I grew up at a time when it was OK for parents to be uninvolved with their kids. Yes, some dads and moms liked to spend time with their children, but a lack of such interest was not frowned on. If I wanted to spend time with my parents, I had to do this on their terms. This was nearly impossible with my father but more workable with my mom.
My mother was a brilliant person who spent her adult life as a homemaker. Just about anything that she did, she did well. One of her jobs was that of the household cook. We had seven people in our family, and we never went to restaurants. The vast majority of the food that we ate was made at home, and my mother made most of it.
I can recall watching her cook as I ran the logic of her decisions through my mind. She was an effortless cook who knew her craft so well that she rarely had to consult a cookbook or use a measuring spoon. Despite her expertise, my mother loved watching cooking shows, and by far, her favorite one was Julia Child’s “French Chief.” I would watch the show with her, and this is a fond memory. I loved the precision and focus of Julia Child. She treated cooking as a science, and I liked science.
I believe that all of that cooking exposure left me with kitchen confidence. Making food was not a mystery to me; it was just a series of logical steps. Once I understood the stages of one process, I could translate that information to another.
As a single man, I put my cooking knowledge to good use, especially during my residency. At that point, I was divorced with a child, and I was penniless. I could stretch a can of tuna into two meals or turn two chicken legs into dinner one night and lunch the next day.
I finished my residency and started to make more money as a practicing physician. My new economic status shifted me from cooking at home to buying food in the hospital cafeteria or (worse yet) buying fast food burgers. Eventually, I remarried, and my wife Julie took over most of the cooking jobs.
I transitioned back to meal prep when Julie returned to the paid workforce, and in that process, I taught my kids how to cook as we planned and made meals together. We would decide what we wanted to eat and go to the store to buy it. There was never a worry about cost or shortages.
When my kids went off to college, I traded off cooking meals with Julie, and our overall needs changed. I could make a pot of soup that would last us four days, or grill a single steak that we would split. I tried to be less wasteful during this time, as I was now retired and ever more aware of both the sin of wastefulness and my fixed retirement income. I had no idea that this frugality would further benefit me during the pandemic of 2020.
We were flying back from New Mexico when I got a text message that my daughter Grace’s college had closed down; then, I found out that my son’s in-person classes were suspended. A short time later, I discovered that my daughter Kathryn was flying back from her Peace Corps job in Africa. We had just adjusted to being empty nesters, but in short order, our household was going from two to five adults. As soon as I returned to Naperville, I went to Walmart to buy food and discovered that the shelves were bare. A quiet panic hit me.
Something strange happens when I panic. I calm on the surface, and I instantly start to plan solutions in my head. This is not a doctor thing; it is a survival thing that I have done my entire life. I quickly went down each aisle to find those things that I could make meals out of. I moved my mind from what I wanted to what was available. A can of chicken, two cans of crushed tomatoes, some weirdly shaped pasta that no one else wanted… The purchases went on. Years of watching my mother make meals from what was on hand flashed in my brain. I recalled my residency years of making a can of tuna fish stretch. I remembered the summers of making simple meals when I camped and hiked. I knew I could make it work, but would my family eat what I made? In the past, we made food that everyone liked, and when someone didn’t like a meal-offering, they would eat something else. That could no longer happen with food shortages and a limited larder.
I was surprised at how exhausting cooking meals had become for me during the crisis. I’m sure that managing my stress had zapped most of my psychological energy. I decided to involve my kids; we would cook together. It is more enjoyable to prepare with them, and I also wanted to teach them this “new” way of cooking. The waste-not-want-not way.
Our current meals go back to my poor roots. I try to make enough food without excess, and when we do have leftovers, I reuse them or incorporate them into other meals. I now have a better understanding of my mother’s choices when cooking and the economic benefit of the casserole.
We have made everything from enchilada soup to a giant frittata baked in our 12” cast-iron skillet. The kids have been happy to help me cook, and they don’t complain about the results. They have been real troopers.
Before I went to bed last night, I made an enormous pot of rice. For dinner today, I’ll fry it with some leftover pork, some frozen vegetables, eggs, as well as scallions pinched from my friend Tom’s garden. Add to this a little garlic and ginger, plus a splash of soy sauce and dinner will be served. Simple and filling.
There isn’t a shortage of food; there is a shortage of some types of food. Perhaps I can’t get a kind of potatoes, but I can likely find a different variety. The cold cereal may be off the shelves, but I might be able to find some pancake mix. I don’t worry about the type of olive that a dish requires, I wonder if I have a random can of olives in the pantry. It is about being flexible and creative.
I’m going to try to limit my grocery trips during the next two weeks, which means that we will mostly eat from our in-house supplies. It may get a bit dicey as our options become more limited. However, we will not starve; life will go on.
As I have said in the past most things in life are neither bad nor good, they just are. We are the ones who add a positive or negative valence to life events. It is a good thing that our home is returning to a less wasteful cooking style. It is good that my kids are seeing the benefit of being flexible and adaptive. It is good to be grateful to have food on the table.
Life is more comfortable when you train yourself to see the positive in things. Our family will get through this, one economical meal at a time.