Reflection: Cite your Sources

I think about food and talk about food a lot. And of course I eat a lot of it too. That seems pretty unremarkable. I’ve struggled in the past over what to do in times of conflict and tragedy – it isn’t respectful to be posting pictures of cake while the world burns. But the world is on fire. And this time, although I am entering the conversation all too belatedly and all too inexpertly, I think food can help. A few weeks ago, while many debated whether black squares on social media helped or distracted from the worthy and deeply needed focus on Black Lives Matter, I thought a lot about culinary historian Michael W. Twitty. His website Afroculinaria, and his subsequent book The Cooking Gene, both emphasize the importance of racial history as part of food history, which is a component that is often ignored (full disclosure: I haven’t read his book yet, though it’s on my list, but I have read a fair bit about it. If you’re going to purchase it, may I suggest doing so from a black-owned bookstore, or at least an independently owned shop, rather than the typical giant chain).

Around the same time, Alton Brown tweeted an image of typed text on lined paper that said “I’m not about to suggest that food is part of the problem, but I guarantee you… it can be part of the answer.” I agree with the second part of this statement. Yes, food can be part of the answer. I suspect Alton was alluding to the ways food can bring awareness and togetherness; food can, if it is allowed to, help bridge differences and gain familiarity and share newness until it becomes beloved. (There are complications with that too, which I’ll get to later, but it is a commonly touted idea.) But I find I don’t agree with the first part of Alton’s statement. Like Michael Twitty asserts over and over again, without recognition of where things come from, problems are both caused and perpetuated, and racism, particularly against Black people, is one of those problems. Here’s the thing: food has origins. I know that. You know that. Those origins are recognized in some food types: Bolognese is Italian and so is ravioli (though pasta is originally Asian, not European); sushi is Japanese and the flavors that make food Mexican or Thai have become familar. Looking a little deeper, there are foods created from fusion of cuisines: banh mi sandwiches, for example, were born from the French influence in Vietnam.

But African food, and Black food in America, does not have the same cultural recognition. There are a few reasons for this. One is that the African diaspora, and slavery, caused cultural loss. Separated from their homelands and plunged together with others from different groups, with different languages, with different traditions, in horrific conditions, cultural practices shifted. Another is that as a country, broadly speaking, the U.S. doesn’t know much about African food, and whether it’s the result of ignorance, disinterest, or plain old racism (or, let’s be honest, a combination of these), it’s only quite recently gaining strides in awareness.*

Thirdly, and here’s where Twitty comes in, the foodways that emerge from the African diaspora are often not recognized as African in origin. While there is Belgian chocolate and French fries and Thai iced tea and dozens of other foods that announce their origins (truly or falsely – looking at you, “Chinese” chicken salad), there is not a lot of food that acknowledges its source as African or Black. Jerk-style food usually labels itself as Jamaican, and there is a tenuous understanding of “soul food” as predominantly Black, but even that is a euphemism. There is just not frequent recognition of the African origins, in food in general, but particularly in the food thought of as American, and that is a problem.

Twitty explains this incisively and unapologetically in an open letter he published in 2013 to Paula Deen, shortly after accusations of racism were made publically against her and led to Food Network severing its ties with her. Twitty speaks for himself, and of course you should go to his site and read the full letter (and other posts, too! He has a lot to teach most of us**), but I do want to offer one excerpt to think on:

Systemic racism in the world of Southern food and public discourse not your past epithets are what really piss me off. There is so much press and so much activity around Southern food and yet the diversity of people of color engaged in this art form and telling and teaching its history and giving it a future are often passed up or disregarded. Gentrification in our cities, the lack of attention to Southern food deserts often inhabited by the non-elites that aren’t spoken about, the ignorance and ignoring of voices beyond a few token Black cooks/chefs or being called on to speak to our issues as an afterthought is what gets me mad. In the world of Southern food, we are lacking a diversity of voices and that does not just mean Black people—or Black perspectives! We are surrounded by culinary injustice where some Southerners take credit for things that enslaved Africans and their descendants played key roles in innovating. Barbecue, in my lifetime, may go the way of the Blues and the banjo….a relic of our culture that whisps away. That tragedy rooted in the unwillingness to give African American barbecue masters and other cooks an equal chance at the platform is far more galling. (Twitty 2013)

