Archive for coronavirus

Kicking the Pandemic Bucket

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

This is not a post about death.

It is about the phenomenon of Pandemic Bucket Lists.

In the Before Times, my family and I commuted to work and spent long hours on errands and other activities outside our house. When our state locked down in April, I was among many who vowed to do things differently: to think positively, in the face of fear, and use the empty hours as a commitment to fulfilling dreams.

I heard a lot about pandemic bucket lists, and they seemed to fall into two varieties: one for wonderful activities to look forward to after the pandemic’s end, and the other for things to accomplish while living in solitude.

The bucket lists are a way to make sense of the insane; to order unpredictability. I can understand why some might think of them as a trivial trend. But I am a list maker and a resolution lover. I already had buckets at the ready.

The first imaginary bucket I have is shiny clean, because it is the bucket for Wishful Thinking.

Peering in, I don’t see much. I’m happy with the work I do, so I don’t want to reinvent that, or the place that I live. I do spy imaginary reservations for planes and trains and beautiful inns around the world. The first trips on this bucket list will be only see a few mundane activities of my past, and a few imagined activities for the future. I see travel: plane, train and car. I’ll get to Minnesota and Louisiana, to see my family and in-laws. I’ll also drive to Asheville, North Carolina and Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. I will reappear looking different, with salt and pepper hair. I am using the pandemic let artifice fade and reality rise.

Another activity is feeding local friends inside my home and going around the country to see far-flung mystery readers and writers at conventions. Finally, the bottom of my wishful thinking bucket is filled with water. It represents the warm-water pool where I used to exercise four times a week and where I hope to someday be jumping and kicking and splashing again.

The second bucket—Pandemic Action Bucket—is gritty because it’s in use.

Gardening was one of the first things I got going on during pandemic spring, and as every gardener knows, the goals never stop. Besides my weed knife, the bucket holds plenty of books, especially those that are newly released by authors who I can read and watch on zoom. I’m also enjoying my children’s book collection, which felt too indulgent before, but is just right now.

And speaking of writing, I aim to finish my next book before pandemic’s end.

In the Before Times, there were social justice issues I cared about but didn’t have time to show up for. Now I am showing up, again and again, for Black Lives Matter, for the sake of the Post Office, and to support voting. In the end, each action takes only an hour or two; and the feeling of raising my voice for what I believe in gives me such an energy boost.

Back to the bucket of to-dos. I still haven’t decluttered my home to the point of looking as serene as an AirBnB. Yet I’ve reorganized my fridge and freezer and pantry every few months. Each venture teaches me how much food I actually have, and gets stuff out of storage and onto the table. I’ve mentioned my garden in previous blogs, and in the waning light of autumn, it is full-blown and exuberant. While I weed, I get to chat with my friends and neighbors and see the adorable young generation learn to ride bikes in the nearby lane.

Enjoying outdoor socialization, I felt inspired to buy two small tables for the side porch. Once the tables were set up, I arranged for the installation of ceiling fans. And the porch’s paint job was chipping, so it needed repainting. But wouldn’t it look weird for the rest of the house to stay dingy? That meant new shingles. And a fresh coat of stain.

As I write this, ten men are literally climbing the walls of our house, sanding off flaking paint, staining cedar shakes, and transforming tired beige trim to Windsor Green. After about a week’s work, they’ve still got a ways to go, but without a doubt, they’ll finish before the pandemic does.

“Thank you for the work,” a man nailing shingles to the house said to me when I praised his work. One of the painters said the same thing to me today. It made me realize that the things I think about doing to help myself feel calm have the potential to do the same for others.

And in such an uncertain time, this realization makes me happy.

Chocolate, Sourdough, and Other Blessings

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

MFK Fisher in France

MFK Fisher in France

A few weeks into the pandemic, a big bang broke this stillness of a stay-at-home Saturday afternoon.

An electric fuse had blown, which meant the third floor had no lights, and the wi-fi was down as well.

When I say a fuse was blown, I don’t mean a modern one made of steel that’s neatly labeled. We have those fuses in the basement. The fuse that blew was antique, the kind of curiosity no contemporary electrician would have on hand.

Our mercurial fuses

My husband called around to a couple of historic neighborhood hardware shops. The second store, Falkenhan’s Hardware, still had such early 20th century fuses in stock. Tony got six of them for ten dollars, and an hour later, he screwed in the new fuse while I kept my fingers crossed. Once again lights shone, fans whirred, and a wi-fi signal allowed us to keep going with our work.

The famous King Arthur pizza!

We are now solving problems with our own hands. In my neighborhood, several homeowners are up on their roofs, replacing shingles and painting the porch trim. And we are gardening like gangbusters. Seed companies and nurseries have an estimated 300-plus percentage rise in business. The green proof is visible in raised beds, garden boxes, and potted plants growing everywhere you look. 2020 is the best year for gardening, ever.

