My pandemic-borne competency

Things I couldn’t do four years ago, but now do on the regular: Gluten free carrot cake, perfect roast chicken, peach jam from my backyard peach tree, Montreal-style bagels.

Looking at my fridge, you’ll see a weekly menu. Divided in a grid, organized by days and four boxes: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and “extra”, I write down my plan for every meal of the week, and whether or not someone has an early breakfast, a late night at work, or is on a trip somewhere. A relic of pandemic-era planning, I use it to keep track of what my family is doing, to plan my grocery shopping, and of course to let everyone know what’s planned for meals.

I don’t think anyone except me looks at it.

I used to be a two or three-times-a-week grocery shopper. Blessed with ADHD, I never really thought that far ahead and would think up a meal a day or two in advance, and then jaunt over to my local, fantastic, family-owned grocery store, HarvesTime. Going there is a joy, since I’ve gotten to know the owners, have developed a relationship with the butchers through my regular pig roasts, and adore their incredible selection of produce, Latino, Indian, and Asian brands. If you love to cook, visiting HarvesTime is fun.

But then the pandemic happened. At first, no trips to the store. The crew at HarvesTime responded heroically with neighborhood deliveries, but with a tiny crew of a few dozen, they were swamped and took a day or two to deliver.

Now, I had to figure out how to get a whole week of groceries at once. And so, the weekly menu was born.

I number them every week. Today I’m on #223, which doesn’t make any sense, because 223 weeks ago was in February 2020, before the pandemic lockdown began. There’s been a few weeks I’ve missed here and there (vacations, laziness, etc.), and I probably just misnumbered stuff. But still, I’ve been doing this thing for over 200 weeks – more than four years! That’s a super long time and one of the few, regular consistent things I’ve ever done in my life. 

The menu structure forced my cooking to get better. The structure of weekly planning, the ability to look back on what I’ve already done (and challenge myself to do better), altered the way I think about food. Originally, stuck in my house during the pandemic, I was looking for something to occupy my mind. Cooking for my family was an outlet. But then it became a kind of self-challenge: “Oh yeah? Maybe I can make a no-tomato BBQ sauce that tastes good!”

Week 4, which fell on the second week of April 2020, was ambitious as all get out. For instance, Wednesday was steel cut oatmeal with fruit for breakfast, grilled cheese for lunch, and citrus roast pork with chickpeas for dinner. The next morning I made gluten free donuts.

Man, I must have had a ton of pent up energy!

That Friday we had smoothies for breakfast, a cold egg, greens, and cured meat salad, and smashburgers for dinner. Saturday was blueberry pancakes and bacon (made by my wife) for breakfast and a spring risotto for dinner (likely, peas, asparagus, basil).

Pretty good, right?

All that focused energy on cooking upped my game in a serious way. Here I was, making a major dessert like cake or torte every week. Baking bread regularly, working in all kinds of gluten free and non-tomato substitutions for my wife, it was like I grew a whole other set of muscles I never knew existed. 

Like all skills, it was mainly in the repetition. Making chicken salad repeatedly, I learned the trick of adding a bit of herbs to change aromatics, that I could use all kinds of nuts (walnuts, slivered almonds, pine nuts) to get wildly different textures. I now make great chicken salad – every time.

I started an herb garden in my backyard. Basil, thyme, chives, sage, mint, cilantro. I’ve also grown tomatoes, okra, figs, carrots, green onions, and squash. The thyme, sage and mint grow like mad, so I’m always looking for ways to use them. Turns out thyme and sweet fruits are fantastic in sauces and jams. Mint and sage elevate simple syrups for cocktails. Sage is amazing in breads and stews. Chive cream cheese is a staple for toasted bagels. I’ve learned that when you have lots of free herbs, you experiment more.

For bread, I learned how to make decent french bread – it’s all about patience with rising – and a consistent, crusty white loaf. I can make a great tomato-free BBQ sauce without a recipe, and same with a pan sauce, bernaise (as well as how to save one that broke), decent pizza from scratch, homemade noodles, stir fry, salmon, trout, catfish, crispy roast chicken, homemade ginger beer, and now I can cook meat to perfection every time. Overcooking just doesn’t happen any more, unless I’m truly distracted. 

I’ve made dozens of jars of jam from the peach tree behind my house. I’ve grilled a whole hog – half a dozen times. Made holiday cookies. One pandemic New Year’s I made a giant batch of cocktails, bottled them, and delivered them to neighbors.

Am I a great cook? Certainly not at a professional level. But I can do somewhat complex things confidently, and I keep a clean, efficient, galley-style kitchen. I realized where I was a couple weeks ago, when I came home from a new job, whipped up perfectly cooked pork chops with a lemon caper pan sauce, broiled asparagus, and a raspberry-lime Italian soda to drink. When I served, half the dirty dishes were done and I had read a couple of articles while waiting for things to cook – in short, I didn’t break a sweat, and dinner was awesome.

This is not meant to be a boast. Instead, I mean to say that finally, at age 50, I’ve found a competence at some physical activity where I feel true confidence. It’s a service I can really provide to those around me, ensuring that I am not just a drag on my community, but instead I can actually do my part and help lift everyone up.

If you spend some time with me, I will want to make you food. Because of weekly pandemic menus.