Great Books: Perfection Salad, by Laura Shapiro

I am far from the first person to believe that the kitchen can change the world. In fact, such a belief motivated the domestic science movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which was largely led by women. This push – though not feminist – sought to give honor and credit to women’s work in the kitchen, and to transform how women ate. Laura Shapiro’s 1986 book Perfection Salad narrates the history and impact of this movement – and how the legacy on the kitchen was “devastating” – and how it also, in many ways, strengthened patriarchy rather than lending respect to women.

About two dozen white women in aprons and caps looking at a camera in a library
A home economics class in early 20th-century Toronto. (Photo public domain via Toronto Public Library)

The book charts the fascinating history of “domestic science,” the ancestor to today’s “home economics.” The movement stemmed from a desire to standardize and give respect to women’s domestic work – and rather than changing gender norms or the distribution of labor, social reformers sought to do so by standardizing and making scientific this labor. Much of the change happened in cuisine – with ideas of foods being controlled, and determined for nutrition or morals alone rather also for nourishment and flavor. (Hence creations like the book’s titular salad.) The book also charts the way women interested in chemistry and economics were shunted off to the gendered world of home economics – and how this whole development tied in with the popularization of industrial foods. The book is fantastic, and I highly recommend it.

One surprise for me, while reading the book, has been the type of presence Christianity has in many of these reformer’s narratives. I am unsurprised by the presence – social reform has always had a strong Christian overtone – but rather the tenor of it. Many of the reformers presented “orderly” households as analogous to Heaven itself – and one even narrated Heaven as such an establishment! Even as scientific methods were incorporated into home economics, the base of the enterprise was still a very patriarchal one of the woman as keeper of the hearth and imparter of Christian morals (with all sorts of rather biased assumptions attached). Shapiro’s depiction of this phenomenon is unflinching but also deeply engaging – she draws the reader into the minds of the authors who she writes about from a century’s distance. As I read, I reflected on similar tendencies in many Jewish social reform cookbooks in the early 20th century – like the famed Settlement Cook Book. Even with their secularizing and assimilationist tendencies, these books still relied also on older, very patriarchal ideas of what the kitchen was spiritually – and what women should be doing there.  

Shapiro published this book in 1986, but many of the notes and observations carry over to much of domestic culture today. One is: the constant pushback that people – mostly women – get for following instinct and embodied knowledge rather than something “improved,” “rational,” or “new.” We saw it with domestic science, and now we see it with much of the “health food movement.” Instinct, of course, is not always right – but there is something about knowing what will work when, and the knowledge that comes from things that cannot always be measured or codified, and the action of doing. For this insight alone, Perfection Salad remains as relevant as ever.

Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century, by Laura Shapiro

An Indigenous Lunch at Owamni

My partner and I recently spent a long weekend in the Twin Cities in Minnesota – a fantastic destination for anyone who enjoys eating lots of good food. One of the highlights of our trip was a lunch at Owamni by the Sioux Chef, which is a restaurant that serves indigenous North American cuisine, primarily from the Great Plains and Great Lakes region (the ancestral lands of the Dakhota, Anishinaabe, Ho-Chunk, and others). The head chef, Sean Sherman, is one of the leaders of a decolonial food movement that seeks to renew an indigenous ingredient-based food paradigm in North America. Owamni is named for St. Anthony Falls, which is called Owamni by the Dakhota people indigenous to the region.

Owamni is one of the few full-service indigenous restaurants in the United States. The menu centers indigenous ingredients like maize, wild rice (manoomin), sunchokes, and tubers. It also does not include wheat, dairy, soy, pork, or cane sugar – which were introduced through colonization. This exclusion is important for this movement – and though it contrasts with the approach of some other indigenous food activists, this focus in many ways liberates Sherman to explore some fantastic possibilities. The menu at Owamni showcases these wonders.

After lunch, I reflected on how little we discuss indigenous food in the American Jewish community. Most American Jews are White, and there is not much reflection on the way that we still buy into colonial ways of farming, eating, and cooking. I think this lack of investment partly reflects how White American Jews have, unconsciously, bought into the food system as it is.

