Twice a day, I spoon something into a ceramic bowl, or onto a little blue plate. I generally know how much because I’ve been given the code, anything from “not very,” to “HUNGRY!” to the most common, “medium!”
Typically barefoot, I pad down the little hallway, and the scuffling sound sparks movement in the room in front of me. Shuffling papers to clear space for food, a shifting of the mouse. It’s become Pavlovian. She knows.
“Yay!” Holly’s bright smile when I set food down for her, lunch and dinner, marks little high points in what has become the Quarantine Routine.
Our lives, like those of most of us, are not in fact being torn apart. We are not sick, nor are any of our family — even my 84-year-old mom is doing OK. In fact, I know only one person who has definitively had the Dread Disease, and she got better on her own.
I know, this is not the case for some of you, but for the vast majority of humans, this thing we’re in manifests itself more as a scary what-if than an even scarier reality. Most of us feel fine, but we all know that it could change for us tomorrow. And this is only the medical side of things. There is the economic, too.
That has affected us. My job has been hindered — I can’t really travel, and my ability to hunt or get on a fishing boat only now seems to be returning — and I, like most of you, am seeing a financial hit as the advertisers on this site pull back and customers buy fewer and fewer of my books. But for the most part, my routine hasn’t changed.
Holly, on the other hand, is the communications director for the California Waterfowl Association. And as such her job has gone bonkers. The only way the organization can interact with the world is through her department, and her workload has ballooned. This is why, most days, I bring her food while she works at her desk, which is maybe seven feet from mine.
We live in a little house, maybe 1100 square feet, including the garage. My home office is only about 80 square feet, and Holly’s isn’t much bigger; our house is a classic post-World War II California bungalow, and my little room was probably meant to be a child’s bedroom. She can hear me type this right now, and I can hear her clicking away, too.
Every morning I make coffee, tend my garden, read the news and answer your questions here and on social media. Then, I get up and think about food. What will today’s lunch be? How about dinner? Will we be doing something for this website, or for my next cookbook? (It’ll be on fish and seafood, incidentally.)
Lunch is invariably leftovers. Everything from my signature chilaquiles-style “garbage plate” — lots of good things cooked in a frying pan, bound with eggs and often cheese — to tacos, or sometimes just simple brown rice with leftover sauce or sofrito, maybe with a bit of last night’s duck or venison or quail tossed in.
I like this process, and so does Holly. It saves money, makes me more resourceful and frankly tastes wonderful. For me, I get to stretch my culinary muscles. For her, it is a home-cooked meal, complete with room service. It is a lovely little moment where I get to make her smile.
Dinner is more thought out, even on days when Holly isn’t taking photos.
The evening meal is when I experiment with new recipes, new cuisines, new ingredients. Dinner is when I get to play. We are fortunate enough to have plenty of game and fish in the freezer, my pantry of various wild oddities is always at least reasonably well stocked, and the garden can give us something almost every day.
These days the garden has been giving us all the greens we can handle. I grow, or, to be more accurate, allow to randomly grow, a host of weed-like wild greens, most of them various forms of Mexican quelites. They start coming in March and at least one of them will be going into November.
This is a good thing. When I travel, Holly rarely ventures into the garden to harvest (unless tomatoes are ripe), and I rarely order greens on restaurant menus; not sure why. But now, stuck at home, we are eating some sort of leafy green at almost every meal. Today it’s amaranth greens. Healthy, right? Especially when cooked in pork or duck fat…
Holly says she could eat the same thing over and over, but I cannot. In between endless rounds of washing dishes — the dark side of cooking every single meal at home — I take some joy in bouncing around world cuisines, or ingredients. Never will I hear Holly utter the words, “Aw… duck again?”
I try to end my daily work around 6 pm, turn on the radio to listen to the news and start cooking what I have planned for that day. I crack open a beer, or maybe pour a glass of wine.
She is still clicking and clacking away at the other side of the house. I am clanking pans and I am certain she can hear the staccato sound of me slicing onions, mincing garlic, chopping herbs and greens. It means that dinner isn’t far away.
Soon the aroma of dinner hits her, and I smile when she tells me I am making good smells. The bouquet of tonight’s dinner will linger in one spot in our hallway, sometimes until the next morning.
On the nights she shoots photos for me, we get prepped well before the food is ready — yes, we eat all the food you see in our pictures, it’s not fake — I plate it up nicely, she chooses the background, and we take some pictures. Then we eat, often on the back porch, with Harlequin the Cat prowling around somewhere close. Those are good days.
Sometimes, however, her work keeps her at her desk into the evening. These days I do my best to make Holly something nice, because, well, long days should end with a good dinner.
Through it all, Holly is the constant. She is my audience, and making her happy makes me happy. One night, a few days ago, Holly had to be away for dinner. It was the first time since Before All This. Undeterred, I made a vegetarian curry from Ghana (yes, greens again) and some Ghanaian meatballs, which are so good I’ll have to put them on the site soon.
But I was alone. Listening to the nightly news, sitting on the couch with that lovely meal I had just made. It felt… incomplete and vaguely absurd, like one hand clapping.
Then I thought about all of you who like to cook for others, who, because of our current situation, are now alone. For most of us, cooking is more than onboarding calories into your mainframe. It is an expression of love in any of its many forms: Companionship, familial love, even lust.
