When my husband and I first met I was living in Chicago in a minuscule apartment that was a mass of code violations. I loved the place in spite of its peeling linoleum and lack of ventilation, mainly because of the tiny patio in front. It was April when I moved in and before long I'd filled the 10-foot-square space with such an overabundance of lush plants and flowers that when sitting inside the garden one would never realize they were just steps away from noisy Ashland Avenue.
Money was tight in those days (not unlike now), but we were so smitten that it didn't even occur to us to mind. We ate out as often as we could afford, which was rarely, but we did make use of the little patio. There were candles and music and I'm sure that we were completely annoying to all of our neighbors. One sunny afternoon we were reminiscing about the menu at a fancy seafood restaurant that we'd been to. "We could make it ourselves," I said half jokingly. Within a few minutes we were out the door and headed to the fish market around the corner. Isaacson and Stein, which is, sadly, now closed, was Chicago's oldest fish wholesaler and was open to the public. Wet concrete floors held open cases filled with whole fish, bivalves of all kinds, crustaceans and various sizes of octopus. We scored some oysters and shrimp then headed home and spent the evening making stuffed mushrooms and shrimp cocktail and oysters Rockefeller. We piled it all onto one large platter and sat together in an oversized papasan char tucked into the corner of the garden, with fairy lights twinkling and Grateful Dead playing in the background. Like I said, most annoying neighbors ever.
We've had many "date nights at home" since then, though all admittedly less epic. The kids go over to grandma's so we can speak in complete sentences. Thai coconut curry is our standby dinner because it's an easy favorite that the kids never want to eat because it's too spicy. We'll eat it on the couch and watch a movie, and I'll inevitably fall asleep halfway through. Though not terribly exciting, these evenings provided a break in routine and a much needed opportunity for my husband and I to reconnect.
We celebrated our anniversary a few days ago, three weeks into the pandemic lockdown. With our celebration trip canceled and money tight once again, date night at home became a foregone conclusion. I briefly considered attempting to replicate that night in Chicago, but nixed that idea after quick examination of my larder. Even my pantry is not that well stocked. I did find some scallops in the freezer and went out in the yard to forage a salad of spring greens and baby lettuces from the garden. While my husband put the kids to bed I set the dining room table with the fancy plates and glassware that never get used.
It felt delightfully strange as we sat down, both of us chuckling awkwardly as we looked at each other across the long dining room table like 20-somethings on a first date. Eventually the oddness of sipping from cut-glass stemware while sitting alone in our house abated. We were able to have satisfying and substantive conversations that just haven't been possible amid the frenzy of pandemic-era living.
As we finished our wine and began to clear the table I thought about when we will once again be able to sit in the candlelit corner of a crowded restaurant or escape for a weekend getaway. Doubtless when that day comes we will all have a renewed appreciation for the hospitality industry workers and all the niceties they provided. In the meantime, it seems likely that date night at home will become an essential part of our new normal. We're all going to have to get creative to keep life fresh and exciting in the coming days. I decided to put date nights on the calendar in order to hold ourselves accountable and hopefully maintain our sanity. Relationships require self-care too, even more so when the rhythms of normal life get turned upside down. There will certainly be lazy curry nights on the couch, but I'm also looking forward to picnic bike rides, ordering in from our favorite restaurants, and many more opportunities to use that fancy glassware.
Many wild greens are sprouting up now, making for a delicious and beautiful alternative to prepackaged grocery store salads. Make sure that the greens are from a spray-free area and not from a spot in your yard frequented by Fido. Young dandelion leaves are delicious and tender, and the flower petals are edible as well (avoid including any of the bitter stem). Lambsquarter and chickweed are pesky garden weeds with an extremely mild flavor that are excellent sautéed as well as eaten fresh. Edible flowers like violets, redbuds, forsythia and lilac blossoms give a beautiful finish to any dish.