This article is part of the Debatable newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it Tuesdays and Thursdays.
A couple of weeks ago, I received a text from a friend suggesting that now would be a good time to read M.F.K. Fisher’s classic cookbook, “How to Cook a Wolf.” Written in the middle of the Second World War, it felt newly relevant, my friend said, since it was “all about how to cook and provide for yourself and loved ones when the world is very bleak and money is tight and food is often hard to get.”
Of course, 2020 is not 1942, and fighting a pandemic is not the same thing as fighting a war. But, for some Americans much more so than for others, the world has grown very bleak, and the question of how to provide for yourself and loved ones freshly urgent. For answers, I got in touch with editors and writers in The Times’s Food section: Sam Sifton, Melissa Clark, Pete Wells, Margaux Laskey and Krysten Chambrot.
A lot of people right now are struggling financially. Do you have any tips, recipes or resources to help them stretch their food dollars?
Melissa Clark: One of the most popular pantry items that people have been stocking is beans. Whether dried or canned, beans are economical and so incredibly versatile. We wrote a guide to beans a few years ago and it’s never been more apropos. It’s also good to bear in mind that cooking all your meals at home is generally going to be less expensive than eating out. Think about how much one large cappuccino is! You can buy pounds of beans for that $4.75.
The coronavirus has been especially brutal to the hospitality industry. How concerned are you about the effect this will have on restaurants and bars, and do you have any ideas about how to help them and their workers?
Pete Wells: It’s a catastrophe. It’s a catastrophe right now and it will be another kind of catastrophe in three months. The big, immediate problem is that huge numbers of hospitality workers need money to pay their bills and buy food. So many people lost their jobs at the same time that simply filing an unemployment claim became a huge ordeal; state websites were crushed by the traffic. Apparently some people, at least in New York, have to call in to complete their claims, and of course the phone lines are getting crushed, too. All of which can delay getting that first payment, and contributes to this anxiety that sort of surrounds everybody like a toxic fog. There is a mental health crisis in the industry, right now.
Rent was due Wednesday. Groceries have to be paid for — don’t forget that a lot of restaurant people are used to getting at least one meal a day at work. So people who’ve lost their jobs, or have been scaled back to just a few hours a week, need money now, while they wait for unemployment and any other government aid that might or might not trickle down to them. (Aid is almost certainly not going to come for some workers, like the undocumented ones.)
I haven’t seen any good long-term solutions. But I have seen a lot of ways to donate to help in the short term. Some restaurants have set up pages for donations to employees. I’m very interested in the employee-led groups that are also taking donations, like the Service Workers Coalition, which has raised about $50,000 for service workers through Venmo, almost all of it in donations of $20 or less. Another volunteer group has set up a national network for sending “tips” directly to service industry workers; it’s organized by locality, so you can tip somebody in your town or somewhere else. Eater has a long list of resources for hospitality workers.
There are also groups popping up that buy restaurant food and have it sent to health care and emergency workers. This is a nice double play, giving restaurants extra work and thus a need for more employee hours while taking care of the people who are taking care of coronavirus patients under conditions few people imagined a month ago. A lot of them are using the hashtag #feedthefrontline and others are using #feedthefrontlines.
Because all of these fund-raising efforts have been put together quickly to address an urgent need, they’re almost all unofficial and unchartered. A few are channeling their work through existing nonprofit organizations, but for the rest there’s very little transparency or accountability. Understandable in a crisis, but still worth pointing out.
For social distancing purposes, we’ve been instructed to limit the frequency of our grocery runs and deliveries, ideally to no more than once per week. That means more canned foods and fewer fresh fruits and vegetables. How have you adapted your shopping and cooking routines?
Margaux Laskey: I usually order weekly groceries online, but since we’ve been social distancing, I’ve been placing larger than usual orders and freezing extra meat and bread because grocery delivery slots are very difficult to come by.
I’ve also been buying more frozen vegetables and fruits. I add the frozen vegetables to soups and stews, and my kids have always liked plain frozen fruit as a snack, so this works well for us.
Since meat is one of the first things to sell out at our grocery stores, I’ve also started placing biweekly orders for meat, chicken and eggs with a farmer who delivers to my neighborhood every other Sunday. His product is excellent, and I want to support small businesses as much as I can, especially now.
Melissa Clark: I’ve also been relying on a weekly online grocery delivery, and then have been doing one supplemental in-store shopping trip per week as well. Overall, I have been happily surprised at how well my produce is holding up. I wash my lettuce and greens right when I get them home, and they last the whole week in the fridge.