Without others to, at the very least, look up at you and smile at what you have brought them, what’s the point? I could see how a lonely cook could slide into a very dark place very quickly. Sure, you can use this time to hone new skills and try new cuisines, but where’s the fun in that if no one else can taste the fruits of your labor?
We all need someone in this terrible time. Wife, husband, sister, brother. Parent. Friend. Neighbor. Someone to share the lonely with. I’d be lost without Holly — for reasons that go well beyond dinner for two.
The Quarantine Chronicles
Edible Weeds: Eat Your Lawn
The best place to find edible wild plants might be no further than your own yard.
Making Stew with What You Have
Sometimes you have to make substitutions these days, and there is no better place to freestyle than in the stewpot. Here’s how to build a better stew.
Black Mood, Red Sauce
It hasn’t all been sunshine and light these days. Our little family suffered a death recently, and its inevitability turned me inward, to that dish that gives me solace when all around me is black.
Stretching in Place
Quarantine has been a great opportunity to stretch yourself mentally, physically, and culinarily. Here are some ideas for you.
Time and Place on a Plate
When you can get out into the world again, do so with new eyes. Seeing what is around you when you hunt, fish or gather can inspire beauty on the plate.
Wasting Less, Living Better
Being thrifty in these times is a necessity. Here’s how I stretch and innovate in the kitchen using what I have handy.
Support the Volunteers
In the garden, which for many of us is a place of solace these days, you will often find useful plants just growing, here and there. Consider supporting them.
How to Salvage Freezer Burned Meat
When you can’t go to the store that often, you look into the depths of your freezer. Sometimes you don’t like what you see. Here’s how to deal with ancient frozen bits.
Martin Jaqua says
Great essay; beautifully written and heartwarming still even though I somehow didn’t find time to comment when it first came out.
Even though my partner and I generally only cook full meals on weekends, and usually split those duties, your essay helped me appreciate the joys of having someone to cook for. In the current self-isolating era, I’m particularly grateful to have a partner who’s open to trying new things, which just about every week results from me finding another Hank Shaw recipe to use on my still well-stocked freezer of wild game.
Thanks again, Hank, for helping all your fans get through these strange times. And, as I reply to my partner when the inevitable compliments follow a successful dinner experiment: “thank Hank!”
Jeff Loomans says
Thank you Hank. Good reminder that the best part of my day, every day, is when I get to put away the drawing pencil, digipen, keyboard, what have you… and go start dinner. Just standing in the kitchen chopping an onion with my wife doing bills or playing one of her ipad games while my daughter finishes homework is very, very comforting. Often one of your recipes, though it doesn’t have to be.
So I think we all hope you know you’re a big reason why we can share these special cooking times with our loved ones as well. Also, we want to get back out birding and fishing too (havent carried a gun since Michigan but may be time to get back to bigger game, you’re tempting me)
Jodi Henley says
A lovely essay and a beautiful love story 🙂 You are lucky to have each other.
Adam Sachs says
Lovely essay, Hank. It makes me nostalgic for my family, though that brings me to my perspective on this matter.
I have a slightly complicated relationship with this topic of cooking for those I love. It should come as no surprise that yes, I does give me joy to provide, to share, to try to find a moment to enjoy a home-cooked meal with my family. The reality, unfortunately, has not manifested itself in quite the way I would like for quite some time, nor am I entirely certain how much that would be the case if we were quarantined together.
I will spare you the details of why my family and I are apart right now, as that is also complicated. But I am married to a Puerto Rican woman and we have a six-year-old child. A six-year-old’s palate is about as sophisticated as you might expect, despite my best efforts to help it develop, and both of them tend to get hungry much earlier than I do. So when I want to cook things that primarily feature fresh seasonal vegetables, it can easily mean I am cooking up to three dinners, and need to have them all ready in a bit of a rush before the other two parties get cranky. Beyond the obvious complications of additional preparation, coordination, labor, and timing, there is also the extra work of cleaning up.
Being alone, I have finally been able to take a breath, really cook for myself, be more creative, cooking what I want, when I feel ready to eat, to stretch my culinary muscles more and get into more of a rhythm that suits my own pace and needs.
And yet, I miss my family. I want to cook these meals to share with them, hope that maybe a few of these dishes I try out would appeal to them enough that I could scale them up or not have leftovers because everyone enjoys them so, and we can enjoy conversation together over a glass of wine before we get the little fella’ ready for bed. At this point, I can merely sigh with longing, and then click away from here to search for nettles recipes on your site, because I found a spot near downtown Jersey City.
Dang, I love your writing, Mr. Shaw. I LOVE your writing. Your style, your choice of words, the topics you choose, how you craft your thoughts, the whole shebang.
Did I say how much I like your writing? I enjoy reading your posts (and this one is awesome) every time. I just love how you write.
OK. I’m done now. I’ll be back.
Bo Curtis says
Looking forward to adding the seafood cook book to my HAGC collection.
Joe Skorupa says
Beautifully said. You two are fortunate to have found one another. You made me think about how fortunate I am to have Meg, who cooks for us with love and passion. Until we can gather round our table with many family and friends we’ll remember that the simple pleasures of daily life must be treasured. Thanks.