When I have brought up indigenous cooking to some Jewish friends in the past, kashrut has been brought up as a concern. Yes, kashrut should be an option for those who choose to keep kosher. But I think here kashrut also covers the discomfort of discussing indigenous affairs – and the fact that most American Jews are not indigenous. Kashrut, as my friend Michael has written here before, is only a barrier if you let it be. I think we can cook more with indigenous food, support indigenous food systems – and eat some delicious things in the process. I certainly plan on looking more into Piscataway and Lenape food traditions back home in Maryland.

Now, for the lunch itself. David (my partner) and I chose to eat a mostly vegetarian meal, because those are the dishes that jumped out to us on the menu. We had several shared plates and one each of a small plate. Everything was delicious, and the beans and sweet potatoes ranked among the best things we have ever eaten. If you have the chance to go to Owamni, do so – and keep in mind that you will need to reserve in advance.

Golden drink in glass with ice
This is a maple switchel – a non-alcoholic drink with carbonated water and vinegar.
Blue crisps arranged around a white dip with fish on a plate with pools of purple sauce
Blue corn tostadas with a whitefish and white bean dip and wojape, a traditional Dakhota sauce made out of chokecherries
Red beans covered with green dust and leaves in a bowl
Tepary beans cooked with maple and cedar – one of the best things I have ever eaten
Brown wild rice in a bowl with leaves
Wild rice (manoomin) from Anishinaabe lands, gently flavored
Purple porridge with blueberries, raspberries, and hazelnuts in a bowl
Blue cornmeal mush with native berries and nuts
roasted sweet potato with indigenous chili crisp and scallion on a plate with red oil
Roasted white sweet potatoes with an “indigenous chili crisp” – David was obsessed
Blue tortilla with cooked mushrooms, raw greens and mustard seeds on plate
Taco with a blue corn tortilla, roasted mushrooms, mustard greens and native mustard seeds

Owamni by the Sioux Chef is at 20 1st St S, Minneapolis, MN. It is wheelchair accessible and close to several transit options. Reservations open 60 days in advance.

Sean Sherman, the head chef, also has a cookbook, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Cookbook. I greatly recommend it. The link takes you to Birchbark Books, which is the United States’ only indigenous-owned bookstore. Order from them if you can – and if life takes you to the Twin Cities, the bookstore itself is a real treat.

Cheddar Rosemary Biscuits

Cheese is traditional for Shavuot across Jewish traditions. In honor of the upcoming holiday, I want to share a recipe for a baked good I’ve come to make fairly frequently in recent years. These cheddar rosemary scones are based partly on a traditional British scone, and partly on an Amish biscuit recipe. What I appreciate about this family of recipes is that baking soda and baking powder make for an incredibly fluffy final product – one that is very fluffy. One of my favorite sensory joys, too, is watching the baking soda already act and rise when it hits the buttermilk as you mix the dough for these or a soda bread. If you are sighted, I hope you enjoy this too.

You could grate your own cheddar for this recipe, but I make it with the discount shredded sharp cheddar from the supermarket and it is perhaps even more delicious, given that the machine shredder loses less of the cheese than me on a food processor or box grater. Modernist food for the win.

Fifteen golden-brown biscuits on a baking tray lined with parchment paper
Cheddar rosemary biscuits (photo mine, May 2022)

Cheddar Rosemary Scones

Makes 15-18 biscuits

2 cups white flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 ½ teaspoons baking soda

¾ teaspoon table salt

½ teaspoon ground black pepper

½ teaspoon garlic powder

1 tablespoon dried rosemary

1 cup shredded sharp cheddar (any type of shred is fine)

¼ cup melted butter or vegetable oil (either/or)

1 cup buttermilk

  1. Preheat the oven to 400F/200C. Line one large or two medium cookie sheets with parchment paper.
  2. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, pepper, and garlic powder.
  3. Add the cheese and rosemary and mix in thoroughly.
  4. Add the butter/oil and buttermilk and mix together to form a dough with a spoon.
  5. When combined, use two spoons to scoop clumps of dough about 3in/7.5cm wide and place onto the parchment about 2in/5cm apart. These will not be even – do not worry about that! The variety is part of the appeal, and the soda will help them grow.
  6. Bake for 13 minutes. The biscuits will expand and turn golden.
  7. Remove from the oven and let sit on the cookie sheet for 10 minutes before moving and serving. Store in a sealed container at room temperature or in the fridge for up to five days.

Thank you to Yohannes and Camille Bennehoff, Kenny Turscak, Melanie Marino, Scott Michael Robertson, and two people who boldly asked me for scones at the Midlands in DC for conducting User Acceptance Testing on this iteration of the recipe.

