In my last post, I discussed how the relationship between autism and food, often narrated as limiting, is actually multifaceted and very complex. There is joy, there is creativity, and yes, there are boundaries, but we autistic people relate to food well beyond limits. In this post, though, I want to discuss what autistic people cook, and how they go about cooking it.
What do autistic people cook? The answer to this question of course tends to vary from culture to culture – though on the internet, you’d come to believe that macaroni and cheese is the national dish of autistic people. A few commonalities abound. Many autistic people rely heavily on the same or a few recipes for various reasons. These “same foods” are safe from the perspective of sensory needs or a need for structure; the recipe is “known” enough to allow preparation without taxing executive function; often, the ingredients are on hand too. I have noticed that these same foods are often comfort foods of whatever culture an autistic person grew up with – for example, huevos con ejotes in Mexico or chili for people from Cincinnati.
Other autistic people tend to enjoy cooking a wide variety of foods, especially if – like me – they find sensory pleasure in cooking. Some autistic people also do not enjoy consecutive meals or consecutive textures. Sometimes, the “calculus” in a recipe might be different for autistic people than for people who are not autistic. For example: many autistic people are highly sensitive to texture, so a recipe may be more closely aligned around textural contrast or consistency than taste. (Chinese culinary tradition builds heavily on these contrasts.) Other autistic people, including me, add to the astringency, pungency, or acidity of their food, often doubling or tripling the amount of garlic, onions, or chilies in a dish. I realize as I write this that I’ve “gassed out” many neurotypical housemates over the years with a particularly spicy dish. It is hard to categorize what we autistic people in this category make, but I have noticed that many of us enjoy Mexican cuisine, Japanese and Korean cuisines, and the cuisines from around the Indian Ocean basin – Ethiopian, Indian, and Thai food. These culinary traditions place a lot of stock in the sensory experiences to which many autistic people are especially sensitive.
Many autistic people are very adept at substitutions. Part of this skill comes from the aversions many autistic people have to certain textures, foods, or ingredients – and so they have to learn how to, for example, substitute for the depth of onion without the texture of onion. In addition, it appears anecdotally that autistic people are disproportionately vegetarian, vegan, or adherent to religious dietary rules. Sometimes, cooking certain things might involve an ingredient “swap.” When I surveyed people on an autistic food forum, a lot of contributors brought up substitutions.
Autistic people often heavily rely on written recipes. Why? Many autistic people have an easier time with structured directions or steps when doing complex tasks like cooking, and a well-written recipe helps in this regard. When recipes go awry, it can be hard for many autistic people to “course correct” – even when, as is often the case, it is the recipe author’s fault. (I’ve had to correct a few myself.)
Other autistic people, like me, are not as reliant on recipes but need other forms of structure in the kitchen as well – and tend to do certain things in very routine or predictable ways. For example, I cannot go to a grocery store without a list, which means I plan what I cook at home – and many adjustments I might make to recipes – well in advance. One autistic person posted about planning meals for a whole month! Autistic people often memorize key recipes, too – which adds another layer of structure. Even those who don’t need written recipes memorize them, because we autistic people often end up remembering reams of information anyway.
There is a lot of tasty food in autistic kitchens. These habits in cooking do lead to lots of delicious-sounding things. On the autistic food group I am in on social media, many people post lovely-looking meals; some of my autistic friends are among the best cooks I’ve met. I hope, someday, to see several cookbooks by autistic people on the shelves of every bookstore. Not just to share the delicious food we make, but also a little bit about how we make it. As I will explain in the next post, I think everyone can learn from autistic cooks.
A quick note: many autistic people prefer “identity-first language,” because autism is part of an identity and can’t be separated from the person. Other people on the autism spectrum prefer “person-first language,” because they want to emphasize the humanity first. (Some non-autistic people like to mention something about not being defined by the autism, which tends to rub most of us the wrong way.) I switch between the two in my day-to-day life, but many of the people I spoke with strongly prefer identity-first language. So I am using that.
Thank you to the dozens of fellow autistic people who I spoke with while preparing to write this piece, particularly those on the Autism Meals Facebook group.
Here in the US, things are beginning to change around COVID. Obviously, these changes are a good thing – and we hope the same for elsewhere. However, there are some things that we will need to readjust to, and for some, that includes all the habits around returning to the office. Given commutes, we might need to cook more quickly on weeknights now.
In preparation for this, I have been trying some new recipes that do not take too long and make for hearty, tasty dinners. Some do require a bit more work than others in chopping vegetables, but none takes too long, and can easily feed a family or just yourself. Four of the five are by other authors, and I strongly suggest you make other recipes from those sites, blogs, and books!
Orecchiette alle Cime di Rapa – Orecchiette with Broccoli Rabe
This recipe is one of my favorites, and comes from the south of Italy. The convenient part is that the vegetables and pasta are cooked in the same pot – something that, before learning how to make this myself, I thought was quite untraditional. This recipe also comes together quite quickly, and you can substitute kale or mustard greens for the rabe. Some people cook this with anchovies, but I leave the anchovies out and swap in a few more cloves of garlic and a bit of salt.
This is a classic Japanese summer recipe. Silken or other soft tofu is simply dressed with a few sauces and things for seasoning – scallions, ginger, and soy sauce are most common. It is very refreshing and filling and has a lovely, pudding-like filling. I use this recipe from a Japanese author, which also adds katsuobushi – very delicious dried bonito flakes. The optional black sesame seeds add a nice touch.
This recipe from Mexico is tasty and very balanced – the green beans add a vegetal texture and taste to the richness of the eggs. There are also many regional varieties. I’ve made a few different recipes, and these two really stand out to me. One is from Maricruz Avalos’ excellent blog, and the other is from Oaxaca by Bricia Lopez, which is a truly excellent cookbook. I usually eat this with corn tortillas and some salsa macha or some cheese and cilantro. I use vegetarian chorizo in Bricia Lopez’ recipe.
