Category Archives: food

Pandemic blog 41: dream

I’m in New York City. An app on my phone shows me when anyone in my contact list comes nearby, and I see that my friend Mark Poirier is just a block away — I haven’t seen him in years, what a treat! So I go meet up with him. We’re hungry so we go to an underground food court to get doner kebab. But suddenly I realize, I’m not wearing a mask, nobody‘s wearing a mask, what am I doing inside in a crowded place unmasked? Fortunately I have one with me, so I put it on; but a woman in a block-print T-shirt first glares at me, then gets into it with me, insisting that I shouldn’t wear one. I don’t know how to respond; I feel chastened, even though I know I’m in the right.

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Pandemic blog 35: Updates

What’s going on with some of the topics previously covered?

Slimming: The initial weight loss reported slowed down, but hasn’t stopped, even though I started eating take-out from restaurants in July and have been doing so pretty regularly. Now at about 18 pounds below pre-pandemic weight. Why, I wonder? Is it really just the lunch out at work and the snack at the coffeeshop forgone?

Pandemic elections: 100,000 people in Dane County have already returned their absentee ballots for November. The city is setting up “Democracy in the Park” events where voters can turn in their ballots to city pollworkers; Republicans are trying to have those events declared illegal, because (this is me editorializing) they make it easy and convenient for people to vote whose votes they’d rather not see cast. There is a lot of noise about slowness of the mail, but it’s been fast here, and I mailed my ballot in; received by the clerk in just two days. The underlying worry here is that political actors will try to retroactively have legally cast ballots invalidated after Election Day, leaving voters with no recourse. The fact that mailed-in absentees are expected to be predominantly Democratic (only 44,000 ballots returned so far in Crucial Waukesha County) creates an obvious means of attack. I don’t really think that’ll happen but people are thinking about it under their mental breath.

Writing: The book is almost done! A draft is written, I’m going through and revising and putting in more endnotes now. To me it seems completely different from How Not To Be Wrong, while Dr. Mrs. Q says it seems exactly the same, which seems a kind of sweet spot: I can hope the people who liked the other book will like this one, while feeling for myself that I’m not putting out the same product again and again like a hack.

Impossible Meat: We’re still eating a lot of it! I have absolutely learned to read it as meat and no longer think of it as a substitute. But we’ve converged on using it exclusively in sauces; as a burger, it still doesn’t totally satisfy.

Smart Restart: After the big surge with the opening of classes, UW-Madison shut down in-person instruction for two weeks and put the two first-year dorms where cases were concentrated into isolation. The positivity rate on campus has dropped back down to around 1% and the campus outbreak doesn’t seem to have created sustained exponential growth in Madison’s general population; but it does seem to have brought our daily case load back up to where it was months ago, from which it is, again, only very slowly dropping. When R_0 is a little less than 1, even a brief bump up in prevalence can be very expensive in terms of long-term cumulative case numbers. Now we are starting football again. Is that smart? There won’t be any fans in Camp Randall (which means the economic catastrophe for local businesses of a year without a football season is going to happen unblunted.) Then again, there’s something hypocritical about me saying “Hell no, why take the risk” since I’ve been watching and enjoying baseball. The enjoyment of millions of fans actually does have value. MLB, because lots and lots of money is riding on this, has mostly kept its players and employees from suffering outbreaks. The Big Ten can probably do the same — if it cares to. What I worry about is this. By all accounts, in-person teaching hasn’t been spreading COVID either. But when we had in-person teaching, everyone felt things were more normal, and thinking things were more normal, they relaxed their social distancing, and that generated thousands of cases. There was indirect spread. Will football generate the same?

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Pandemic blog 31: farmers’ market

First trip back to the Westside Community Market, which in ordinary times is an every Saturday morning trip for me. It feels like a model for people just sitting down and figuring out how to arrange for people to do the things they want to do in a way that minimizes transmission. We don’t have to eliminate every chance for someone to get COVID. If we cut transmissions to a third of what it would otherwise be, that doesn’t mean a third as many people get COVID — it means the pandemic dies out instead of exploding. Safe is impossible, safer is important!

