the little things…

…what I found & kept during the pandemic.

Did everyone simply forget that the world nearly shut down in 2020? Well I didn’t. We don’t seem to talk about it anymore, which is perhaps a self-preservation response to a really awful couple of years. Global health crisis and political upheaval notwithstanding, the ability to “move on” might just be another universal condition of adulthood. While I can no longer afford the energy to ruminate over what was lost, I do catch myself celebrating what was gained. I gained so much.

At the start of the pandemic, the days and weeks immediately blurred into a parade of disappointments, most of which I tried to ignore because they were simply too damn depressing. The rhythm of American life was interrupted to such an extent that we forfeited much more than vacations, proms, graduations, promotions, or social gatherings. Everything felt fragmented, like a jigsaw puzzle scattered out in front of us, but without instructions…or all the pieces. The socio-economic effects will be long-lasting, but I’ve purposely glazed over the horror of the human toll. That’s a different story and one for a different author.

Exhibit A: the problem

November 2020: if I said it enough maybe it would come true

In 2020 I might have said “I’m fine” enough to last a lifetime. The big things we all counted on were gone – I needed little things to step up as markers of hope and progress. The catch was that I had to stop and take notice. After a few months of settling in I began to seek out those small, tangible moments and allow them into my story – some poignant, some instructional, but most jocular. And they were all tucked in the margins, like those 3 jars of homemade red pepper jelly. The sunlit amber stopped me in my tracks – there was such innocence and beauty in that moment. Outside, the pandemic and the world were raging, but I was sealed safely inside with my lovingly preserved treasures. Perhaps viewing the pandemic through the lens of food and cooking helped me process it all in more digestible morsels.

I’ve always appreciated the little things – they remind me to smile. But when life was at its least humorous, I went a bit further and sought out the absolutely most absurd little things to force me to laugh. Over the last 3 years I’ve been genuinely amazed and amused by my daily follies, which I can only wish had been confined to my kitchen. I rarely had to look far for material mostly because my misadventures reflect such a wide range of micro-talents and half-competencies:

Exhibit B: the reaction

  • In a predictable online shopping fiasco I was unceremoniously trussed by my expensive new sports bra and had to cut my way out. There is video evidence.
  • I accidentally misused a few emojis in an attempt to be the hip mom – apparently texting an eggplant to say you are at the farmers market is frowned upon. Texting 5 in a row is far worse.
  • Kitchen dancing was a pastime that regularly tested the boundaries of maternal fealty, especially when Squeeze Box came on. I’m told it is not, under any circumstances, a pas de deux.
  • I discovered the semi-permanent joys of do-it-yourself hair dye as a way to shake the monotony of home confinement. Traces of pink and purple have faded steadily, but the teal is still hanging around.

Little things are at least as important as big things and can salvage or scourge any occasion, especially a meal. They can in fact, BE the meal. I say this with the full admission that I’ve made many an over-engineered dinner and more than my fair share of elaborate 30-step recipes. After all, my tagline is “food doesn’t have to be everything, but it can’t be nothing.” Even the least sexy, most humble “little” recipes can be super-charged to compete with any restaurant. With a few tweaks hamburgers become lamb-burgers, pancakes transform to Dutch Babies, and mac & cheese graduates to Greek Orzo.

The effects might be dramatic, but the recipes are still mostly unadorned and accessible. If we change just one ingredient, we suddenly have a special dinner. If we add just one surprise element, we have a feast, not food. When we choose to elevate the least consequential thing, we can raise the bar for the entire meal and that’s when acknowledgment turns into celebration.

Exhibit C: the solution

Did I need it? No. Was it better? Yes. Yes to Kalamata olives, extra tonkatsu sauce, chili crisp fried eggs, caviar latkes, a fried chicken cutlet on my pickle sandwich, and cheesy bacon risotto. All yes to these little things.

While many of the recipes in my blog are one-dish wonders, side dishes should never be underestimated. Sides are served without any expectation to carry the weight of the meal, either by volume or content. They are the extras and the safety nets of cooking, collectively offering something for everyone. How awesome would it be to walk on as the low-stakes savior? Welcome to the team, side dishes.

These 3 “little” recipes rotated often onto our pandemic dinner table – and by dinner table, I mean our laps while lounging in front of the television. Look, we all did the best we could, so while sloth and brain fog took the place of formal dining, at least I gave us some stimulating fruits and veggies. They all have one thing in common: a burst of tastiness. My obsession with flavor bombs has taken command of my side dish game. From basil and lime to anchovies and balsamic vinegar they shine alone or as an add-on. It’s the little things.

Exhibit D: the evidence

Insalata Caprese

• 2 ripe tomatoes
• 6 oz fresh mozzarella, in ¼” rounds
• 10-12 large basil leaves

Create a layered line of sliced tomatoes, whole basil leaves, and mozzarella. Drizzle liberally with olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper, or Balsamic Vinaigrette.

Serves 2

Cheatin’ Caesar

• ½ tsp anchovy paste
• 1 clove garlic, minced
• ½ tsp Worcestershire sauce
• ½ cup mayonnaise
• black pepper to taste
• Romaine lettuce for 2
• shredded parmigiano reggiano
• 2 whole anchovy filets for serving

Mash anchovy paste, garlic, and Worcestershire sauce until smooth. Mix in mayonnaise and black pepper to taste. Wash Romaine and tear into bite-sized pieces. Toss with 1-2 Tbs of dressing. Garnish with cheese and an anchovy filet.

Serves 2

Chili-Lime Watermelon

• ripe watermelon, cut into wedges
• chili-lime seasoning, like Taijin
• jalapeño peppers, sliced

Sprinkle seasoning on cold watermelon wedges and garnish both jalapeño slices. Optional: sprinkle with crumbled cotija cheese or drizzle with olive oil.

Servings vary

Don’t ever forget that the pandemic was an actual thing – a big, horrible, destructive thing. Every facet of life was upended, a reality reinforced by an apocalyptic news cycle which loomed over us 24/7. We heard an endless drumbeat: “things are not okay.” Most days, all I ever wanted was for everything to just be okay again. Okay would have been good enough – okay became the bar. I settled for fine.

Thank you to my friend, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, for your service.

3 thoughts on “the little things…

  1. Your prose is poetic, your insights subtle and profound. One of your lessons is the importance of little things in the face of big things, But I wonder, is a meal at little thing? Food is existential. A single dish, however challenging to prepare, may seem trifling, but writ large, preparing food is at the heart of our very humanity. If we feel reassured and comforted by acts of making, sharing, and enjoying a meal, it is nothing more than confirmation of the central role of food in the human experience, both as necessity and pleasure. That is no little thing.

    Liked by 1 person

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