This is one of my favorites – and, contrary to what people tell you, is probably from North Africa. That said, it has become – in various forms – a classic around the Mediterranean, including in Israel and Palestine. It is also quick to make and quite flexible – you can take all sorts of delicious vegetables and use them. This recipe was one of my first for the blog, and I am still quite proud of it. My only new addition is to suggest making it in a cast-iron skillet, which makes for a lovely serving presentation and adds a bit of weight to the flavor.
This is a traditional Catalan recipe with a long Jewish history – Claudia Roden mentions a similar recipe in her Book of Jewish Food, and such recipes spread throughout the Mediterranean after the expulsion from Spain. This recipe is also delicious and very easy to make with canned chickpeas. I eat it with nice bread, which you can get from a store – after all, you are busy.
I decided to have a little fun, in honor of Tu biShvat this year – one of my favorite holidays, and well-suited for socially distant celebrating. Many fruits and nuts are common, but there are also many allergies and aversions. Here is a chart of some traditional Jewish things you could eat to celebrate a giant birthday party for trees.
All nuts and seeds
No nuts, seeds okay
No nuts or seeds
No dried fruit or nuts
Pomegranates, fresh figs, citrus fruits, fruit salad with an almond-butter-based dressing, applesauce, date charoset, pomegranate and date jellies, pastries with fruit and almonds, pastries with almonds, savory stews incorporating fruit
Pomegranates, fresh figs, citrus fruits, applesauce, date charoset, pomegranate and date jellies, pastries with sesame seeds, savory stews incorporating fruit
Pomegranates, fresh figs, citrus fruits, applesauce, date charoset, pomegranate and date jellies, pastries with fruit, savory stews incorporating fruit
No raw fruit
Applesauce, date charoset, pomegranate and date jellies, pastries with fruit and almonds, pastries with almonds, savory stews incorporating fruit
Applesauce, date charoset, pomegranate and date jellies, pastries with sesame seeds, savory stews incorporating fruit
Applesauce, date charoset, pomegranate and date jellies, pastries with fruit, savory stews incorporating fruit
No solid fruit*
Applesauce, date charoset, various fruit juices like pomegranate juice or grape juice, pomegranate and grape jellies, smoothies with tahini, almond milk, cashew milk
Applesauce, date charoset, various fruit juices like pomegranate juice or grape juice, pomegranate and grape jellies, smoothies with tahini
Applesauce, date charoset, various fruit juices like pomegranate juice or grape juice, pomegranate and grape jellies
*For guidance on creating liquid cuisines for people who cannot or can no longer swallow, see this wonderful article from NPR and the cookbooks linked there.
Hello! I have not posted much content in a while. Graduate school keeps one busy – although, I am pleased to say, the work is applicable to the community! And part of this work has involved lots of fieldwork and lots of writing. But now I have the time, during my break, to write a new post – on a topic near and dear to me.
Something I have recently thought quite a bit about is dementia. A good chunk of my graduate and recent professional work has been about social infrastructure and facilities for older adults, especially those with memory loss. We live in a culture that does not value people with dementia, and it is a shame. Even other discussions about disability, including some of mine, do not adequately consider people with dementia and their needs. To make better lives for older adults with dementia, we do not just need proper infrastructure, nor is it only keeping them out of congregate facilities. (Both are essential.) Rather, we need to have a cultural overhaul – and that includes food.
We often forget that people with dementia have personalities and preferences – and that extends to palates too. As memory loss progresses, people with dementia have different experiences. Sometimes, they prefer one thing that is somewhat new. In other cases, and especially for immigrants, their preferences revert to those of their teenage or young adult years. When it comes to food, these tendencies might manifest as a strong desire for one food, or a preference for food from a home cuisine. Institutional food usually does not meet these desires. Nor do many standard programs that encourage “healthy eating” – while forgetting that “healthy food” is different from person to person.
Regularity and independence matter a lot when we talk about food and dementia. Many older adults with memory loss are given no agency over their lives – and though support is sometimes needed, support is different from forced dependence. Often, no preference about food is offered – or the opportunity to control how much is eaten, and how. At the same time, routine is grounding. Often, a regular meal or snack on the same day or at the same time is helpful and empowering. Variety, often forced, can be disquieting or distressing for some people. Yet we live in a food culture that often considers repetition or leftovers “boring” or “dull.” This problem is part of a wider one: people with dementia are also often excluded by the food practices of everyone else. Older adults with memory loss are often talked past when food is discussed, and their preferences and needs are often dismissed. We can start by allowing for their independence and need for regularity.
What does that look like for Jewish food? We already have regularity: challah and other traditional breads on Shabbat, weekly festive meals, and traditions around what food gets eaten when, like herring, cholent, brik, and bourekas. Keeping up these traditions can help include people with dementia in two ways. One is providing that grounding regularity. The other is that, for many Jewish older adults, these foods may meet a need grounded in an earlier stage of life. Encouraging these traditions can be a powerful form of inclusion. At the same time, all of us can do more to encourage independence. People with dementia should have the chance to eat independently, and their preferences should be respected. If they do not want “Jewish food,” that’s okay. Jewish tradition and food should not be forced.
I was originally going to write a long resource post about how to share food safely and what to make in this time of cautious life. I hold by an ethic of harm reduction: I take it as given that you will socialize and that food will be a part of that, and not always “bring your own.” How to do that safely is something that is useful to know.
I dithered on this post, which was handy, because other resources came out! So in this brief post I will share a few resources, a few foods, and then the blog’s first ever video: a sharing mechanism.
