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!

How Are Cooking Habits Changing?

I have spent a lot of time thinking about food during this time. Some of it is because, well, I am always thinking about food. Some of it is because dreaming about food helps me deal with the wildness of the outside world – as I told Ruby Tandoh for a piece in Food52. And some of it is because, well, there is a lot to say. I’ve been keeping what has become a fairly lengthy personal diary themed around food and food systems since the onset of the pandemic, with tons of materials and recipes and thoughts. I am also working on a piece about food sharing in socially distant ways (with video!). Beyond that, though, I have been noting observations I have made – both in my professional work in local government and urban planning, as well as the cooking habits I see in my away-from-the-desk life.

A shelf of canned fish
(Photo public domain)

A lot more people are cooking, for sure – even as various places “reopen”. Many of these people were far more reliant on restaurants, takeout, and prepared foods before the pandemic; which, though not always leading to restaurants’ closure, certainly made a takeout-centric lifestyle a lot more difficult.  So folks turned to the kitchen, and new trends blossomed: sourdoughs, jam-making, homemade pastas, and complex dishes. Others cooked because they were bored; still others cooked their grief away. And even consummate cooks like me, now with more time to cook complicated things we saved for chagim and birthdays, branched out in new directions. (I mastered khachapuri.) For those new to cooking, the sudden imposition of more time, and time at home, provided an opportunity to actually learn some new skills. Some liked the cooking, some did not. But two months in, a lot of new habits might be sticking. That is curious to me, though I’m always happy when more people find joy, solace, or simply something in cooking.

Of course, the consequences from this change are not always positive. For the millions of people who rely on kitchen work, serving, and other food work to pay their bills, the shift to cooking at home can be catastrophic – no matter how virtuous the intent. Then, of course, there is the question of who is doing the cooking at home. Women are still doing far more chores than men in shared households, and that extends to cooking. Increase cooking time without addressing patriarchy, and that’s increasing women’s work. (Cooking is hard!) Then, of course, we should also remember that food safety problems can come from improperly made home-cooked food – not ideal in the time of a pandemic. One is not, actually, necessarily staying safe at home. That said, some people are now cooking more, or cooking differently.

Some of these changes will “stick” for a while. People may cook at home because going out makes them anxious. People may cook at home because that is what they are used to now. People may cook at home because they feel pressure to do so from peers or social media. People may cook at home because that is what they can afford. People may cook at home because they like it. Perhaps it is all of these things. And for those of us in Jewish communities, cooking at home may also happen because all the other wonderful parts of semachot – happy occasions – are so much harder in a physically distant world.

Soup with squash, beans, and noodles garnished with sour cream in a bowl

But I have been wondering about what these things mean long-term. One is that I think we will see some of a shift in what kind of cooking is celebrated in social media and popular discourse. The 2010s saw a lot of cooking as a showpiece: the cookies, the stews, the perfect open-faced sandwiches. (Too often without honoring marginalized creators and contributors.) But when people have spent much of a formative moment in their lifetimes cooking for themselves and those in their households, or closest circles, showpieces begin to mean much less. I think, across cultures, that we might see more “home-style” cooking – as loaded and historically complex as this idea is – in which the process and the comfort take a much more central stage. Sure, you will have centerpieces, but cooking now sits in a very different place in many people’s brains.

Cooking is work! And I sense that there is greater appreciation for that now. When you have to cook, for work, or for a family, or for yourself, you start to learn shortcuts and tricks because you know that you do not have the time, energy, or space for the “real thing” – as bullshit as that concept is anyway. A lot of new cooks are coming in, and I think they are coming in with a perspective that is not about cooking something that shows status or looks good – though that is always part of food. Rather, it’s about trying to eat and enjoy it – and the process – even as the world seems to fall apart, and even when the energy to cook isn’t fully or really there.

Perhaps we will shift to a food culture that is less precious – and hopefully, less racist. A lot of this picture-perfect food culture is built on a narrative and process that steals from the work of people of color, and masks the risks and labor of cooks of color across the food industry. I hope that these changes lead some white folks to have greater empathy – and pay more attention to whose food stories are told, and who gets the money from them. I also hope that cooking habits lead people to glorify aspirational cooking a little less, and the fact that food should be for everybody a little bit more. I also hope that, now that some have experienced cooking labor for the first time, that there is more weight and advocacy for the millions of kitchen workers that feed America – few of whom have the luxury to eat the way white pundits tell them to.

But who knows if these hopes will come true? Like the virus, food habits are often unpredictable.

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.