They’ve reorganized everything so that the stalls are farther apart. Everybody’s wearing masks, both vendors and customers. There are several very visible hand-washing stations. Most of the vendors now take credit cards through Square, and at least one asked me to pay with Venmo. It’s easy for people to keep their distance (though the vendors told me it was more crowded earlier in the morning.)

And of course it’s summer, the fields are doing what the fields do, the Flyte Farm blueberries, best in Wisconsin, are ready — I bought five pounds, and four containers of Murphy Farms cottage cheese. All you need is those two things for the perfect Wisconsin summer meal.

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Pandemic blog 29: Neowise, custard

Comets are supposed to presage plague so I guess this one, Neowise, must have taken a wrong turn and showed up four months late? Anyway, AB and I saw it — bright enough that you don’t have to find a remote hillock with a northward view over lightless fields, you can just head over to Hoyt Park and look out over the city lights. With naked eye you can just barely see the comet, mostly in your peripheral vision; through binoculars, the tail is quite clear. AB was over the moon about it. She has seen a comet and a total eclipse in her first ten years of life; not bad!

This is my third comet, I think. Hale-Bopp, very visible, late 90s, everybody saw it. And the 1986 Halley’s, which was disappointingly dim; I don’t think I ever saw it with my eyes, but we were visiting my grandmother in Tucson and the UA observatory was letting people come in and look at Halley’s comet through their telescope, so I did that. But in the end seeing it through a big fixed scope at the observatory isn’t that different from seeing a picture of it.

After four months, I decided it was OK for me to eat purchased food again. Since then I have done it three times, and all three times it was Michael’s Frozen Custard. Eating only home-cooked food and Michael’s Frozen Custard is like the pescatarianism of quarantine. I had an idea in my mind that the second I ate a bite of restaurant food, all the weight I’d lost during the abstention would instantly reappear, like in the Simpsons episode where Barney stops drinking Duff beer but then has one. It didn’t happen. I might need more custard.

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Pandemic blog 27: Impossible Stroganoff

We are down to once every three weeks at Trader Joe’s (I fill two whole carts with stuff, it’s an undertaking) which we supplement with other kinds of food purchases in between. I’m unhappy with the conditions industrial meatpackers are putting their workers in, so I’m picking up meat curbside at Conscious Carnivore, our local meat-from-nearby-farms-you’re-supposed-to-feel-vaguely-OK-about supplier. We get shipments from Imperfect Foods, which I’m a little concerned is some kind of hedge-fund-backed grocery store destruction scheme but helps fill in the gaps. And the really exciting food news is that Impossible Foods, the substitute meat company I learned about from my old math team buddy Mike Eisen, is now delivering!

This stuff is by far the most realistic fake ground beef in existence. We served Impossible cheeseburgers at CJ’s bar mitzvah and a member of the ritual committee was so convinced he was ready to pull the fire alarm and evacuate the shul for de-trayfing. Since I don’t cook milk and meat together in the house, there are a lot of dishes that just don’t happen at home. And one of them — which I’ve been waiting years to make — is my favorite dish from childhood, “hamburger stroganoff.”

This dish comes from Peg Bracken’s protofeminist masterpiece, the I Hate To Cook Book. Is that book forgotten by younger cooks? It’s decidedly out of style. Maybe it was even out of style then; my mom, I always felt, made hamburger stroganoff grudgingly. It involves canned soup. But it is one of the most delicious things imaginable and readers, the Impossible version is almost indistinguishable from the real thing.

Here’s Peg Bracken’s obituary, which leads with the famous lines from this famous recipe:

Start cooking those noodles, first dropping a bouillon cube into the noodle water. Brown the garlic, onion and crumbled beef in the oil. Add the flour, salt, paprika and mushrooms, stir, and let it cook five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink.