To ignore the history of food is to ignore the people who create it. It is to refuse them credit, and refuse them consideration. Worse: it is to erase them. In my day job, I explain to my students how important it is to cite sources – to give credit to the creators of ideas, the constructors of sentences, and here too, the originators of food culture. More often than not in this country, there’s a lack of recognition that Southern food as it is commonly understood has its roots in many African food traditions, or in the labor of slaves. Edna Lewis, Leah Chase, Gullah Geechee cuisine or any of the other Black individuals and groups who helped shape American food culture are unfamiliar names (and see what I did there? Just what Twitty rightly calls out: “beyond a few token Black cooks/chefs”). Instead, there is Paula Deen and Southern hospitality and the competitive barbecue circuit. The result is the culinary equivalent of plagiarism: by not acknowledging the “author,” Black contributions to the narrative that is American food are erased, which continues to make them voiceless.

That’s a problem. Eradicating origins, with so many of the cultures dispersed and displaced during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, not to mention many other colonizing forces and instances, means erasing contributions, erasing knowledge, erasing the responsibility of recognition.

But I also think it’s an opportunity for an answer, and here I’ll come back to my earlier parenthetical about the answer I presume Alton is talking about: the trying-new-foods-and-coming-together-over-them answer. This is nice, but it doesn’t necessarily solve the “citing your sources” problem. As I mulled over what I wanted to say in this post, I thought of an old Simpsons episode (full disclosure: for some reason in my memory, this was from King of the Hill. Not so, it turns out!). The Investorettes, a group of women from Springfield, go to a franchise expo and look into opening a falafel business. They are initially unsure about the product, given its foreign origins:

The Investorettes visit the Fleet-A-Pita franchise.    

Helen: Hmm, Pita. Well, I don't know about food from the Middle East.         
Isn't that whole area a little iffy?

Hostess: [laughs] Hey, I'm no geographer. You and I -- why don't we         
call it pocket bread, huh?  

Maude: [reading the ingredients list] Umm, what's tahini?

Hostess: Flavor sauce.  

Edna: And falafel?

Hostess: Crunch patties.  

Helen: So, we'd be selling foreign...

Hostess: Specialty foods. Here, try a Ben Franklin.  

Helen: [takes a bite] Mmm, that is good. What's in it?

Here, rebranding by providing a familiar, less intimidating or “exotic” name makes the food less foreign, and thus it will sell well. By extension, the people of Springfield will gain exposure by becoming acquainted with a new cuisine! Boom: exposure to the food of a new culture = food brings us together, right?

I think wrong. The problem here, as I noted above, remains the lack of citation. It’s great to learn about and enjoy falafel. But to hide its origins – to call it “crunch patties” or whatever, still denies authorship; it still results in willful ignorant. I realize The Simpsons is intended to be satirical – we are supposed to notice the women’s ignorance and xenophobia.*** Indeed, the episode even goes the next step by giving the chef, noticeably brown-skinned, a brief appearance: after Helen asks what’s in the “Ben Franklin,” he looks out through a window and responds “Tabbouleh and rezmi-kabob.” His words, the correct names for the food he is cooking, are quickly and nervously explained away as the Hostess character introduces him as “our chef… Christopher” and he, muttering in dissatisfaction, disappears from view.

Perhaps this practice of renaming seems like a good “baby step” for making the product itself friendlier, less intimidating, such that eventually its audience, if you will, can accept not just the food but where and who it comes from. But if that’s the plan, what’s the next step, and when and how does that happen? When does the euphemism “crunch patty” or “chick pea fritter” become “falafel,” and how does that welcome Middle Eastern populations to the table? When do the Haitian and West African influences in Cajun and Creole cuisine come to the forefront? When are the Black and indigenous contributions to barbecue – that most “American” of food traditions – recognized, and, on the lead-in to July 4th, acknowledged as tied up in BIPOC struggles for independence?