Yes, it is probably safer to “stay home” or to not share food, but realistically, I know that that is not going to happen. So do public health departments. I found the Washington DC guide for cookouts to have a lot of broadly applicable information:
Also, take a look at the Centers for Disease Control’s guidance here. (Yes, I know they got some things wrong early on. But many epidemiologists have said the same things as this.)
Here is an awkward video I made with two of my friends to demonstrate a safe way to serve and share a food at an outdoor picnic. The food is chocolate babka. Thank you to Joe Jeffers and Hannah Cook for starring, and to David Ouziel for filming! The video is captioned. A transcript with or without descriptions of what is on the screen is available on request.
If you prefer a text description of what to do, here it is:
Have one person serve the food. Let’s say it’s you.
Wash or sanitize your hands.
Put on your mask. Wash your hands again.
Put on gloves if you wish – it is helpful for reducing anxiety, and for avoiding things other than COVID.
Set out your serving tools – knife, cutting board, etc.
Cut/make a serving and place it on a plate or napkin.
Step 6 feet/2 meters away.
The other person should come and take it.
Step back. Repeat steps 6-8 for each person.
Remove gloves, wash your hands.
Remember to wash your hands between removing your mask and going back to serve any more food. Don’t reuse gloves!
Stars are footnotes and appear at the end of the post.
Greetings from Maryland, where I am safely ensconced and riding out our strange new reality. I miss my partner, in New York, and my family, but I am okay. I hope you are managing and keeping safe.
With the ongoing crisis, I have been thinking a lot about differential access to food, and how it plays out in a pandemic situation for folks with different experiences, often marginalized ones. There are authors who have already written very eloquently about these effects from the point of view of class, race, and gender – and I strongly suggest you read these pieces too! I want to talk, today, about how these access points can play out for people with disabilities.* Specifically, I will talk about the acts of getting, storing, and making food to eat in this context.
When I wrote my piece about disability in the kitchen, the blog’s most-read article to date, I did not foresee that we would be dealing, two years later, with a global pandemic. At the time, I was working on accessible communications for a government agency; now, I am doing graduate work in urban planning, focusing on aging and disability in the built environment. Even the way I talk about my own autism has changed. And, as I research topics from public restrooms to sidewalks, I keep returning to that piece I wrote about disability in the kitchen. Now, when I watch all of our food habits change in line with the virus, enabled by technical innovations, I note that people with disabilities still face barriers to coronavirus cooking. These barriers come right alongside the threats to disabled people’s lives from rationed care, the lack of access to many remote services on which disabled people rely, and the housing problems many disabled people face.
We should remember that disability intersects with other marginalized identities. Disabled people of color face particular and often more intense barriers to access, and often lack access to services more than their white counterparts. This lack extends to access to food – be it living in food deserts or not having an accessible grocery store nearby. Gender, too, plays a role: women, non-binary people, and transgender people often also have difficulty accessing services. And class plays an overarching role. People with disabilities are far more likely to be poor and to rely on inadequate “safety nets”; many people cannot afford food during a normal time. So now, many of the interventions well-off abled people take for granted – grocery delivery, food delivery, or being able to purchase two weeks’ of food at once – are more difficult or impossible for many disabled people. Not to mention that inadequate housing and kitchens particularly affect poor disabled people – especially people of color with disabilities.** People incarcerated in “group homes”often have no autonomy over their food at all (or anything else). The inability during a “normal” time to afford a house with accessible food storage or appliances is doubly problematic when there is no accessible way to store, cook, or save large quantities of food.
But these problems start even before we get to putting food away. Let’s walk through the process of going to a grocery store, buying food, bringing it home, storing it, and cooking it in this time.
Barriers start with the simple act of getting to the grocery store, or getting groceries delivered. Of course, some people with disabilities cannot safely leave their homes during the pandemic, and that situation itself is an enormous barrier. Many people with disabilities, including those who can leave, rely on public transit or paratransit to go to “essential services” like supermarkets, and routes and service have been gutted in many areas. As a result, what was a one-hour trip might now take three. Sidewalks, already badly maintained and narrow, are difficult to practice social distancing on – especially if you cannot wheel on dirt or safely on a busy street! Many grocery stores that are open have visitors line up on inaccessible barriers for entry, or are located in difficult-to-navigate and often dangerous areas. These challenges are added to on the return trip with the difficulty of carting food while achieving any of these tasks. Food delivery can cost more money that many disabled people do not have, and not to mention, anecdotes indicate that some things do not seem to make it into delivery baskets right now. Furthermore, many delivery services’ communications are inaccessible, be it badly-designed websites or demanding telephone calls some people cannot make. So, many people with disabilities rely on friends or family to assist with groceries – but this relies coordination, and often gives other people undue power over what that disabled person is eating. The “well-meaning” (but actually inappropriately controlling) family member might not, for example, get those sour cream ranch chips that make lockdown that much more bearable for their relative.
Other barriers exist once you enter a grocery store or supermarket. Of course, many grocery stores are inaccessible, with narrow aisles and steps, loud equipment that triggers sensory reactions, and broadly impossible to navigate for blind people. Coronavirus adds another layer: the need to socially distance means that you move a lot, but some people move more slowly than others. Standing in line for an hour, as occurs in many places, is not possible for some people. Social distancing is more difficult or impossible for people with cognitive disabilities, especially given the type of mental processing such distancing requires. On top of food shopping, that can become very difficult without cues in the store. The worry about viral spread, often dismissed for grocery stores, is quite real for immunocompromised people. Masks make it harder for Deaf and hard of hearing people to communicate with store staff and other shoppers, because facial expressions and lip-reading become impossilbe. And, of course, shortages play a role too. If you, like many disabled people, have food sensitivities or allergens, and your mainstay foods are out of stock, you may find shopping more difficult. Not to mention that markups on common food items may make them unaffordable to many people with disabilities.