And while frozen fruit for smoothies has been great, I’ve also been stocking citrus, which lasts for weeks in the fridge. And if I overbuy any delicate fresh fruit and it starts to soften (those blueberries), I throw it in the freezer. Fresh herbs definitely last longer if you stand them up in a glass of water in the fridge.
Debatable: Agree to disagree, or disagree better? Broaden your perspective with sharp arguments on the most pressing issues of the week.
What have been your go-to comfort foods these days?
Krysten Chambrot: Chili oil and yogurt mixed together into a dip, with saltines or bread. (A version of this, a fried egg with chili oil, may just be the Official Snack of NYT Cooking.)
Margaux Laskey: Stews, pastas, waffles, meatballs. Homey foods. Things I know my kids will eat. I’ve been baking more with my girls as well as by myself. Simple stuff like one-bowl cakes, shortbread, etc. My oldest daughter’s eighth birthday is on Saturday, and she’s requested a giant chocolate cake that looks like a hamburger, complete with orange fondant “cheese” and jelly spearmint leaf candy “lettuce.” Distractibaking at its best.
There seems to be something about the moment we’re living through that has prompted in many people an irrepressible urge to bake bread. Basically every FaceTime I have with friends now involves a close-up of someone’s sourdough starter. What are your thoughts on this phenomenon? Are you also participating?
Sam Sifton: I am participating! I’ve been making sourdough pizza dough and sandwich bread and waffles and pancakes, and I feed my starter the way dads in the 1950s worked on their ham radios in the basement, with zeal and every day. Sourdough is my hobby. And I’m not alone. I think that’s because people are worried about running out of yeast? Or they want to be active in their baking, as if they were planting a victory garden that grows boules? Probably both, and anyway sourdough is a good way to bring life into our lockdowned state.
Krysten Chambrot: I’ve been baking bread for more than five years now, and I feel as if I’m now running a help line for my friends and neighbors. (Whom I love! But it’s strange to be an introvert in such high demand.) Still, the act itself is nourishing, and sustaining. There’s a lot of grace in a big fat dough bubble, born of flour, water and bacteria.
Margaux Laskey: I’m not, because it kind of sounds like having another child to care for. (Kidding! Sort of.) But I am baking more bread (like our no-knead bread) because the stores are running low. I’m also eager to try Melissa Clark’s white bread. Thankfully, I have a small stockpile of yeast in the fridge.
‘There is no chiropractic treatment, no yoga exercise, no hour of meditation in a music-throbbing chapel, that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread.’
—M.F.K. Fisher, “How to Cook a Wolf”
Do you have any other ideas for food projects people can use this time to attempt?
Krysten Chambrot: Dumplings! Pierogies! Tarts! Most humble ingredients can be incredible with just time. Take the time to perfect your rice game, your bean game, your caramelized onion game.
Margaux Laskey: Those braises that take all day: short ribs, roasts, stews. They also happen to freeze well, so you can stock your freezer. Sam’s Momofuku’s bo ssam is a worthy eight-hour project. I feel now is a good time to try making homemade pasta, too.
Are there any food books you’ve found yourself turning to lately?
Margaux Laskey: Not really. I’ve been too busy with work and kids to read much of anything other than emails, but I always find flipping through cookbooks, especially those I inherited from my mom with her handwritten notes in the margins, to be a kind of meditation. I just compiled a roundup of our staff’s favorite cookbooks.
Melissa Clark: I’ve also been reading M.F.K. Fisher’s “How to Cook a Wolf” and it makes me glad that our food supply isn’t in peril. We are lucky to have enough food in this country. It just takes more effort and more planning to get it. Other than that book, I’ve been going through all my old favorites with an eye toward pantry recipes. Jane Grigson’s “Good Things” has been helpful and comforting because she’s so practical.
Lastly, do you have any recommendations for cocktails, mocktails or wines that pair well with a pandemic?
Krysten Chambrot: We’re a natural-wine house, and the other day, my dad scolded me for not keeping beer on hand. “What daughter of mine doesn’t have beer for the apocalypse,” that sort of thing. So my stance is whatever you have is the best pairing, but my dad would recommend beer for the apocalypse.
Melissa Clark: We’ve been on a Negroni kick but that might end as we drink down the Campari. Manhattans are next up once Fresh Direct delivers that sweet vermouth that they’ve been out of for weeks (we obviously aren’t the only ones).
Margaux Laskey: All of them.
Pete Wells: I hate killjoys and have devoted much of my life to making fun of them. But let me say, as joyfully as possible, that drinking too much can weaken the immune system, and immunity seems like a nice thing to have these days.
Have thoughts about cooking and eating during the coronavirus pandemic? Email us at [email protected]. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.