 2017 experiment. Crocker, a physician turned documentary filmmaker, decided to eat only food that was hunted, fished, foraged, grown or raised around her home in Dawson City, Yukon, which is the traditional territory of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in peoples.

Just 300 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle, there is only one road in to Dawson City. Ninety-seven percent of the community’s food is trucked in. Her family – a husband and three kids – somewhat reluctantly joined her on this adventure. As one daughter put it:

“Do you ever have any hope that any of us would actually agree to this?”

More pragmatic, her son commented:

“I can’t really just eat spinach.”

Crocker’s experiment has become an award-winning documentary, First We Eat, now showing at online film festivals and in independent cinemas in many parts of Canada and beyond.

Crocker’s very local diet may be more than most of us are willing to contemplate. She dismisses the absence of chocolate and salt a bit too readily to convince me, and my winters in San Miguel have left me with a constant craving for citrus fruits. However, the principles underlying her experiment are ones we should all consider: the importance of supporting local agriculture, eating less highly processed foods, knowing the provenance of the foods we eat, shortening the food chain. As the days grow longer, the temperatures begin to warm and gardening season gets closer, this is a good time to be inspired to think about eating locally.

As Crocker writes:

“The pandemic has opened everyone’s eyes to the fragility of a supply chain that comes from far away. . . We should start relying on food from closer to home for the essentials. And start recognizing food from far away for what it is – a luxury. In this way, we can build strong local food ecosystems. And, when the next crisis comes our way, we can feel secure that we can, at least, feed ourselves.”

After all, as American food writer MFK Fisher once noted:

“First we eat, then we do everything else.”

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