Once someone returns, or has food delivered, how do they store it? Refrigerators and freezers are often inaccessible for people with disabilities – especially wheelchair users and people of short stature. Food packaging is usually inaccessible to blind and low-vision people, who often have to relabel all of their food once it comes back into the house. With the larger grocery hauls that result from less frequent trips away from home, this task becomes longer, and more tiring. In addition, cabinets, especially those meant for food storage, are also often not accessible for wheelchair users. When one is limited to a certain amount of space, storing two weeks’ worth of food can be an insurmountable challenge, as a result of poor, inaccessible design. (Even a design that is pretty: if it is not accessible, the design probably is not good.) Many disabled people live in housing that already was inadequate for food preparation and storage. Furthermore, for many people with cognitive disabilities, the challenge of sorting and storing food,*** already present before the pandemic, becomes even more taxing with the new amounts of food and the different rations required during the pandemic. And, of course, let us not forget that people with suppressed immune systems are at higher risk of contracting coronavirus from packaging, if it is transmitted this way, with far worse results.
Then, of course, there are challenges familiar and new about planning and cooking meals. All of the usual barriers impeding disabled people’s freedom in the kitchen are still there: unusable counters, dangerous stoves, inaccessible sinks, and so on. But the necessitated reliance on cooking makes it that much harder if things get messed up – something that also matters for recipients of food assistance. In addition, planning meals can be a difficult task – and planning them for as much as two weeks is often extremely difficult for people with cognitive disabilities. Furthermore, many of the pre-prepared ingredients that make cooking more manageable for people with disabilities – pre-cut vegetables, canned fruit, and little herb sachets among them – are in short supply at many groceries. Some disabled people may not be able to, say, safely chop an onion in their kitchen.
For many disabled people, this paradigm is particularly exhausting. Some disabled people already work with lower levels of energy or higher fatigue than other people. Most disabled people have to do the honestly tiring work of figuring out how to move around barriers, to navigate inaccessible spaces, and still get what they need. In the age of coronavirus, that can be especially tiring. And so the added fatigue, the accumulated tiredness, the “lack of spoons,” becomes yet another barrier for food access. Even – especially for people who cannot leave their homes right now. The worry and the coordination of food access alone can be exhausting – on top of which, all these other issues may apply.
You may notice, when reading, that many of these issues are not specifically about coronavirus itself. Of course not – the built environment that harms disabled people was already there before the pandemic: access to food sources was still blocked, transport was still an issue, kitchens were inadequate, cooking was difficult, fatigue still occurred. The point is not that these barriers to food and cooking are new for people with disabilities. The point is that the coronavirus crisis amplifies them, to a point of being even more impactful and dangerous.
I wonder, from a personal and professional perspective, how we can address these issues in a post-pandemic world. What sort of transport structures and changes will we need to put in place to consider food access and service access for people with disabilities? What changes need to be given additional oomph? What new requirements will supermarkets, grocery stores, housing, and other services need to meet during construction? Some of these standards already exist, but some will be changed. After all, disabled people, too, will be making changes to their lifestyles after the pandemic – and that choice will necessitate some new design standards, be they wider supermarket aisles or more food storage space than before in an accessible kitchen. These are all to be determined, and hopefully, will improve upon the current paradigm, which is unacceptably inaccessible.
*A note to readers: I tend to be ecumenical about using “person-first language” – people with disabilities – and identity first language – “disabled people,” though I tend to prefer the latter since it points out that people are disabled by the societies around them. This idea is called the social model of disability. As an autistic person, I find myself switching when I even describe myself. That said, I know many people with disabilities prefer person-first language, and as a compromise, I switch between the two now. For certain disability communities, there are proper protocols: The descriptor Deaf people is always identity-first in English, the descriptor people with cognitive disabilities is always person-first in English. These rules are based on community decisions. Please do not use “differently-abled,” as it implies that there is something wrong with being disabled!
**The first folks to be listened to on issues affecting disabled people of color are disabled people of color themselves. For a clear explanation as to why, and the intersection of race and disability, see this fantastic piece by Imani Barbarin. Ditto for issues affecting women with disabilities, disabled transgender people, and working-class disabled people. I should not be your primary source here!
***Resources by and for people with cognitive disabilities often expressly discuss pantry storage and food purchasing. However, many assume regular grocery access – which may not be possible during the pandemic.
A lot of you are learning to cook for the first time with this social distancing that we all have to do because of the coronavirus pandemic. I want to write relatively little on that, and instead provide a recipe matrix you can use for easy meals with long-lasting goods.
The recipe matrix consists of three sections: a separate carbohydrate section, identifying plant matter, proteins, and spices, and a way to combine them. As a note, for all combinations, you will need onion and garlic cloves, as well as cooking oil and vinegar.
Rice and pasta keep for a long time, as do potatoes, tortillas in the refrigerator or freezer, and bread in the freezer.
Rice: prepare according to package directions. For jasmine rice, I add one and a half cups of water for every cup of rice. Set in a pot to boil with a splash of oil and a dash of salt, then simmer while stirring regularly. If you have a rice cooker, as I do, I strongly suggest you use that.
Pasta: prepare according to package directions. I can’t suggest more than that, because every package is that straightforward. I usually aim for al dente texture when I cook pasta.
Potatoes: my preferred method to cook potatoes is to wash them, then boil them in salted water for 25-30 minutes or until tender to the fork. Then, slice them. Minimal effort and minimal equipment. For new potatoes, or small potatoes, 15-20 minutes will do.
Bread: Make sure bread is sliced before you freeze it! Toast bread from the freezer for about a minute longer than if it was fresh. You can usually defrost bread quickly in the microwave – about 30 seconds for two slices – but it will be much softer. If you didn’t slice the bread, or you have rolls, I recommend defrosting the loaf or rolls in an oven at 350F/175C for about half an hour. Then, slice.