So I do think food is part of the answer, but not in that let’s-gather-together-around-the-table way. Not in that I-don’t-see-color-we-are-all-one-family way. Because that results in erasure: erasure of history; erasure of struggle; erasure of injustice. It’s not just about eating together. It’s about citing sources. It’s about knowing where the food comes from, and crucially, recognizing what that origin means.

 

* Of course there are exceptions to this: Ethiopian food has gained popularity over the last decade or so, as have Moroccan flavors. But I would wager much West African food, especially, remains relatively unknown to many (White) Americans.

** I have tried to be very conscious, here and throughout, of pronouns. The first draft of this post frequently used “we,” because it was important to me to acknowledge myself as complicit in this lack of understanding. In reading that draft, though, N. pointed out to me that “we” presumes a non-Black audience, thus denying Black Americans the knowledge and awareness they have as well as a “place at the table,” if you will. Of course he was right, and I have tried to rectify this as I edited.

*** And of course satire has its shortcomings too, as evidenced by about thirty years of The Simpsons’ most egregious racial and cultural caricature, which comedian Hari Kondabolu discusses in his 2017 documentary The Problem with Apu.

Pandemic Potato Salad

This is a recipe born out of need and change and a series of odd connections. I bought a bag of red potatoes intending to make a gratin, but a sudden upswing in temperature made the idea of roasted anything feel oppressive. Meanwhile, my beautiful heads of romaine lettuce in my garden started to bolt, and my parsley was already flowering. I thought of salad, of course, and then of potato salad, and then of likely ways I could combine them. A potato salad with green beans and parmesan I had in Eugene crept back into my mind, and parmesan reminded me of pesto. Pesto is such a convenient way of using excess greens, even when they are getting bitter, so I wondered if lettuce pesto would be tasty. The garlic and parmesan of pesto along with the lettuce reminded me of Caesar salad, and suddenly I was adding anchovies and mayonnaise and hard-boiled eggs for good measure, and this franken-potato-salad was born.*

This is not one of those “not your average gloopy potato salad” iterations. I must admit, as an ardent mayonnaise lover, I resent those complaints about gloopiness. This one is gloopy. It is unapologetically gloopy. It is a potato salad for mayonnaise aficionados. But I have an important secret when it comes to those “gloopy” mayonnaise based summer salads, whether their bases are potato or pasta: you have to add the dressing while the starch base is still warm. If the potato chunks or noodles are cold, the dressing just weakly sits beneath and around them. If it’s stirred in while they are warm – or even hot – the dressing soaks in. The texture is better, the flavor is better, and you can get the hot part of the process out of the way hours before you intend to serve anything. At least 2 hours in the fridge after everything is combined ensures nicely melded flavors – the anchovy mellows, the garlic relaxes, the lettuce emerges not as a strong presence but as a juicy green background taste we found quite pleasant.

Because I’m me, I couldn’t quite leave well enough alone: since the lettuce and anchovy and parmesan allude to Caesar salad, and since lately we’ve been all about crunch and texture, I wanted to give a nod to the crouton component. A shower of panko crumbs well toasted in olive oil right over the top added crunch, though if you wanted to be a little less excessive, you could probably used well-toasted almonds instead. I’d suggest a rough chop for rubbly texture.

* As I wrote this, I was weirdly reminded of my most recent and ongoing scholarly project, which suffers from organizational stress. A few weeks ago a fellow academic tweeted “How has anybody ever structured a piece of writing? It’s an impossible con, all the things to be said must be said at exactly the same time or none of them will make sense” (Jones). I felt that as I tried to explain the intersecting idea strands for this salad: in my brain, the connections happened nearly instantaneously. Here, which do you mention first? The potato salad with parmesan that reminded me of pesto? The lettuce that evoked Caesar? Words prohibit the all-at-once-ness that feels so natural when we think…

Pandemic Potato Salad
Serves 6-8 as a side, not that you’re having anyone over right now…
2 ½-3 hours, including chilling time
6-8 ounces green beans or haricot verts
10-12 medium red potatoes
4-6 cloves garlic
5-9 anchovy filets (wide range, but adjust according to how much you love anchovies)
zest and juice from 1 lemon
1 head romaine lettuce, core removed, leaves roughly torn
1 cup packed parsley leaves and stems
1 cup mayonnaise
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
3 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and roughly chopped
salt and pepper to taste
Optional: 2 tablespoons olive oil and ½ cup panko breadcrumbs or ½ cup roughly chopped almonds