My garden box with lettuces

And while I don’t peer through people’s windows, I suspect many more people are cooking, some for the first time in their lives. Fortunately, newspaper websites abound with cheerful instruction, as do websites like Kitchn, Food52, and Bon Appetit, and King Arthur. Six times already I’ve baked King Arthur Flour’s Recipe of 2020, a deep dish cheese pizza that involves making pizza dough yourself and setting it up for a no-fail rise by using a cast iron frying pan. King Arthur is also the go-to spot for fledgling sourdough bakers, and those who use sourdough discards to thriftily make more food, like the sourdough-chocolate cake below.

A sourdough chocolate cake!

I leave no stone unturned, when it comes to culinary thrift. Before I got my garden box going, I harvested dandelion leaves and wild onion from my garden. I freeze vegetable scraps, chicken bones, and shrimp shells to make different stocks. In fact, I’ve become such an old-fashioned homemaker that I’m freezing cut-off pieces of fat to melt down into lard.

I can stay out of the stores because I’ve found local farmers who sell to customers directly—not just at farmers’ markets, but by porch delivery, the US mail, or curbside pickup. And within the city, at least four restaurants I know are not just offering takeout, but regular  ingredients to home cooks.

Here in Baltimore, curbside pickup from my local restaurant, La Cuchara, means signing up online a day ahead for what they can order in for us from their farmers and food distributors.  On the luxurious side, these curbside pickups have included fresh Chesapeake Bay oysters and diver scallops and rockfish. More goodies have been local strawberries and turnips, garlic ramps, and morels, oyster and porcini mushrooms: all priced at, or slightly below, regular grocery prices. I’ve adjusted to buying what the farmers and restaurants can provide—blocks of butter rather than sticks, and takeout containers of olive oil and canola that I funnel into clean, recycled bottles at home.

Local kohlrabi and sugar snap peas

I wonder how long restaurants will keep going with the marketplace model. The truth of it is, I’d rather swing by a restaurant and open my trunk than enter the maelstrom of a grocery store, where I cannot count on all patrons being masked.

I also experiment with foods that arrives weekly in a Community-Supported-Agriculture (CSA) bag: things like kohlrabi, tatsoi, and many kinds of lettuce. The CSA movement across the United States was started by small farmers who want to sell their harvest to customers who’ve committed at the season’s beginning to paying them for four to six months’ worth of vegetables, fruits, and other products.

And what if the CSA throws more collards and kale into the bag than the Masseys can handle? It’s easy to drop off extra greens or asparagus or lettuce to someone who needs it. Food is so precious now. One of the stories I like best is that of Michelle Brenner, a furloughed worker in Washington. During this pandemic, she got a new name: The Lasagna Lady, after baking and donating more than 1200 large pans of lasagna.

My mother was born in Germany during the war years. As long as I’ve known her, she has carried a small bar of good chocolate in her purse and kept an ever-changing assortment of chocolate bars and boxes in the house. All this chocolate—even though I rarely have seen her eat more than one square. The chocolate is for giving to others. She says having it in her bag is a legacy of growing up as a child of war. With the pandemic, I’m starting to understand this better. While chocolate’s sugar is an energy and mood boost—instant food that keeps well—it’s much more. Emotionally, holding onto something like chocolate is a reminder that we are safe, and we still have treats to enjoy.

World War II food reminds me of the legendary Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher. Best known as MFK Fisher, Mary Frances was born in 1908 and became a legendary cook and writer during a time that gourmet food was a man’s business.

My first taste of her writing was The Gastronomical Me, witty and wonderful essays about her life as a young bride discovering 1930s France through its food. Her adventures made me eager to start my own writing life overseas. And with the help of my husband, that wonderful amateur electrician, all that did come to pass in Japan in the early 1990s.

One of Mrs. Fisher’s greatest works was written and published during World War II. It’s a book of essays and recipes called How To Cook a Wolf. The grim title is a play on words referring to finishing off fear, and also satisfying one’s appetite when there’s little available to eat. Although my assumptions could be wrong; it has a graphic chapter on cooking small animals such as “hare” and pigeons.

Mrs. Fisher believed that while the war was terrible, it also shook people into the right frame of mind. Here’s a bit that amused me, especially because of the COVID-19 sourdough boom.

“Lastly, perhaps because of the very propaganda that seems so contradictory, it has been easier to buy food with a little taste to it, once you have conquered your distrust of the thick neat slices and the transparent wrappings. You have even been able to get sourdough bread once a week in some groceries: a frail wisp of the old nose-tickling loaf, but at least an effort in the right direction . . . Sometimes, when you go past a factory in the “foreign” section of a town, and smell the honest exciting smell of real bread baking, you remember a part of your childhood, and feel a child’s helplessness before the fact of a whole nation’s cautious acceptance of its own simplicity.”