Tortillas: Wrap up to six tortillas in a wet paper towel and microwave for 30 seconds.
Choose vegetables, proteins, and spices
Fresh winter squash, fresh peppers, and fresh whole mushrooms keep for a long time in the refrigerator. You can also use frozen vegetables – I prefer peas, carrots, squash, zucchini, kale, and corn here. Or you can use canned vegetables – my top choices there are peas and corn.
To prepare the fresh squash, wash it, then chop off the top and the bottom, and then chop it in half. Remove the seeds, and then chop into thin, small pieces. You will need to remove the peel from butternut squash first, but you do not need to do the same for acorn squash, delicata squash, or kabocha, so I suggest buying those when you go out for your grocery run.
To prepare the fresh peppers, wash them, then chop off the top. Remove the seeds, and then chop the remaining pepper into small pieces.
To prepare the mushrooms, wash them, then chop into small pieces.
All you need to do for frozen vegetables is to massage them in the bag until they are broken apart.
All you need to do for canned vegetables is drain the contents.
The easiest protein in this circumstance is a can of beans – all you have to do is drain out the fluid, and you’re ready to go!
The other protein I recommend is tofu: drain a block or two, then chop it into small cubes. Firm tofu works best.
This recipe does not really work with meat or fish.
The spices should vary based on your vegetables. Always add a teaspoon of salt and half a teaspoon of black pepper. For sweeter vegetables like squash and pepper, I recommend using (ground) cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, curry powder, allspice, sugar, and/or red pepper flakes to taste. You can also add more salt or black pepper too. For mushrooms or frozen savory vegetables, use oregano, thyme, red pepper, paprika, or rosemary. Soup powder (avkat marak) works well here too.
Ratio for every two to three servings
Carbohydrates: one of: 1 cup raw rice, 8oz/225g raw pasta, 2-3 medium potatoes, 4-6 slices of bread, or 6-8 tortillas
Vegetables: 1 squash, 1-2 bell peppers, 1.5-2 cups mushrooms, 1 8oz/225g can vegetables, or 8oz/225g frozen vegetables
Protein: 1 8oz/225g can beans or 8oz/225g tofu
Spices: should add up to about 1-1.5 tablespoons
Make your carbohydrate separately. Get started with rice, potatoes, pasta, or defrosting bread in the oven now. Tortillas and bread in the toaster can be done after you’re finished cooking.
Chop ½ a medium onion and two cloves of garlic.
Place a medium saucepan over high heat, and add a drop of water. When the water sizzles away, add enough oil to just cover the bottom of the pan. Add the onions and garlic and sauté for one minute, moving the onions around with your spatula. When your onions start to wilt, add the spices and mix in thoroughly. Sauté for 30 more seconds, and then add your vegetable, and mix thoroughly. Then, add 1 tbsp of vinegar – apple cider vinegar or white vinegar will do. Sauté for two more minutes, and then add the protein. If you are using fresh vegetables, add a few tablespoons of water. Mix thoroughly, and when the mixture starts to boil, lower the heat. Stir regularly until either: the squash, peppers, or mushrooms are soft, or the canned or frozen vegetables are thoroughly cooked. Serve over or alongside the carbohydrate.
When I am not writing this blog, I am in graduate school for urban planning at the University of Maryland. I primarily focus on disability access and aging, and how we can do better planning for cities that are livable for everyone (Sometimes this means that I write about toilets.) A lot of what we look at revolves not just around how people should move about the city, but about how people actually do so. And some of that includes the fact that some travel is simply not facilitated.
One thing we planners often discuss is “trip-chaining.” In our jargon, this means “a trip with one or more stops on the way.” So, instead of say a single-purpose trip – a trip to work or from work – it is more of a trip that might include dropping your child off, picking up some medicines, working for a few hours, and then swinging by the supermarket on the way back. Everyone trip-chains at some point. However, women, children, and people with disabilities are far more likely to trip-chain on a daily basis than men. The problem is that much of our extant transport infrastructure is planned around the assumption of a commute to work in the morning and a commute back from work in the evening. This case is especially apparent for public transit schedules. But for women still largely charged with childcare and household responsibilities, and others who are less likely to work in big job centers on those schedules, navigating the transport system becomes more difficult. Trip-chaining is easier for many – and besides, logically makes more sense – than doing one trip to get the groceries, another to drop off a child, and so on. Planning is finally cottoning on to this reality.
Trip-chaining affects how we buy groceries and what groceries we buy. Firstly, when we go to buy groceries, our cognitive bandwidth is not always focused on the groceries. Anyone who has cared for a child while shopping or had to do it in a rush to catch a bus can tell you this. Secondly, it means that groceries will be carried sometimes a fairly long distance – especially if it’s not the last stop on a trip. If, like in some countries, distances are not that far, it means that it is not too terrible to carry around fresh vegetables, dairy, or other perishables. But in places with long travel times, or where transit is unreliable, perishable food becomes risky. Hence it is easier – and less wasteful – to buy things that do not need a refrigerator or can be outside of a fridge for longer. Think canned beans, fruit and vegetables that travel well, and not as many fragile leaves or berries. (Which, besides, are prohibitively expensive for some.) Difficulty in travel also makes big trips to the supermarket with a car far more likely – people in places that are heavily car-dependent go to the grocery store less often than people elsewhere, and the bulk and length of those visits are hard to chain.
I think processed foods have other benefits, especially for certain folks and people in certain places. But one advantage that is not always acknowledged is that they are something someone can actually buy and cart around effectively. If you have to grocery shop while doing three other tasks, it is harder to select and lug around fresh foods – especially if you don’t have a car to stow them in or if you have a long way to travel. Sometimes, it is easier to just buy a can or a box. Not to mention that it is already hard, with overwhelming choice, for many people to grocery shop anyway. Add the labor on top of that of child care or coordinating three schedules or three tasks, and then the cognitive load for many is overwhelming. The fact that I can eat and cook with so many vegetables has much more to do with the fact that I have lived walking distance from a good grocery store my entire adult life, and not nearly as much to do with my (lacking) virtue.
