As long as we end up beating the Reaper, these past weeks of self-quarantine really haven't been awful. Amid bad news and increasing fears we have been gifted a rare period of respite to reflect and reassess. Life as we knew it will never be the same. The future? It's not yet been written. As we move forth, we will have opportunities to write a new script and leave a meaningful imprint.
My vision of retiring from dentistry and reinventing myself as a chef in Oklahoma City came to an abrupt end two weeks shy of the end of my one-year gig. This was due to an NBA player bringing the Coronavirus into Oklahoma City and shutting down all the restaurants. Our apartment lease is almost up and our next restaurant gig in Michigan's Upper Peninsula has been put on hold until COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. So for an indeterminate period of time we will be living in our school bus in some campground or a Walmart parking lot until social restrictions are lifted and restaurants are allowed to reopen.
We've had no problem staying busy. We are packing up all but our essential belongings to put into storage. We take our dog for long walks. I'm assembling a pantry for the bus that will nourish us for many weeks without requiring refrigeration. We play our instruments and sing every evening. When we can't sleep, we read.
My bedside reading lately has been M. F. K. Fisher's How to Cook a Wolf (1942), a book of recipes and reflections on how to cook and live well during wartime rationing. As an American expatriate food writer living in France during World War II, Fisher tried to inspire courage in people daunted by wartime food shortages. Today How to Cook a Wolf has achieved new relevance, pointing out that providing sustenance requires more than putting food on the table. M. F. K. Fisher knew that the last thing hungry people needed were hints on cutting back and making do. Instead, her book encourages us to dream, to experiment, to construct adventurous and delicious meals, and to celebrate life by eating well despite our current uncertain reality. "Now, of all times in our history," she wrote back then, "we should be using our minds as well as our hearts in order to survive...to live gracefully if we live at all."
As an aside I must say that our next restaurant job will be at Milkweed Inn in Michigan's Hiawatha National Forest where there will be an abundance of wolves. My wife, who is not very keen about sharing our forest with wolves and bears and coyotes, raised her eyebrows when she saw me reading How To Cook a Wolf. I assured her that I wouldn't be cooking a wolf; this "wolf" is a metaphor for hunger, dealing with how to cook healthfully and with enough sustenance to leave one's family full and keeping the wolf at bay.
"I believe that one of the most dignified ways we are capable of, to assert and reassert our dignity in the face of poverty and war's fears and pains, is to nourish ourselves with all possible skill, delicacy, and ever increasing enjoyment. And with our gastronomical growth will come, inevitably, knowledge and perception of a hundred other things, but mainly of ourselves. Then Fate, even tangled as it is with cold wars as well as hot, cannot harm us."
Though Fisher's book does not instruct us how to roast a whole wolf, she does advocate no-waste nose-to-tail eating. "Why is it worse, in the end, to see an animal's head cooked and prepared for our pleasure than a thigh or a tail or a rib? If we are going to live on other inhabitants of this world we must not bind ourselves with illogical prejudices, but savor to the fullest the beasts we have killed. People who feel that a lamb's cheek is gross and vulgar when a chop is not are like the medieval philosophers who argued about such hairsplitting problems as how many angels could dance on the point of a pin. If you have these prejudices, ask yourself if they are not built on what you may have been taught when you were young and unthinking, and then if you can, teach yourself to enjoy some of the parts of an animal that are not commonly prepared."
Today's dire circumstances have been driving me towards creative meal planning, ingredient sourcing and waste management. Throughout the week I have been saving all my vegetable scraps and trimmings. My onion and garlic root ends and skins, my carrot peelings, my parsley stems, the butts of my celery, and my kale ribs all go into a reusable plastic bag in the refrigerator. Every other week we roast a couple chickens, then pick off all the meat to freeze in pint deli containers. The chicken carcasses go into a stock pot with all the accumulated vegetable scraps and become a rich stock. This stock can become the base for a soup or a cooking liquid for beans, rice or quinoa. The containers of chicken meat can turn into Grandma's chicken and dumplings or an Indian biryani. On the alternate weeks that we don't do chickens we turn our veggie scraps into a flavorful, concentrated vegetable broth.
Just as security can lead to complacency, insecurity can foster growth and change. As a society, we have become lazy eaters with unhealthy eating habits as evidenced by the alarming rise in chronic diseases which now afflict 133 million Americans and kill 1.7 million of us each year. It is my hope that this extended period of self-quarantine will lead to increased self-reliance and creativity by forcing us to prepare our own meals with limited resources.
During WW II, as an unintended consequence of food rationing, Britons were never healthier. Sugar was greatly reduced. Portions were smaller and included more vegetables. Shortages of white flour meant that bread was made with whole wheat flour and other healthy whole grains like oats. Less red meat was consumed. The incidence of tooth decay dropped. The average age at which people died from natural causes increased, despite the stresses and strains of war.
A study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology found that it takes an average of 66 days to form a new habit. For those of us in COVID-19 self-isolation, never before in our adult lives have we been presented such an opportunity to acquire new skills, redefine what's important to us, and develop new and lasting lifestyle habits.
Or we can just sit tight until the pandemic blows over and wait for corporate America to rush back into our lives and get things back to the way they were before the crisis. Flamin' Hot Cheetos anyone?
While self-isolating in a school bus lost somewhere in mid-America, Dr. Chef Peter will be passing the time by reading, writing and foraging. If you would like to receive email "postcards" chronicling his adventures and misadventures on Bertha Bus, send your name and email address to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For a video of Peter Glatz eating an eyeball for the first time, go to this article on illinoistimes.com.