And here’s the recipe itself. If you’re vegetarianizing this, you can just use cream of mushroom soup for the cream of chicken and replace the bouillon with some salt (or veggie stock, if that’s your bag.)

8 ounces Noodles, uncooked
1 cube Beef Bouillon
1 clove Garlic,minced
1/3 cup Onion, chopped
2 tablespoons Cooking oil
1 pound Ground Beef
2 tablespoons Flour
2 teaspoons Salt
1/2 teaspoon Paprika
6 ounces Mushrooms
1 can Cream of Chicken Soup, undiluted
1 cup Sour Cream
1 handful Parsley, chopped

Start cooking those noodles, first dropping a boullion cube into the noodle water.
Brown the garlic, onion, and crumbled beef in the oil.
Add the flour, salt, paprika, and mushrooms, stir, and let it cook five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink.
Then add the soup and simmer it–in other words, cook on low flame under boiling point–ten minutes.
Now stir in the sour cream–keeping the heat low, so it won’t curdle–and let it all heat through.
To serve it, pile the noodles on a platter, pile the Stroganoff mix on top of the noodles, and sprinkle chopped parsley around with a lavish hand.

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Pandemic blog 14: slimming

I have occasionally worked to lose weight, never too seriously because my weight problem has never been too serious. I used to sometimes do the Scarsdale diet in sync with my dad and once, a few years back, I went six weeks without carbs.

Anyway, a month without restaurant food has gone by and I’m 13 pounds lighter. Even though I’m eating all the cakes and cookies the kids are baking, snacking at night, going through enormous amounts of eggs, doing everything wrong. I looked up the records from doctor’s appointments and this is the least I’ve weighed since 2011. Who knew all it took was an order from the Governor to stay at home and make my own food?

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Pandemic blog 10: I’m masked in the supermarket

After thinking it over in previous posts I realized I had no rejoinder to the argument that we should all be wearing masks to go shopping, so I wore a mask to go shopping. Nothing fancy or ultra-filtering, just an elastic paper mask from a box. I worried I would feel awkward, but instead I felt cool, like a bandit. When I last went shopping, 9 days ago, almost no one was wearing a mask; now it’s up to 20 or 25 percent of the customers. Maybe people are reading my blog! I didn’t ask. None of the Trader Joe’s employees wear masks and I wonder whether they’re allowed to.

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Pandemic blog 9: The Class of 1895

I was wondering about what the last major pandemic, the Spanish flu of 1918, looked like in real time, so I looked at the 25th anniversary report of the Harvard Class of 1895, published in June 1920 and written in 1919. To my surprise, the flu is barely mentioned. Henry Adsit Bull lost his oldest daughter to it. A couple of classmates worked in influenza hospitals. Morton Aldrich used it as an excuse for being late with his report. Paul Washburn reported being quite ill with it, and emphasizing that it might be his last report, demanded that the editors print his curriculum vitae with no editorial changes. (Nope — he was still alive and well and banking in the 1935 report.) I thought 1894, whose report was written more in the thick of the epidemic, might have more to say, but not really. Two men died of it, including one who made it through hideous battles of the Great War only to succumb to flu in November 1918. Another lost daughter.

But no one weighs in on it; I have read a lot of old Harvard class reports, and if there’s one thing I can tell you about an early 20th century Harvard man, it’s that he likes to weigh in. Not sure what to make of this. Maybe the pandemic didn’t much touch the lives of the elite. Or maybe people just died of stuff more and the Spanish flu didn’t make much of an impression. Or maybe it was just too rough to talk about (but I don’t think so — people recount pretty grisly material about the war.)

Back to the present. The Wisconsin Supreme Court ordered all jury trials halted for two months for the safety of jurors, witnesses, and officers of the court; an extremely overwrought dissent from Justice Rebecca Bradley insists that if a right is in the constitution it can’t be put on pause, even for a couple of months, even in a pandemic, which will be news to the people in every state whose governors have suspended their right to assemble.