What does this mean in the Jewish context? Well, I think it illustrates the fact that things like pre-made latke mixes, canned soups, and “hacks” to make traditional dishes actually have a place in our kitchens. They make Jewish food much more manageable and feasible for some people, and there should not be shame in doing what is possible in the system you cannot change as an individual alone. And certainly not with consumption wrapped in deeply privileged ideas of propriety.
I have attached a simple recipe for a soup made entirely from ingredients you can buy while trip-chaining. It is an adaptation of pasta e fagioli for the vast majority of us who do not have the time to lovingly caress beautiful ingredients every day. The soup takes under half an hour to make. You could probably swap frozen vegetables for the canned option, but it is harder to travel with those! (I use frozen, but I live five minutes’ walk from a grocery store.) These are also items that could easily be stored for a while in a pantry. I use soup powder, but you can use stock as well. The recipe multiplies well. My boyfriend enjoyed this soup, and I hope you do too!
Bean Soup with Pasta (Trip-Chainers’ Pasta e Fagioli)
1 teaspoon table salt (add 1 ½ tsp more if using stock)
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 15oz/425g can cannellini beans
1 15oz/425g can diced tomatoes
1 8oz/212g can mixed vegetables
1 cup elbow macaroni
Olive oil or vegetable oil
Apple cider vinegar
Water for pasta (and soup)
Ready-made vegetable stock for the soup (optional)
Put some water on to boil in a small saucepan for the pasta. Dice the onion and garlic however small you like them.
Put a bigger saucepan on the heat for the soup. Add the oil – maybe two tablespoons – then the onions and garlic. Sauté, stirring, for two minutes, or until soft.
Add the soup powder (if using), salt, pepper, and oregano, then mix in. Add a splash of vinegar. Sauté for 30 more seconds.
Add the canned tomatoes and mix in. When they are boiling, add the beans, then 2 cups of water or ready-made vegetable stock. Bring to a boil, then simmer until the pasta is ready. If you like your soup very liquid, cover the pot so the steam gets trapped.
When the pasta water is ready, add the elbows. Bring to a boil, then cook for five-six minutes or until al dente. Drain, and set aside.
Add the canned vegetables to the soup when the pasta is done. Bring to a boil again, then simmer for two minutes. Turn off the heat.
To serve, ladle pasta into the bowl, then soup, to the serving size of your choice.
My maternal grandmother left a mountain of recipes. I wrote about some of these for Handwritten Magazine before. The recipes are delicious and replete with typos or forgotten ingredients. Mysteriously, 0s are doubled or removed, so the recipe ends up calling for “20 grams flour” rather than 200. Entire ingredients, like flour, are forgotten. So are basic steps, like frying onions. When one cooks from the recipe, it is an experiment of trial and much error. It took nearly twenty attempts to get her pumpkin fritters right.
So, to this year. My mother and I were tasked with bringing stuffed matzoh balls to a Passover seder. These kneidlach are stuffed with fried onions and garlic and are very, very tasty. We opened the sheaf of my grandmother’s typewritten papers with her recipes to the matzoh ball to find that … mysteriously, she seemed to call for as much margarine as matzoh meal. Being experienced enough to know that this couldn’t be right, we consulted other recipes for a more sensible ratio. We realize now that my grandmother meant 20 grams.
As I reflected on this bizarre typo (and imagining fat globules swimming through my soup), I thought about all the ways Jewish cuisine might have been shaped by mistakes. We often think of cuisine as some sort of unbroken tradition. I have written repeatedly, here and elsewhere, why that is bunk. We also valorize the creativity of our ancestors in using and taking in new ingredients, or making things out of limited ingredients, or having the bravery to try something new. That is somewhat more accurate, but there is still something lacking. And so I would say this:
Mistakes have shaped Jewish cuisine. They may be typos, omissions, spills, accidental omissions, or random accidents. Sometimes they change it for the worse, sometimes for the better, and sometimes we never know. A dish might end up being better with the accidental addition of a spice, or leaving out something else. It might become a longstanding tradition – I suspect that whoever first made the gelled broth of gefilte fish probably left the broth out for too long by mistake. A mistake may also turn into someone’s “secret ingredient.” My formerly-secret ingredient of black pepper in applesauce started as an accident.
That said, people make mistakes more often than they withhold secrets. When a recipe does not work out, some people’s first instinct is to assume that the cook left out an ingredient to preserve their domination over a dish. The mythical “secret ingredient.” I doubt that this is usually the case, though ardent cooks can be as vain and petty as anyone. Rather, I am more convinced of the fact that cooks forget that they do things in a way, or that they add something in such and such a way, because it is so natural to them. I beat eggs in a certain way, so that the whites get a bit puffier, but I never thought to include that in a recipe, for example. That mistake will change the final product, unless you too beat your eggs in the exact same way. In addition, you can always mess up when cooking from someone else’s recipe. And these mistakes determine, I think, a bit of what gets cooked and what does not. If a mistake makes a dish hard for someone to recreate, then that dish will likely not appear on the table – or appear in altered form. Likewise, if a mistake leaves you with a bad impression of a dish, then you will not be inclined to cook it again. As I write this, I wonder how many creative, tasty, and wondrous dishes have been lost to mistakes by author or cook. My grandmother’s pumpkin fritters very nearly met this fate, because she forgot to mention flour at all.
