Foraging for food in a time of Covid-19
In some ways, Covid-19 is making us lead increasingly primal, primitive lives, not unlike our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Much of my time these days is occupied by a search for food.
What's new, right? It can be argued that I've been preoccupied with either the consumption of the acquisition of food for as long as I've been a sentient being and many memories of my Soviet childhood are coloured with flavours and smells.
The pungent reek of pickled garlic that Masha and I dared each other to shoplift from the co-op store and then gobbled up on the way home; the smell gave us away and each of us blamed the other when questioned by parents.
The mysterious tins of mango juice from Cuba and the resulting sticky sweetness over my face and hands because my parents actually bought one. These tins appeared just the once in Gastronom, the main 'supermarket' in my hometown of Chernogolovka, never to be seen again.
The nauseating smell of boiling chicken from the 'Bush legs' that the United States sent the USSR; my mother, a strict vegetarian, wasn't an amazing cook when it came to meat, and I still have a hard time tolerating chicken.
Hiding some cabbage pie in my pocket after being given some at a friend's house because I was so nauseated by the smell and taste.
Standing in the queue at the fruit and vegetable shop the one time they delivered bananas to my home town; normally Moscow would've been the only place to obtain such delicacies.
My mother buying me a rye cookie from a bread kiosk in Moscow; a rare treat.
My mother buying me some churchkhella (Georgian sweets made of grape juice, solidified with starch, hung on a string and filled with nuts) the one time I accompanied her to the market in Moscow.
Methodically picking apart Hungarian tinned beans. One winter there was a random shipment of beans and since you never knew when the next one was coming, you bought as much as you could, so my mother and I took my sleight and brought home over 30 tins of beans that we ate all winter.
Methodically picking apart oranges and pomegranates and eating them slowly, segment by tiny segment. We only had them in wintertime.
Secreting away a cold frankfurter and then eating it slowly under the covers while engrossed in a book. That was forbidden, of course.
Helping my mother take the bottles to the 'milk kitchen'. Milk was rationed and you had to go to a specific place to pick up your family's share, returning the glass bottles. Cup of steaming, unpasteurised milk straight from a cow in a village next to my town.
The smell of freshly baked bread from the bakery, which was the one place where you could reliably get food, whereas the pickings at the fruit and veg store, Gastronom and the co-op were often slim, the shelves mostly empty, or else with things we never had at home - pickled tomatoes, turnips, dried fish.
Helping my mother in the kitchen and using a meat mallet to beat some inferior cut of meat into submission so that she could fry it up for my father.
Eating an Eskimo ice cream outside in winter, in -20 degree cold, because my friend treated me and I wasn't allowed sugar at home.
As I grew older, my palate became more diverse, as I gravitated towards more exotic, bolder flavours and cuisines. Sushi in New York for the first time, aged 17. Hearty, complex Cajun gumbos in New Orleans, aged 18. Melt-off-the-bone oxtail and curry goat, courtesy of the Caribbean Riddims society at university; learning to love the chilli-induced pain of authentic som tum (spicy papaya salad) in Thailand and eating sumptuous banquets of giant mantis prawns and whole cooked fish, aged 19. Being taught to eat Sri Lankan curry with my right hand in Kandy, while staying with the grandmother of one of my closest friends, and very conscious of the textures of the food between my fingertips. Splattered head-to-foot in chilli sauce while consuming my first ever chilli crab in Papua New Guinea, and finding bits of shell in my hair later. Being taught the correct way to consume nem nuong by friends in Vietnam. Being covered in salty grease after tearing chunks of Patagonian grilled lamb with my bare hands at a raucous barbecue.
I love food. Not just the flavours, and tasting something for the first time, but the rituals of eating, the skill shown by chefs in putting a complex dish together from its most basic components, and, of course, the social aspect of meals - enjoying it all in the company of like-minded, 'fungry' (fun when hungry) people.
As a friend of mine has pointed out, Covid-19 is robbing us of much of the joy associated with food, even though many restaurants are adapting and offering a delivery service. The joyful, social aspect is missing, and in an ironic yet entirely appropriate twist, the virus temporarily robs many infected sufferers of their sense of taste and smell. (Believe it or not, I sort of know what that's like; when we emigrated to the UK, I spent one summer day methodically eating my way through an entire rhubarb patch I found at the bottom of our garden, and couldn't taste salt for a week afterwards). And in the UK, Covid-19 is robbing vulnerable people of the means to acquire food without exposing themselves.
The people I'm desperately trying to acquire food for are my parents. It's ironic that it's far, far easier for me to get food delivered to my doorstep in a relatively remote Spanish village than for my parents to arrange for home delivery in busy university town. Yesterday, for the first time ever, I placed a food order with Coviran, the little supermarket a 5-minute walk away, feeling a bit silly, because I'm not some 85-year-old with emphysema, but wanting to play it safe nonetheless because of my dodgy lungs. I called a lovely British woman called Gemma; she took my food order over the phone, and her husband dropped off my box of food several hours later.