Respite

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

People around the world are saying, when?

Over eight weeks ago, business as usual stopped for most of us. Not just working: but shopping, learning, socializing, being out in society. Some are saying enough already! and demanding that their states’ governors reopen all non-essential businesses and get children back to school.

Many of the open-up crowd don’t have money to support staying at home without working.   Unfortunately, my country’s government is quicker to aid large businesses who might suffer economic losses than the poor and the middle class.

In Baltimore, COVID-19 hospitalizations and diagnoses are rising. We do not look anything like the downward slope of the national graph. We aren’t yet opening up houses of worship, playgrounds, barbershops and tattoo parlors, as our governor has said is safe for the state of Maryland.

I agree with the decision of Baltimore’s mayor. I don’t want exponential spread of illnesses. I have friends battling the illness and neighbors who risk their lives to work in hospitals and pharmacies.

I know that I’m privileged to stay at home. I’m not a front line worker. I have access to food throughout this crisis, and live in a neighborhood where I can peacefully garden and walk outside.

When I long for openness, I take my little dog on a walk alongside a stream called Stony Run. It’s a tributary to the Jones Falls in Baltimore, a powerful waterway that once supported mills in 19th century Baltimore. The wooded walking trail is about three miles long.

The Stony Run was here long before the pandemic. It rushed along when Indians lived along its banks, and when slaves secretly traveled north to freedom. It played its water music through the Civil War, the Influenza Epidemic of 1918, and World War II and Viet Nam.

Due to the labors of environmentalists and neighbors, this creek is at its healthiest these days. It is a haven for so many forms of life, from tiny crawfish and worms to chipmunks, mice, birds, and wildflowers. And as I stroll, the Stony Run seems to whisper that normal really does lie ahead.

My Quarantine Smells Like Jasmine Rice

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Scents that jolt our memories are important because we rarely smell them anymore.

Think about that for a moment.

I can still summon the soothing aroma of the Nivea lotion I used during my sixteenth summer. And the piquantly fruity smell of Haribo Gummi Bears, my favorite snack at summer camp. If I smell boiled cabbage, I step back into the hallway of my late grandmother’s home in Germany. And it’s only in India that I can inhale a particular mix of diesel, wood and spices.

I am staying home, probably for a month or two, and I wonder whether there will be a scent from these days that will become a permanent reminder in my olfactory brain.

It is hard to identify the everyday smell of your own home, although anyone who visits you probably has noticed it. I can only smell a change in my environment, and these days, that is the smell of freshly cooked jasmine rice.

Before the quarantine, my go-to rice was basmati, a long-grain rice that originates in South Asia. I buy a 20-pound bag imported from India every 9 months or so from Sam’s Club. The rice supply inside my home bag was running low this winter, and I was too busy to replace the bag before I realized I really needed more.

When the virus began to spread in Baltimore, I had no desire to rush to a warehouse store to look for Royal Basmati Rice along with thousands of other panicking people. Instead, I hurried through jammed neighborhood supermarkets and a gourmet grocery stores. It was Friday the 13th, and the stores were out of lots of staples, including basmati, arborio, and long grain rice. All that was left on the shelves were small bags of sushi rice, and jasmine rice. Jasmine is a medium-length grain that is slightly moister than basmati, but still has enough of a presence that it plays well with Indian curries, and many other dishes.

Jasmine rice is grown in Thailand, Cambodia and Viet Nam, and probably would not be as delicious if people tried to grow it elsewhere. I love this rice varietal’s sizable grain that, when it’s steaming, fills the air with a sweet, almost jubilant aroma. Some say it smells like a combination of a fruit called pandan… and popcorn. Interestingly, jasmine rice doesn’t have a biological relation to the Asian flower, although the jasmine flower’s tiny white blossoms are used often for religious ceremonies also has a powerful smell.

In The Sleeping Dictionary, I wrote about the rice troubles of 1943, when the rice farmed in rural Bengal was shipped out to the troops in such great quantities, that there was not enough left for Indians. About 3 million Indians, mostly Bengalis, died of starvation in the Rice Famine. The wealthy in India hoarded rice in 1943 just as people are hoarding hand sanitizer and toilet paper today. And when the poor flooded Calcutta, begging for food, aid workers had to feed them rice cooking water, because rice itself was too much for their abused stomachs to manage.

Rice is once again a war-time food; a very thrifty, filling and versatile way to keep feeding a family that cannot go shopping. Potatoes go green, bread gets hard and sometimes moldy, but rice perseveres.

People are sometimes afraid to cook rice, but it’s truly very easy.