Things get lost in translation, too. One thing that often never gets really appreciated is how different “eyeball” quantities can be in different languages – ktzat in Hebrew is not necessarily a bit in English, and that is not un poquito in Spanish either. Now, apply that measure to salt, or pepper, or nutmeg (as I have witnessed), and see what results. The same goes for directions: meng in Afrikaans can be expressed by several words, not just mix, in English. And, of course, “to taste” is impossibly personal and extremely cultural. So when parents give their children recipes, or friends give their friends recipes, or someone squints over a newspaper in a language they speak imperfectly (guilty as charged), unintentional mistakes can be made quite easily. And the end product is different. Sometimes the change is not so great, but sometimes it is better or tastier.
And then there are the dishes you end up forgetting to make for years at a time. I have not made brownies, for example, for about five years. (Shocking, I know.) I know that when I make them the first time, I will probably mess something up. If I make them for someone, they might not like “my brownies” – even if I try to convince them that my brownies are normally delicious. If that person is my boyfriend, I might not end up making them for quite a while, or ever again. Transpose this idea to a rarer dish, or one that might not be easily made. It is quite possible that many things have been given up, because they are too hard to make right, or so hard to recreate that they are easily messed up. Beyond changing ideas of “good” and “bad” and assimilating a cultural aversion to wobbliness, one reason that p’tcha is probably no longer as common, for example, is that it is actually quite easy to mess up. Other dishes or variants of extant ones have probably been lost in the recesses of many memories. Still others are changed by the mistakes that you make in re-creation.
Part of me wants to think only of the happy accidents – after all, which genius realized that gefilte fish is perfectly paired with horseradish? But cooking and cuisine are not only happy or happy accidents. A lot of learning to cook, and researching food history, is not noticing a thing and then making a disaster of your dish. These disasters help us figure out what to cook, how to cook, and how not to cook. And when we learn from others how to eat, what to eat, and how not to eat, these disasters can add up to a cuisine. Mistakes have changed the way Jews talk about, cook, eat, and remember food, and that is something worth noting – just like my grandmother’s missing 0.
A preface: I do not tend to be fond of “must-have” articles. What each person needs to do or keep for food differs: what do they eat? How much can they spend? Where do they live? What do they do? Must-have articles always seem to make far too many assumptions, and then ask folks to keep things that they never actually use, or do things that are totally unreasonable. (Three types of salt? To quote the kids, “whomst.”) That said, I do seem to write a lot of advice articles. People seem to like having ideas or general advice, and I strive to be suggestive rather than prescriptive. So for this article, please correct me if I mess up.
A few people wanted me to write an article about “how to stock a pantry.” Despite what so many food bloggers tell you, this is actually a hard thing to write. What to stock and how to stock depend on where you live, what you eat, what you can afford, your cooking habits, and all the social things that also intersect with food. So instead, here are some thoughts about stocking your pantry, which come from two places. One is my own experience and research. The other is you. I surveyed friends and readers about what they kept in their pantry. Then, I cobbled together data from dozens of responses to get an idea of what other pantries look like, in all sorts of situations.
So, here is some advice. Keep in mind that what you can afford, where you live, what you can and cannot do, and what you eat all play a role in stocking your pantry. You may not be able to have very much in a dorm room or a temporary place. You may not have a good refrigerator. You may have tons of space and money and be able to go all out – but not really have a diet that necessitates all those ingredients. Some things someone can tell you, but this is one thing you will need to partly figure out yourself.
Which is to say: this advice is not prescriptive. I give only suggestions! Mix and match as you need.
An important note on cuisines: your pantry should change based on what you eat. This pantry list is largely for Ashkenazi and Western Sephardic cooking, with some other addendums. If your primary diet is a different cuisine, be it Japanese, Korean, Senegalese, Ethiopian, Lao, Mexican, O’odham, or Cree, you will need to stock accordingly for the base ingredients in your main cuisine. So, you will probably want to first look at advice from other folks that eat those cuisines primarily. Many “pantry” stocking articles assume a generic Western standard that applies for everyone. Let us not do that here.
With that said, let us dive in!
Pantry Stocking Advice
I have sorted the following out into three sections, and the second section has three parts of three parts each. The first is a general rule on what to make sure you have. The second part sorts some things out by how to store them, then split up into how much preparation they require. I give suggestions across a range of flavors and budget levels. The third selection is on building up a spice and seasoning stockpile.
Things You Should Try to Have
You should try to have the following two things: some food that they can eat with no or very little preparations, and ingredients for a simple meal.
I am about to say something heretical for a food blogger to say. You need to have a ready-made meal, or something that can be treated as such, on hand. Ideally, a few. There are going to be days when you cannot cook, days when your stove is out of commission, or days when you’re suddenly stuck at home because your road is blocked off, and you have few groceries. This is where industrial food comes in. Platitudes about real food are all nice and good until you have a real need for food that cannot wait. So, keep some things on hand. Some things I recommend are: instant noodles, microwave meals if you have a working freezer, canned soups, protein bars, breakfast cereals, and microwave-pack shelf-stable meals. I personally stock some protein bars, breakfast cereals, frozen mac and cheese, and shelf-stable microwaveable pasta and vegetables for emergencies. I do not recommend making these a mainstay of your diet if you can avoid it, but they are a good idea. We live in a time where industrial food has enabled us to stockpile safe, somewhat tasty food if we can. It would be a shame not to take advantage.
The other thing I recommend is keeping shelf- or freezer-stable ingredients for a simple, easily cooked meal. This could be as simple as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. You should have a carbohydrate and a protein, and sources of salt, fat, and acid. Vegetable matter is always nice, too. I usually keep the ingredients for pasta with tuna or beans at all times:
Ingredients for Tuna/Bean Pasta
Canned or frozen vegetables
Canned tomato sauce
Canned tuna or beans
Salt and some spices
Onions or garlic, using powders as a backstop
In this list, the pasta, beans or tuna, salt, oil, and vinegar are the most essential, with the seasoning and vegetables adding flavor and nutrition. You can mix and match as necessary.