 

  • Blanch the green beans in a large pot of boiling salted water. This will take 2-3 minutes for large size beans, or about 90 seconds for skinny little haricot verts. Remove from the pot and douse in cold water to stop them from cooking further. Reserve the salted cooking water. Quarter the potatoes (or if they are gigantic, cut down into large bite-sized pieces) and place them in the same pot. Fill the pot with more water if needed to cover the potatoes, then bring back to a boil over high heat. Turn down to medium and simmer until the potatoes are just tender when pierced with a fork. Drain and set aside while you make the dressing.
  • If you need to grate the cheese, load the belly of your food processor with small chunks of parmesan, then run on high speed until the cheese is adequately broken down. Empty the processor, measure out the required cup of cheese, and set aside to add later.
  • Process the garlic cloves, anchovy filets, and lemon zest and juice together first into a clumpy paste. Use a rubber spatula to scrape down the sides of the processor, then add about half of the torn lettuce leaves and the parsley and pulse a few times to break them down. When there is enough room in the processor, add the remaining lettuce and parsley and process on high until the mixture is finely chopped.
  • Scrape down the sides of the processor again and add the mayonnaise and reserved parmesan cheese. Process on high speed until well combined. Taste for seasoning; add salt and pepper as needed. It’s important to wait until now to add the salt, since the anchovy, mayonnaise, and cheese are all salty already.
  • Add the still-warm potatoes and the drained green beans to a large bowl. Stir in about ¾ of the dressing until the vegetables are evenly coated. Gently fold in the chopped hard-boiled eggs. Add more dressing, if needed.
  • At first this will probably taste too salty. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours to allow the flavors to mellow and combine. Bring back to room temperature before serving.
  • This is ready to serve as is. But if you like a little excess (or if crunch is important to you), heat the optional 2 TB olive oil in a small skillet, then stir in either ½ cup panko breadcrumbs or ½ cup roughly chopped raw almonds and toast until deeply golden. Sprinkle over the top of the potato salad just before serving.

Project Cook: Garden Focaccia

A garden path sentence is one in which the reader is misled, usually by a word or two that function(s) as a different part of speech than the reader expects, making the rest of the sentence seem incomplete or nonsensical when it is in fact grammatically correct. It takes its name from the idiom “to lead [someone] down the garden path”: essentially, to mislead or deceive them.

Here’s an example: “the old man the boat.” We initially see the phrase “the old man” and think that’s the subject of the sentence. Therefore, the ending “the boat” makes the sentence feel incomplete. But when we realize “man” is actually the verb and the subject is “the old,” suddenly it makes sense: this ship is being sailed by retirees.

Here’s another: “the horse raced past the barn fell.” Here, everything makes sense up until the last word if we’re reading the sentence with “the horse raced” as an active phrase. But it’s not, and it’s not the barn that fell either: the sense of the sentence only emerges if we understand what’s really being said is “the horse [that was] raced past the barn fell.”

Garden path sentences were introduced to me by one of my students a few years ago, and they blew my mind a little, but they shouldn’t have. Not only do I know full well as a student (and teacher) of words that sentences haven’t truly completed their meaning until their final punctuation mark is reached, but as a lover of food, I know that an expected direction, or perhaps being “led down the garden path” with an illusion or a twist, sometimes makes the dish that much more enjoyable.

It seems a bit cruel, perhaps, in a world in which the baking aisle of so many grocery stores has been ransacked, to show you a loaf of bread, but I was so taken with the images of decorated focaccias my Pinterest page was suddenly showing me, as taken as I was with the idea of garden path sentences, that here we are: a loaf literally studded with deceptive visuals, turning carefully placed herbs and vegetables into an edible flower garden.