Rosemary Lemonade

Rosemary lemonade sepia picture with sprig of rosemary
(Photo mine, October 2020)

Makes ten servings

Since the news cycle right now is not exactly…slow, I won’t bore you with a long text.

This lemonade was one of my favorite things to drink this summer. You can probably make this lemonade with other herbs; I would like to try it with thyme sometime.

2 sprigs fresh rosemary*

10 cups water

½ cup sugar

Zest of one lemon

Juice of three lemons

Ice

  1. Place the rosemary in 2 cups of water in a shallow pan and bring to a boil.
  2. Add the sugar and stir in until dissolved. Turn off the heat and remove the rosemary.
  3. Pour the syrup over ice in a large pitcher. Add the zest and lemon juice and stir well.
  4. Add the rest of the water to the pitcher. Let sit for one hour before serving.

*Different herbs will probably require different amounts – it should add up to a tablespoon or two for each time.

Food Sharing in a Pandemic

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.

Good Resources

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.)

Today’s guidance on outdoor cookouts (and travel) is good!

Some great highlights: centralize serving, use individually portioned things, and of course, wash your hands.

Tasty Food to Share

Here are some blog recipes that I find are easy to share in outdoor settings and portion well individually.

A Serving Video

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:

  1. Have one person serve the food. Let’s say it’s you.
  2. Wash or sanitize your hands.
  3. Put on your mask. Wash your hands again.
  4. Put on gloves if you wish – it is helpful for reducing anxiety, and for avoiding things other than COVID.
  5. Set out your serving tools – knife, cutting board, etc.
  6. Cut/make a serving and place it on a plate or napkin.
  7. Step 6 feet/2 meters away.
  8. The other person should come and take it.
  9. Step back. Repeat steps 6-8 for each person.
  10. Remove gloves, wash your hands.
  11. Remember to wash your hands between removing your mask and going back to serve any more food. Don’t reuse gloves!

Chocolate Cake Means You Made It (and a Recipe)

Chocolate cake with ice cream on a plate on a green table
Chocolate red wine cake with homemade ice cream. (Photo mine, April 2020)

It’s hard to feel like you have “made it” during a global pandemic and a world-historical crisis. The crushing disappointment of not being able to see one’s loved ones, of goals gone and dreams deferred, and of plans spilled out like milk is truly taxing. And even for me – I have things pretty good, compared to most – it can be rough, with all the uncertainty and being far from my partner and my mother. So I have turned to the familiar comfort of cooking, and to a dessert that is at once very assimilated and very Jewish: chocolate cake. When I eat my cake, I – like many other Jews since the 1880’s – can feel like, for a moment, that I have “made it.”

Text reading "Rebecca Gomez has for sale at the chocolate manufactory no. 14, upper-end Nassau Street between Commissary Butler's and the Brick Meeting, Superfine warranted chocolate, wholesale and retail, white wine Vinegar by the cask or single gallon at 4 s., Spermaceti oil and common Lamp citto, Fig Blue, soap starch etc. etc. Also a few gross Mogul and Andrew playing Cards, at a low rate and by the dozen"
A Jewish merchant woman’s advertisement for chocolate and other goods in 18th-century Rhode Island. (Document found in Library of Congress archive)

Chocolate has a long history in Jewish cooking. Of course, cacao and the chocolate it comes from originated in what is now Mexico, and only reached Europe after the Spanish conquest. Despite the Inquisition, Sephardi Jews were involved in the chocolate trade from almost its beginning in Europe, and well-off Jews in the Netherlands were already making and consuming chocolate in the 17th century, and in Italy and the Americas in the 18th. New developments in cocoa processing and production gave us eating chocolate and cocoa powder for baking in the 19th century; Jewish people in Europe and the Americas were involved in early manufacture of both. By the late 19th century, chocolate was still a luxury good, but widespread across Europe, especially in cities; Jewish merchant families and better-off Jewish communities began to incorporate chocolate into baked goods. As a result, the consumption of chocolate quickly became a status symbol. Incorporating a bit of chocolate, even as a paltry glaze or with store-bought candy was a sign of the times and living large. Contemporary recipe books from the United States, Germany, and Lithuania all contain recipes with chocolate in holiday food sections.