I’ve cooked jasmine rice straight out of the bag, throwing it unranked in the rice cooker with the prescribed amount of water. You get the best result if you rinse it really well, though, with a few changes of water, before starting to cook the drained, slightly softened rice with a quarter teaspoon of salt, or to taste.

If you don’t have a rice cooker or InstantPot, it’s a cinch (and faster) to add one cup of rice to a hot saucepan on the stove with a little oil on the bottom. Stir for a half minute and pour in one and a half cups of water and the aforementioned salt. When it comes to a boil, put a lid on and change the heat to low-medium. Check in ten minutes or so, and if the water is almost gone, turn off the burner and let the steaming finish. Add a half-cup more water if you want your rice really sticky! If you double the amount of dry rice to two cups, use three cups of water.

I think the sticky/starchy characteristic helps jasmine rice hold its own nicely in the refrigerator for up to a half week—when basmati really gets nasty after more than two days.

I am striving not to throw away uneaten food during this quarantine period, but to repurpose it and eat it swiftly, so I am very happy I wound up with a big bag of jasmine rice. I use my refrigerated leftover rice. I also use it with other ingredients in fried rice and biryani. I could do a rice pudding, or a casserole as well. Rice of any sort freezes well and can be reheated from frozen in a hot pan or the microwave.

I have about eight pounds of jasmine rice, having cooked it about four times so far during the isolation period. I hope it holds out for however long I’m here. The memory of Asia wafting from the rice cooker reminds me of so many happy restaurant meals and far-flung travels. Right now, rice promises me that the world will go on.

Hands Together, With Hope

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Okay, I realize there have already been a few MIE posts about this.

But when Donald Trump posted a meme of himself fiddling while Rome burns, I could not refrain from comment.

Not only were Trump’s words and image in bad taste, but his comment appeared to mocking the efforts by individual state governors and public health workers to protect their citizens from the coronavirus (since there is no serious federal response from the US government).

Fortunately, scientists  are sharing wisdom about a technique called social distancing. May I expound?

The strategy of social distancing is that with some behavior changes, we will undoubtedly slow the epidemic and save thousands of lives. What is social distancing, you ask?

This doesn’t mean snubbing your neighbor at the potluck or ignoring text messages. It doesn’t mean staying in your house alone. It does involve avoiding large group gatherings like conventions or rallies. These are spots where you could encounter virus droplets which you then might pass to others. The reality of social distancing is quite hard, if you’ve booked a space and contracted vendors. Less than a week before is onset, the organizers of  the Tucson Book Festival cancelled their event, which draws thousands, for the public good. It’s also the reason that colleges are doing by telling their students who are going off on spring break to self quarantine for two weeks before returning to the classroom. The kids might think it’s an endless party, but it gives a bit of space to letting them get through their potential illnesses and/or contamination potential.

In my daily life, the first directive of social distancing is to stop shaking hands and hugging.

This got me thinking about the basics of superficial human touch—touch toward colleges, strangers and friends that is considered standard etiquette to initiate or receive.

When I lived in Japan, handshaking was only done at the insistence of zealous foreigners. Bowing was so much easier; self contained and respectful. It’s also the preferred greeting in Korea, but not in China, where people nod, applaud, or more recently, shake hands.

South Asians also offer hospitality without touching. Adaab, meaning “respect,” is a secular verbal salutation between Hindus and Muslims that includes raising one’s right hand towards one’s own face with the palm inward, and a slight bow. The movement is elegant and humble.

Buddhists and Hindus share an iconic gesture called the Anjali Mudra with hands pressed together before the chest. You can raise the hands slightly toward the face to show extra respect. Hindus might add the utterance, “Namaste,” which means “I salute you” and can mean both hello and goodbye. In the west, folded hands looks like a prayer. That’s OK. We need all the prayers we can get.

While recently in India, I found myself making the Anjali Mudra toward people I was meeting, especially elders. Before, I’d felt this movement was too foreign for the United States, but my feelings are changing.  I yearn to offer people a sign that I am greeting them with affection, without abandoning my commitment to social distancing.

Last Sunday I walked to our Quaker Meeting—to the early worship hour, which I knew would have less than 20 worshippers. I pushed open the heavy wooden door to the building and was greeted with the Anjali Mudra by one of the ushers, a young man who is of European-American descent. I was stunned—but recalled that I’d received this greeting from another American too, within the last few months. And at the end of meeting, we did not shake hands—but we smiled.

That’s not the end of the story, though.

Another hand movement is gaining traction. It’s the split hand Vulcan greeting created by actor Leonard Nimoy for Star Trek. Mr. Nimoy told The Forward that, in his childhood, he was inspired by the powerful gesture of blessing performed by a rabbi toward his  congregation. It stayed with him all the way to outer space. And George Takei, the brilliant actor who played Sulu, has commented this is the obvious greeting for our crisis.

So why not bring it back to earth?