CJ made a blueberry bundt cake, the best thing he’s made so far, aided by the fact that at the Regent Market Co-op I found a box of pectin, an ingredient I didn’t even know existed. Powdered sugar there was not, but it turns out that powdered sugar is literally nothing but regular sugar ground fine and mixed with a little cornstarch! You can make it yourself if you have a good blender. And we do have a good blender. We love to blend.

Walked around the neighborhood a bit. Ran into the owner of a popular local restaurant and talked to him from across the street. He’s been spending days and days working to renegotiate his loan with the bank. He thinks we ought to be on the “Denmark plan” where the government straight up pays worker’s salaries rather than make businesses apply to loans so they can eventually get reimbursed for the money they’re losing right now. (I did not check whether this is actually the Denmark plan.) Also saw my kids’ pediatrician, who told me that regular pediatrics has been suspended except for babies and they’ve closed the regular clinic, everything is consolidated in 20 S. Park.

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about different groups’ COVID projections, claims and counterclaims. I’ll write about it a little in the next entry to show how little I know. But I think nobody knows anything.

Tomorrow it’ll be two weeks since the last time I was more than a quarter-mile from my house. We are told to be ready for another month. It won’t be that hard for us, but it’ll be hard for a lot of people.

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Pandemic blog 8: enter the hermit

It’s family blogging time! Since school is out we need some kind of writing activity so we’re all blogging, not just me. I did not require any particular subject. CJ is blogging about the movies he’s watching in his friend groups’ “movie club ” — he has the Marvel bug now and is plowing through the whole collection on Disney+. AB’s blog is called “The Nasty Times: Foods that Were Never Meant To Be Eaten” and each entry is about a food she considers nasty. The first entry was about mushrooms and she is currently composing “Why Onions Do Not Belong in Sloppy Joes.” I know, I know, who doesn’t like mushrooms and onions? Well, me at AB’s age — I made my mom take them out of everything, much to her annoyance. Now I’m getting my comeuppance.

I have two big longboxes of comics in the basement, almost all from 1982-1986, and AB and I spent part of the morning starting to sort and organize them. Perfect example of a task that feels like productivity and is not important in any way and yet — satisfying. Also nice to see old friends again, covers I haven’t seen in years but are familiar to me in every detail. This one seemed fairly on point:

I am still thinking about the masks. Why so unpopular in the US? Maybe it works like this. You are told (correctly) that wearing a mask doesn’t provide strong protection. Let’s say (making up a number) it only reduces your chance of transmitting or contracting the virus by a half. To many people that is going to feel like nothing: “I’m not really protected, what’s the point?” But in the aggregate, an easy, cheap measure that reduces number of transmissions by 50% would be extremely socially valuable.

talk about class of 1895

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Pandemic blog 4: food

CJ is eating a sandwich. Strawberry preserves, capers, lettuce, and spicy dijon mustard on whole wheat toast. He says it’s excellent. They say COVID can temporarily disrupt the sense of taste and smell. (He doesn’t have COVID.)

We go through the fresh food pretty fast when all four of us are eating three meals a day at home. Also, that makes more dishes than our dishwasher can really hold. Somebody mentioned spaetzle on the Internet yesterday and it touched off a primal urge for spaetzle in me, so I made spaetzle. It’s good to remember that you can have noodles even if you don’t have noodles. (But we have plenty of noodles.) I used this Serious Eats recipe and fried the spaetzle in a lot of butter and onions. Very good and I’ll do it again.

AB had trouble sleeping the other night and I tried to bore her to sleep by listing all the breakfast cereals I could think of, which didn’t work, because talking about breakfast cereal is pretty interesting. But now I’m craving Raisin Bran which is weird because I don’t even like Raisin Bran.

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