Yiddish-book with food images on cover, reading "Krisko resepies far der idisher baleboste/Crisco recipes for the Jewish housewife"
This Yiddish-language cookbook was distributed by Crisco to sell their products to Jewish communities – and like many others of its time, it included chocolate cake. (Image from Yiddish Book Center/CC)

One way that chocolate became a status symbol was through cake. Home baking became far more common in the 19th century, with new types of ovens coming into homes and a more ready availability of sugar, dairy, and sources of fat. Middle-class families often served – withthe assistance of domestic labor – cake as a way of being “civilized” or showing off their success. Jews were no exception – this was also a time of fervent assimilation into certain norms of decorum and class across Europe and North America. (Reminder: assimilation is not necessarily a bad thing.) The earliest Jewish-authored cookbooks I found in online archives to contain chocolate cake recipes are German-language examples from the 1880’s; English-language examples follow a decade later. By the early 20th century, respectable Jewish housewives on both sides of the Atlantic, Ashkenazi and Sephardi alike, were expected to make – or direct a domestic worker to make – chocolate cakes. In a short time, such cakes became a keyword for luxury and comfort, and began to be served on Sabbath tables and at major events. Since then, different communities have developed different chocolate cakes. Yiddish-speaking bakers in interwar New York often baked certain loaves from Yiddish-language cookbooks, just as well-off Salonican and Cairene Jews educated in French-language schools made decadent cakes in their homes. Italian Jews had chocolate cake recipes, too, for special occasions. By the 1950’s, most Jewish cookbooks contained at least one chocolate cake recipe – and chocolate had found its way into traditional cakes that originally did not have chocolate, like marble cake and sour cream cake. A chocolate cake was not only a food of deliciousness, but a potent symbol of success and plenty for many. I think we all know people for whom that still rings true today.

Chocolate cake on a plate
Chocolate red wine cake cooling (photo mine, April 2020)

This assimilation of delicious cake shows how a food can become Jewish. A food is introduced, then tried because it means something in wider society, and because it looks delicious. (In this case, is delicious.) Other Jewish folks start making it, and soon, the food has a meaning in Jewish communities – even if it is not “authenticper se, or shows off how well assimilated someone is. A few years later – well within the lifetime of an adopter – the food then becomes common across some spectrum of the Jewish world. Chocolate cake shows how creative people can be – and how even ordinary, Gentile foods can be infused with meaning in Jewish communities. You can see a similar process with coffee cakes, lamb stews with chestnuts, and potato salads. Even p’tcha probably started as an imitation of a nobleman’s dish introduced by the Tatars to Central Europe.

Babkas on sale with a Hebrew sticker that says "Chocolate babka, 36 shekels"
Chocolate babkas – another new application of chocolate in the 19th century (Photo Christine Garofalo/CC)

Chocolate cake is a mechayeh – something that gives life – in this time. It is sweet, and tasty, and those are sources of solace enough. But I also think that we can eat it as a sense of worth and achievement: that whatever we are, we are enough, and that we have done a lot – each in our own way. It is also a reminder of the creativity and good taste of our grandparents and great-grandparents in the Jewish world – and that having a community that can find joy in such simple pleasures is having “made it” indeed. You have decades of chocolate cake being used for solace and celebration in the Jewish world to back you up. Stay safe, and eat some cake.


And now, a cake.

I based this recipe on one by Deb Perelman at Smitten Kitchen, but simplified it to not require a mixer – and to add chocolate from chips as well as cocoa powder. I also added some things from a fluffier recipe at TasteMade. The red wine adds a lovely warmth. Going for simplicity, I left it unadorned and cut the sugar slightly. I like these straightforward, comforting cakes as the sign that I made it. Serve it with whatever you want though – I’ve had mine with homemade ice cream, and a simple sour cream glaze would work well too, as would whipped cream or a lovely dusting of powdered sugar. However you eat it, I hope you feel like you have “made it.”