I started with Anne Burrell’s recipe, making only the smallest of adjustments: she uses AP flour; I went with bread flour, reduced the olive oil a touch, and subbed in honey for the sugar used to start up the yeast. As for process, I added a step I’ve always done with my mom’s challah, letting the mixture – more batter than dough at that point – rest for 15-20 minutes after adding about half the flour. I think this gives a truer sense of how much flour is really needed, since the initial addition has a chance to start hydrating. It’s not 100% necessary, but I notice it means I wind up using a bit less flour overall, and that’s not a bad thing these days.

The real magic here – where we verge into complexity and deception – is during the rising: while the first rise is standard, letting the dough swell and double in a bowl, the second requires more unusual methods. You spread the risen dough out on an oil-drenched baking sheet (be sure yours has sides!), coaxing it with your fingers to spread reluctantly all the way into the corners. You press and stab your fingers all the way – all the way! – through the dough, making dozens of small holes straight down to the baking sheet below, to create that characteristic bubbled texture of a focaccia, before allowing it to rise again.

Halfway through this second rise comes the fun part – or the fiddly part, depending on who you are. Assorted herbs, thinly sliced vegetables and citrus zest, get pressed gently but firmly into the partially risen dough to form whatever patterns you desire. I used chives, parsley, and dill for “stems” and leaves, and then slender segments of olives and cherry tomatoes for “flowers,” and some curls of lemon zest for extra flair. I tried to roll a few tomato roses, but for me at least, cherry tomato skins provided not quite enough material to work with.

The finished loaf is quite the spectacle – the brightness of your “garden” fades a bit in the baking (there’s a metaphor here for spring into summer, perhaps), but the bake isn’t quite long enough for the delicate herb stems and leaves to burn – instead they crisp and frizz as residual oil soaks into the bread. You have to saw carefully with a bread knife to keep everything in place as you carve off big slices perfect with a salad, or a bowl of soup, or the base of a sandwich, or just straight out of hand. There’s a joke here about a garden variety of options, but I’ll leave you only with this: as he baked the bread disappeared.

It must have been delicious.

Project Cook: Garden focaccia
Adapted from Anne Burrell
Makes 1 large 9×13 inch loaf
1¾ cups warm water
2 teaspoons yeast
1 TB honey
4 ½ – 5 cups bread flour
½ + ⅓ cup olive oil
1 TB kosher salt + more for sprinkling
Assortment of herbs, vegetables, and/or edible flowers to decorate
  • Mix yeast, water, and honey in the bowl of a stand mixer and let sit 10-15 min, until the yeast is foamy and puffed. Add 3 cups of the bread flour and ½ cup of the olive oil, beat on slow speed with the paddle attachment just until the mixture comes together, then loosely drape with a clean kitchen towel and let sit 15-20 min. This allows the flour to begin hydrating and the yeast to start working.
  • Add 1 cup more flour and 1TB salt, then knead at medium speed with the dough hook 5-7 min until smooth and elastic. Sprinkle in remaining flour ¼ cup at a time if dough seems very sticky while kneading. I ended up using the full 5 cups of flour.
  • Cover with a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour in a warm spot. “Punch down” the risen dough by gently depressing your fist into the middle.
  • Pour the remaining ⅓ cup olive oil onto a 9×13 inch cookie sheet with sides and tilt the sheet back and forth until the bottom and sides are well oiled. Flop the risen, punched down dough onto the oiled sheet, then use your fingertips to coax it toward the sides. As you stretch the dough, create focaccia’s characteristic dimples by pressing and stabbing all the way through the dough all over its surface. You have to create actual holes, not just depressions, to retain the texture. Some of the olive oil from the baking sheet will lap up over the surface of the dough – that’s okay.
  • Cover the dough with your towel again and let it rise for another hour.
  • 30 minutes into the second rise, preheat the oven to 425F and add your decorations to the loaf: press in herbs, vegetables, and/or flowers in a pleasing pattern. Finish the rise, sprinkle on some kosher or coarse salt, then bake in the preheated 425F oven for 25-30 minutes until bronzed and crusty. Mine was quite well browned after 25 minutes.
  • Remove to a wire rack to cool before slicing carefully and devouring.