Here are ingredient lists for four more shelf-stable based cooked meals that you can plan for:
Rice and beans
Canned black beans
Salt and some spices
Onions or garlic, using powders as a backstop
Couscous and beans
Couscous (the add-hot-water kind)
Salt and some spices
Onions or garlic, using powders as a backstop
Kasha with Mushrooms and Beans
Canned white beans
Salt and some spices
Onions or garlic, using powders as a backstop
Pasta with Green Beans and Canned Fish
Canned green beans
Salt and some spices
Onions or garlic, using powders as a backstop
Again, if you can, I encourage expanding from these bases. But keep basic ingredients for a basic meal on hand. Again, this does not even necessarily have to involve cooking.
Beyond the Basics
Once you have the very basics, here are some things that you could consider placing in your pantry, based on your diet, your space, what you can do, what you cannot do, what you can afford, and what you can realistically keep.
I don’t even have all of these things in my pantry. You do not need all of these things at once! This list is suggestive, not prescriptive.
Note: some things are listed twice, because you can store them in either place.
Things That You Store in Cupboards
No or little preparation required:
Bread (I tend to freeze bread.)
Add hot-water or microwaveable rice
Add hot-water or microwaveable pasta
Add hot-water or microwaveable mashed potatoes
Add hot-water oatmeal or Cream of wheat
Canned baked beans
Nutritional shakes or protein bars
Add hot water soups
Apple sauce (can also go in fridge)
Long-life milk or plant milk
Some preparation required:
Potatoes (can also go in fridge)
Onions (can also go in fridge)
Garlic (can also go in fridge)
Dried beans (Though I strongly prefer canned.)
Things you add to other food:
Salt – people will tell you to have multiple types of salt, but having basic salt that you can shake or grind is honestly manageable enough.
Vinegars – I recommend rice wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar to start for food, and white vinegar for cleaning. Red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, and malt vinegars are nice to have if you can.
Oils – I recommend canola or vegetable oil to start. Sesame oil, olive oil, and sunflower oil are nice to have.
Spices – see the section below.
Sugar – I recommend white sugar to start, brown sugar or confectioners’ sugar as needed. I personally store sugar in the fridge, since I find it keeps bugs away.
Flour – I usually recommend all-purpose flour to start, unless you cannot have gluten, in which case, an all-purpose gluten-free blend. Keep it sealed!
Cornstarch – for thickening foods.
Onion powder and garlic powder (even if you have onions and garlic)
Stock cubes or soup powder.
Syrup or honey, if you prefer that to sugar.
Yeast, if you bake breads.
Baking soda or baking powder for baking – I find baking soda and vinegar is great for cleaning too!
Ketchup – this can also go in the fridge, but it is fine if not.
Worcestershire sauce – do keep in mind that some folks have kashrut issues around this.
Hot sauce – check which kind, since some types do need to be refrigerated.
Things That You Store in the Fridge
No preparation required:
(Most ready-made stuff that is kept in the fridge does not keep for very long – so I would not rely on always having that specific type of thing on hand.)
Things you add to other food:
Vegan butter substitutes
Eggs – admittedly all three, but so versatile!
Applesauce – admittedly, the same as eggs.
Onions – can be stored outside, but keep longer in the fridge. If space allows,keep at some distance from potatoes.
Garlic – can be stored outside, but keep longer in fridge.
Pasta sauces (as needed)
Ketchup – this does not need to be in the fridge, but I do find that it is less messy
when it is refrigerated.
Miso paste – if you cook things that require it. If you seal it well, it actually keeps equally well in the freezer.
Jams – they can be kept, if not yet opened, on a shelf.
Chutneys – same rules as jams.
Things That You Store in the Freezer
Little preparation required:
Microwave meals/frozen meals, for backup situations
Frozen stock – which is especially useful for soups and rice.
Frozen garlic or frozen crushed garlic – a lifesaver.
Frozen animal fats, if you use them – I particularly like frozen schmaltz.
Frozen sauces, if you use them.
Let me be clear about one thing first: getting a spice or ingredient stockpile together is not easy. Spices are expensive, need to be stored properly, and can easily be “lost” in a pile of bottles. Organization helps, but so does a bit of advanced knowledge.
Some people go off generic lists or kits, but I do not advise that. Instead, I suggest that before going out and buying spices you never use, get a sense of what you like to eat. Do you like spicy foods, bland foods, sweet foods, or savory foods? Look up a few recipes for things you like to eat often and note down the spices that you see. Buy those spices first, and make sure you know which ones you have. Then, only buy other spices as you need them. Over time, you will build a stockpile. Properly stored ground, dried spices can be stored for years.
I put together a joint list for spices based on the frequency I use them in Ashkenazi and Middle Eastern cuisines. I’m Lithuanian and German by heritage, so I tend to skew more seasoned than Polish or Russian Jews. I cook quite a bit of Middle Eastern food at home, and Mexican food.
Spices to start:
Garlic powder (alongside fresh garlic)
Red pepper (flakes or powder)
Salt (iodized or sea)
Poppy seed (for baking)
Vanilla extract (for baking)
Even more spices:
Fennel seed (Anise)
Fenugreek (extremely needed for some cuisines)
Juniper berries (I personally am not a fan)
Saffron (very expensive, only buy if absolutely needed)
Sumac (but if you frequently cook Levantine food, get this)
If you want to experiment with several spices at a time, I highly recommend buying spice mixes. Some of these are quite beloved by their users, and are “standard” for many cuisines. I keep a very large amount of South African spice blends for cooking meat and pickling things on hand at all time. You can get some of these mixes very cheaply at the supermarket – for example, Pumpkin Pie Spice. There is no shame in using these!
Special thanks to the dozens of readers who told me what they keep in their pantries.