By contrast, my parents have had no luck with arranging home delivery so far because the main supermarket chains in the UK are overwhelmed with demand, my parents aren't hugely tech-savvy and trying to get through to Waitrose or Sainsbury's on the phone is currently a fool's errand. Yes, all businesses are adjusting and supermarkets will undoubtedly pivot towards more deliveries, but it'll take time, and at the moment, pleas by supermarket CEOs to leave online delivery slots for the elderly and vulnerable are falling on deaf ears. Things are settling down a bit; my mother tells me that at their local Waitrose, this week they've had toilet paper and olive oil; they're letting in only 50 shoppers at a time (with social distancing observed in the queue), and most shoppers respect 'silver hour' - the first hour of the day set aside for the elderly and vulnerable, though my mother spoke disapprovingly of a few young men who shopped at the same time, not looking anyone in the eye.
My mother and I look a lot alike, but we are polar opposites. She's an ascetic who actively enjoys denying herself. She's had a deep and abiding interest in Eastern mythology since the age of 20; she fasted many times in her 20s just for the heck of it; she's a strict vegetarian who's given up meat and fish for good at the age of 21, having read Gandhi's autobiography and having come to the conclusion that other living creatures needn't die so that she may live. And she stuck with it, even though in the Soviet Union vegetarianism was practically unheard of in the 60s, and people thought she was weird. I respect that and do understand where she's coming from, whereas my mother finds me and my abiding passion for food very puzzling and has asked herself many times how she's ended up with a foodie bon vivant for a firstborn.
My mother has very little interest in food. While I view eating as one of the greatest pleasures of the flesh, she views it as necessary nourishment, and I sometimes think that if she could take some daily pill instead and get all her nutrients that way, she would. She's quite content to eat the same ol' buckwheat and quinoa and oats and vegetables every day, and genuinely doesn't like sugar, salt or fat (or ice cream). The few times I've seen her show excitement over food is when my sister and I have taken her out for a Georgian meal, or when I've brought some fresh cherries to my parents' house. Otherwise, my parents don't eat out, and while my father enjoys a glass of wine or sherry, my mother's sole experience with alcohol was in her 20s, when (my sister and I think) she had some bad wine, got a hangover and became convinced that she's allergic to alcohol. If my mother could place herself into a state of suspended animation for the duration of the pandemic, she would. But even ascetics need to eat.
I'm trying to impress upon my parents that this crisis requires some flexibility, and am coming to appreciate that convincing two 70-somethings, set in their ways, to alter their normal routine, is akin to wrangling a herd of cats. For me, adjusting my eating habits, going shopping far less frequently and maybe eating things I wouldn't normally eat isn't a big stretch, but trying to convince my mother to accept the help of a friend of mine who's offered to go shopping for them, or to eat products from a brand that's not her usual, is surprisingly difficult, given that my parents have lived through some genuine privations in the USSR.
I still look at the world through the hungry eyes of a Soviet kid, and very much enjoy seeing an abundance of food, whether at markets around the world, heaving with colourful bounty, or at home. I don't stockpile, but usually have enough food around for at least a couple of weeks, and an empty fridge fills me with a gnawing anxiety. You'd think that all people raised in a country where food was often difficult to come by would keep their fridges and cupboards full. But no. My mother makes Marie Kondo look like a messy slattern. Food is purchased strictly for a week, and even though I was last in my parents' house a month ago, I can tell you exactly what you'll find in their fridge: milk, a large jar of homemade sauerkraut, a smattering of vegetables - broccoli, cauliflower, courgettes, carrots. Some oranges. That's about it.
But then, if I think about it, even when we lived in the USSR, my parents very rarely ordered a zakaz so as not to clutter up the flat with things we didn't need. My father could place an order for a monthly food package through his workplace, and my friends and I would go and watch the lorry unload its contents in the basement space beneath the conference centre/accommodation for visiting scientists, but more often than not, I would be disappointed, because there'd be nothing for me. Because the contents of the order would be a 'surprise'; along with such delicacies as salami and Lithuanian cheese (the good kind, with holes, and not the 'Cheddar' that you could build walls with) they'd throw in a couple of tins of tushenka (stewed pork) and it never occurred to my mother to trade it with another family for something we did eat.
It's a strange sort of role reversal, trying to navigate this strange, changing new world of food acquisition on behalf of my parents. During my childhood, they periodically made trips to Moscow (where you could reliably buy food), taking the hour-long bus ride to the capital with the giant homemade orange rucksack, and returning with provisions. Sometimes my aunt or grandmother would bring treats when they visited - some pelmeni (dumplings), frankfurters, liver - things you couldn't easily get. Or people would hear from their friends that a shipment of something had arrived at some random location, and you'd rush there and buy enough for yourself and for everyone you knew. It's a bit like that in the UK now, only with the bonus of internet access. One of my closest friends has shared her stash of toilet paper with her in-laws. I'm hitting up foodie friends for information, trying to establish whether there are some wholesale fruit and veg traders in Cambridge that do home delivery. Not unlike Soviet Russia; London seems better supplied than its satellites. AmazonFresh doesn't cover Cambridge and trying to get fruit and veg box delivery for my parents from some farm shop, I was told that their next delivery to new customers will be in July. Never mind.
After a few dead end leads, I seem to be on the right track. After many hours of internet searches, placing my parents on virtual waiting lists and calling to ask "Do you currently deliver to new customers? No? When are you likely to deliver?" I've found a fruit and veg wholesaler that allegedly delivers, a Co-op supermarket with a very limited selection but available delivery slots and a health food shop that can deliver quinoa and wholewheat pasta once a week. (#FirstWorldProblems, I know, I know). Now for the difficult part: persuading my parents to adapt.