Dalgona Experimentation

I hope you are well and finding ways to keep yourself and your loved ones – perhaps not joyful or fulfilled – but safe and satisfied – during this strange time. I have not yet – and the “yet” is important – succumbed to the siren call of quaran-baking, but I have, thanks to a friend and former colleague, been introduced to the fluffy, caffeine-laced clouds that are Dalgona coffee. Basically equal parts instant coffee, sugar, and hot water, whipped together until they froth and then fluff into a mound of something like meringue, this confection is then scooped over very cold milk, and your tongue gets a play of temperatures and textures, not to mention an intense hit of sugar and caffeine.

I tried the original first, and, as I mentioned previously, I’m a fan. But immediately I had questions: why settle for instant coffee? Why not a strong brew of something high quality? Why water, when you could get extra creaminess from scalded milk? What about adding cocoa powder or vanilla or almond extract? Where would chai spices fit in? To what other application could this be put, aside from a float atop a glass of milk (or, as my siblings have discovered, iced irish cream liqueur)? With raw materials at hand and plenty of time, this would require experimentation.

My first thought was how this could work as cake frosting or filling. To get everything in there together, I would replace the water with hot milk, and following a suggestion I saw here, I would use twice as much milk “for a creamy texture.” What I can tell you today is that if you use 2 parts very hot milk to one part each instant coffee and sugar, it takes a very long time to whip up. It might become marshmallow-y clouds eventually, but I wasn’t quite patient enough for that.

The lightly thickened, foamy concoction I ended up with wasn’t nearly thick enough to serve as a filling or a frosting for anything – it just wasn’t spreadable. But it was certainly capable of draping itself thickly over a slice of still warm chocolate cake. And when shaken up thoroughly the next morning and stirred into to a glass of milk with a little bit of chocolate syrup, it was an intense – and intensely satisfying – replacement for an iced mocha.

Watermelon Gin Slushies

As I’m sure is true for many of you, over these past couple of weeks I’ve been discovering hidden treasures (and also “treasures”) in corners of my pantry, fridge, and freezer. One of the latter was a jar of apple butter I don’t want to talk about that I uncovered while cleaning up a spill on the top shelf of my refrigerator. One of the former was a small jar of instant coffee granules that allowed me to experiment with the recent “Dalgona coffee” trend various parts of the internet are extolling. Short story: you need equal parts of each component, it really does whip up like that, and it really is delicious (I’ve heard some people complain that “it still tastes like instant coffee, though.” So it’s only fair, I guess that I confess I’m not a coffee connoisseur). Next time I’m adding in some cocoa powder for a mocha version.

As I’m also sure is true for many of you, I’ve been very careful lately – much more careful than normal – about not letting food go to waste. If it’s in the fridge, it needs to be eaten. Even if I’m tired of it or it wasn’t my favorite. This has led to some creative triumphs – potatoes and lentils cooked with warm Indian-inspired spices, chard from the backyard stirred in to wilt, and topped with a scoop of yogurt and some of the char stems, thinly sliced and pickled – and some creative… well… one-time-only (features) – a pot pie with overly herbed filling and under-salted crust.

Most recently, I combined these two truths in a cocktail: it emptied the remaining few swallows in the bottle of gin I discovered unceremoniously jammed under several bags of almonds at the back of the freezer, and it allowed me to use up some chunks of watermelon from a pre-cut fruit medley N. really wanted but that wasn’t particularly ripe or flavorful.

This is not the most original, or seasonal, or precise of recipes. How’s that for a convincing argument? But honestly, I’m sure the internet has gushed widely about combining watermelon, some sort of alcohol, and ice in a blender and piling it into a tall, frosty glass for a perfect summer afternoon. I did the same (except it’s April, and my watermelon was on the edge). And I’d encourage you to do the same as well! These were bright, they were tasty (at first I wasn’t convinced, but then I realized that even though I knew they were gin and watermelon, I really wanted them to taste like strawberry margarita), and best of all, they are easily adaptable, and offer one small, boozy way to ensure you aren’t letting a single precious (or not-so-precious) item in your well-stocked fridge go unused.