Chocolate Red Wine Cake

Adjusted from recipes by Deb Perelman and Tastemade

Serves 8-10

6 ounces/170g salted butter (about ¾ of a stick)

⅓ cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

⅔ cup white sugar

¾ cup red wine

3 large eggs, room temperature

1 ⅛ cups all-purpose flour

⅓ cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1 ¼ tsp baking powder

¼ tsp ground cinnamon

Oil or butter to grease the pan

  1. Preheat your oven to 325F/165C. Line the bottom of a round 8” or 9”/20-23cm cake pan with parchment paper, then grease with butter or a non-stick spray.
  2. In the microwave or a bain-marie, melt the butter and chocolate chips together. (I use the microwave – cut the butter up, mix with the chocolate chips, and microwave for one minute on high in a microwave-safe bowl, then stir together.)
  3. In a large mixing bowl, whisk the butter and chocolate mixture with the sugar until thoroughly combined.
  4. Add the red wine. Mix in thoroughly, with the whisk.
  5. Add the eggs. Mix in thoroughly, with the whisk.
  6. Sift the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and cinnamon together. (You do not have to do this but it distributes the cocoa powder more evenly.)
  7. Fold the flour mixture into the mixing bowl with the wet ingredients with a wooden spoon or a mixer. You can also whisk them together, but make sure that everything gets incorporated properly.
  8. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and spread evenly.
  9. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Remove from the oven, and then flip onto a cake rack after cooling in the pan for 20 minutes. Let cool for about 30 minutes, at least, before serving. Serve with whipped cream, ice cream, powdered sugar, or on its own.

Thank you to my housemate AJ Faust for conducting User Acceptance Testing on this recipe.

This recipe was updated in March 2021 based on additional experimentation.

Disability and Cooking in the Time of Coronavirus

Stars are footnotes and appear at the end of the post.

A white hand moving over a braille cookbook in a green binder. A bowl with a brown batter and a whisk is in the foreground.
A braille cookbook. (Photo Society for the Blind, January 2017)

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. 

Canned vegetables on a shelf.
Canned vegetables that so many of us are using and storing in this time. (Photo Parenting Patch via Creative Commons)

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. 

A shelf of canned fish
Canned goods that are often essential for many disabled people – and non-disabled people. Leave some mackerel for me! (Photo public domain)

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. 

A narrow brick sidewalk by colorful brick rowhouses with poles and stairs in the way
Narrow sidewalks with steps and blocks (like this example in Frederick, Maryland) can make getting to the grocery store a gargantuan task for disabled people. (Photo mine, February 2020)

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. 

A sign with an Asian elder woman with thumbs up on a street pole, saying "Extra seconds to cross? We made it better together.
Some people need some more time to get to the grocery store. During coronavirus, that can be harder to achieve while social distancing. Ironically, this sign is not accessible – yellow text on white background is actually illegal for government signage. (Photo mine, in Alexandria, VA, March 2020)

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.

Bestworld supermarket with a yellow sign with a sidewalk and crosswalk in front.
An inaccessible (but well-stocked) supermarket in Washington, DC. (Photo mine, September 2019)

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.

A man using a wheelchair opening a drawer under a microwave in front of a fridge.
Some kitchens are accessible. Most, sadly, are not. (Photo Amanda Mills, in public domain, August 2016).

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. 

Colored scoops of different shapes and colors on a wooden board with three bowls behind it, each bowl has a number of circles.
A prototype for an accessible cooking system with color-coded utensils, designed for people with cognitive disabilities. Created by Amanda Savitzky and on display at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum. (Photo mine, February 2018)

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.

Handwashing with soap under running faucet
Don’t forget to wash your hands! (Photo via Pexels/WP)

*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. 

 

Social Distancing Recipe Matrix

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.

Pasta
(Photo CC)

Carbohydrates

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.

canned tomatoes, canned veggies, canned beans, spices, chopped onions and garlic, and elbow macaroni laid out
Social distancing-appropriate ingredients! (Photo mine, December 2019)

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

Vegetables

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.

Bags of frozen vegetables
Frozen vegetables are handy for social distancing. (Photo public domain)

Protein

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.

Spices

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.

Chickpeas with kale in a bowl in a black and white image

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

Potatoes on the counter

Recipe!

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.

Maple Spice Cookies

maple sugar cookies on a plate
(Photo mine, February 2020)

Here is a simple, straightforward cookie recipe. This type of rolled sugar cookie shows up often in American Jewish community cookbooks from the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s. Though such recipes are often dismissed as a sign of “assimilation,” I think they offer a lot of knowledge about exactly how Jewish folks, and mostly the women who were doing most of the cooking, were still trying to maintain community ties and get people to communal events in this new framework. Besides, there is no shame in enjoying a cookie.