Watermelon Gin Slushies
For 2 small cocktails
About 1 cup frozen watermelon chunks (or other fruit of your choice)
About 1 cup ice cubes
2 shots gin (or other alcohol of your choice)
2 TB simple syrup, or to taste *
juice of half a lime, or to taste
lime wedges, to serve

 

  • Once the watermelon has frozen quite solid, add it, along with everything else except the lime wedges, to a blender. Blend to combine using about 3-second pulses. My blender has a smoothie setting, which does effectively the same thing: short, high-speed pulses until the mixture has become an even-textured, pale pink slush.
  • Taste and adjust quantities of lime juice and sugar syrup to your liking. Blend again briefly to combine if needed, then pour into glasses, garnish with a thin lime wedge, and serve. We had ours with lemon and pepper spiced popcorn and wouldn’t change a thing.

* If you don’t have simple syrup, you can easily make up a batch while the watermelon freezes: just combine equal parts sugar and water in a small pot, bring to a simmer, stir briefly, and when all of the sugar has dissolved and the liquid is clear and just barely thickened, you’re done, and need only cool it down and find a suitable storage container.

Making art.

This is a strange time. As I write this, I feel I am in a liminal space – hovering at a doorjamb I have not yet passed through. At this moment, I have not yet been truly impacted by the insidiously creeping virus that is COVID-19, snaking its way through increasing percentages of the population. I mean, okay, I braved grocery stores on Friday, standing with dozens of others in lines that stretched to the back wall, waiting to buy what ranged from a regular hand basket to a cart mounded with what would be, for us, more than a month’s worth of products. I may have overbought a bit, thinking forward to how nice it would be to avoid those crowds next weekend, should they continue. But apart from that, it’s not real yet.

It’s going to be. By the time you read this, it will be. This past week my campus, like many others, elected to cancel face-to-face classes at least through spring break, asking instructors to modify and move to online instruction. By the end of this week, I’ll need to do that: in class discussions will become discussion boards. Handouts will become shared files. I’ll have to – gulp – record a few lectures. And I waver between thinking that’s going to be fine, totally manageable, and thinking it’s going to be a disaster.*

So instead of going to work, I’ll be sitting in my home office. I like it in there. It’s bright, it’s small, it’s got a carpet and a desk and three shelves of cookbooks, and it’s where I stow my yoga mat and my stability ball. I’ve written there, I’ve edited photos, I’ve revised and graded and read and read and read. But I’ve never taught there. And by the end of the week, I will be. I’ll have to be careful that room doesn’t become the only room in my world – I love my job, and I want my students to do well, and it would be easy for me to fight the potential boredom of self-isolation or, as is increasingly likely, quarantine, by sinking too fully into the job.

But I’m seeing, through the social media and news sources I wander through, looking alternatively for information and for distraction, urges to create. If you are “trapped” at home, they say, whether you’ve chosen isolation or been advised to quarantine yourself, make art. Write poetry. Knit. Draw. Take pictures. Mold or sculpt or paint or make music. Cook. This sounds, to me, like sage advice. From between and within whatever walls you sit, or crouch, or pace, make art. Maybe for you, never to be shared; maybe tentatively posted somewhere someone might see and gain comfort from; maybe belted (can you belt opera?) from a balcony for your neighborhood to glory in.

So okay, balance matters. I’ll work, but I’ll try to do this as well. I’ll make art. I’ll design meals. I’ll practice my knife-work. I’ll write. Letters and posts and recipes and arguments. Maybe a poem. I’ll turn soil and pull weeds. I’ll turn flour and water and salt into dough, into batter, into bread. I’ll turn words into sentences and paragraphs. I turned what will become sourdough loaves today, rhythmically pulling from the bottom of the ragged ball up and over the mass, one after another after another. And it felt good to do: to create something that will become beautiful.

 

 

* And that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be fancy or amazing or perfect. It’s a stop-gap measure, at least it is right now, that will allow my students to continue learning, even if it’s not in the ideal format for me or for them – neither of us signed up for this. But more importantly, it’s just a class, and it doesn’t – and shouldn’t – have to be the most important thing in either of our lives right now.