I did not see a cookie of this specific flavor in the books, but I have made a variant of these a few times in the past months, and was quite happy with the result. You can make a dairy-free/pareve version by using oil and one small egg instead of the milk, or use a plant-based milk and oil for a vegan cookie.

Maple Spice Cookies

Based on recipes by Garrett McCord, Craig Gund, and Sally McKenney

Makes 24-30 cookies

1 stick (4oz/115g) salted butter, softened

½ cup (3.5oz/100g) granulated cane sugar + 2-3 tbsp for rolling

⅔ cup maple syrup

1 tsp vanilla extract

2 tbsp whole milk

2 cups (8.5oz/240g) white flour

2 tsp baking powder

2 tsp ground cinnamon

½ tsp ground nutmeg

½ tsp ground ginger

½ tsp ground allspice

½ tsp ground cloves

  1. Preheat your oven to 350F/175C. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.
  2. Cream together the butter and sugar in a large bowl until combined. You can use a pastry knife or an electric hand mixer. Here is a guide for how you can do that with a wooden spoon if you have neither.
  3. Add the maple syrup, vanilla extract, and whole milk, and mix until combined.
  4. In a separate bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, and spices together.
  5. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and work together with the pastry knife, spoon, or hand mixer until combined. You should have a sticky but pliant dough.
  6. Pour the 2-3 tbsp of sugar for rolling onto a plate and spread it evenly.
  7. Take a piece of dough and roll it into a 1 inch/2.5cm ball. Then, roll it briefly in the sugar until covered. Place it on the parchment paper. Repeat until you use the dough – spread the dough balls about 2 inches/5 cm apart.
  8. Use a fork to lightly “squash” each of the balls.
  9. Bake for 10-13 minutes in the oven, or until the cookies are brown but not burned on the bottom, and the cookies are solid but still soft.
  10. Remove from the heat and let cool for 15-20 minutes before serving. Store any remaining cookies in an airtight container or bag for up to four days.

Thank you to my classmates, colleagues, housemates, and boyfriend for trying several iterations of this recipe.

 

Shabbat Brownies

As a busy graduate student, I have largely been sticking to these simpler recipes during my semesters. Sometimes, these are very obviously Jewish, but this time, I am providing a brownie recipe. I call these Shabbat brownies, because they taste great a day or two later – making them suited for baking for a Shabbat lunch! Make them on Thursday night or Friday afternoon for a tasty end to the meal. (Have one or three as a snack in the meantime.)

While the origin of brownies was likely in church communities in central Maine, they became quite popular among American Jews – just like everyone else in North America. There is a certain type of very fudgy brownie that seems to be popular among synagogues across North America. While they are good, I tend to prefer a cakey brownie – one that relies heavily on eggs.

brownie on parchment paper with brownies behind
This stock photo’s brownies look oddly similar to mine, if a tad denser. The photographer is more talented than I, hence… (Photo Pixabay/CC)

Hence this recipe. I used to have a different recipe, but here is my updated version. Thank you to my boyfriend, housemates, colleagues, and classmates for testing the various iterations.

Shabbat Brownies

Makes 24 brownies

2 sticks (1 cup) butter + more for greasing

1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

1 cup granulated white sugar

½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder

½ cup whole milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

6 large eggs, room temperature

1 ½ cups sifted white flour

1 ½ teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

  1. Preheat the oven to 350F/175C.
  2. Grease a 9”x13”/23cmx33cm (or similarly sized pan) with butter. Line the pan with parchment paper, then grease the parchment paper again with butter.
  3. Melt the butter and chocolate chips together until smooth. You could do this in a bain-marie, but I just do it in the microwave: put the chips in a deep, microwave safe bowl, add the butter in chunks, microwave on high for a minute, then stir together. Put the melted chocolate-butter mixture in a large mixing bowl.
  4. Add the sugar and cocoa powder and whisk together until thoroughly combined.
  5. Add the milk and vanilla extract, and whisk together until thoroughly combined.
  6. Crack the eggs into the bowl, and then whisk together until thoroughly combined and the mixture is smooth.
  7. Add the flour, baking powder, and sugar. Whisk together until the batter is thoroughly combined and is a smooth, thick consistency. Make sure all the flour is thoroughly mixed in!
  8. Pour the batter into the pan. Bake for 30-45 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean or with only a few crumbs. Let cool before cutting.
  9. Store in an airtight container for up to four days.