Cooking and Covid-19: Food’s Role in the Fight for Justice

My heart and my head are exploding. I feel frightened, full of many overwhelming emotions. I’m deeply worried for the future of my country and so proud of the people who are stepping up to create the world they want to see, not waiting for established leaders but rather showing the way themselves on the streets of America.

I suppose I appreciate the streams of emails from organizations and companies that call out callous killings of Black Americans, promise to do better, to stand with Black Lives Matter and all the rest. But clearly it’s the residents of communities who are taking care of one another, standing up to lethal threats, and creating a vision of a country that sure sounds like one in which I’d like to live.

So what’s a food column got to do with all that?

I deeply believe in the power of food, the right of every person to nutritious, delicious, affordable, available, responsibly grown and produced food. Food is just one more part of life in which people with means, usually white people, get more and better. And it’s just one more part of life in which that is wrong.

The Los Angeles Food Policy Council (in which I participate, for full disclosure, and which is a network of more than 400 organizations and agencies working for healthful, sustainable and fair food) issued a statement I support that speaks to this: “To eat is to be responsible for just systems. We are all responsible for decolonizing and dismantling in order to re-imagine, innovate, and achieve justice, equity, human dignity for all, and to end racism.”

In my city, Los Angeles, and others around the country, journalists and activists have produced lists of black-owned restaurants that we can all support. Check them out, especially the ones you’ve never tried. In the last couple of days, I’ve driven by a couple of them in my neighborhood with long lines for takeout!

And everyone who is out on the streets, or strategizing, writing or otherwise working for change needs good food to fuel that work. Sitting at the table with loved ones is an energizing, encouraging, loving act that truly makes a difference. We cannot be our best selves without being well-fed, and we have relegated too many people for too long to doing without.

Instead of making food a priority, we as a nation serve school lunches sometimes barely tastier than their packaging. We have allowed poor people to choose among drive-thru dollar meals rather than from a well-stocked market. We ignore the conditions in slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants that we’ve known of for a century.

But in a time of reprehensible behavior by those charged with our safety, we must feed one another in our grief. We must take care of one another. Many people responded to the pandemic by organizing or taking part in mutual aid networks to offer baby-sitting, errands or whatever their neighbors needed. I think of those networks now when I hear arguments for disbanding police departments as we have known them. Our communities can, in new and respectful ways, find better ways to respond to the results of mental health issues, poverty, powerlessness, desperation and fear.

I began this series of posts to respond to Covid-19, which inspired me to cook and to think about cooking as a way to do some of that caring work. But I have not always felt like making dinner in the days since we learned of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. I read the astute Kareem Abdul-Jabbar suggesting it should be black people, not police, who wear body cameras. I sit glued to a TV that shows peaceful protesters sprayed with chemicals or knocked down by police.

But eat we must, and we must try to eat well.

What do you eat in a time of uprisings and grief and physical threats? With luck and resources, people eat food that connects and nourishes us. Maybe it’s easier to say what doesn’t fit my definition of nourishing. Not fast food, not microwave dinners, not chips and a beer. Those have their place, but this is not it.

Try instead something that’s easy to cook and tough to ruin. Maybe lentil soup. Make a big pot and freeze the extra for another night. It’s one of those dishes that easily adapts to what’s around. Sautee chopped onions, celery and carrots — if you have them all — in olive oil until soft. Add water and lentils (the package will give you proportions). When the lentils are cooked — maybe 15 minutes, just taste them — you can add what you like: greens, more carrots, canned tomatoes. It can be spiced with cumin, coriander, curry powder, bay leaf, oregano — pretty much whatever you like.

Add a big salad full of spring vegetables. We ate one last night at my house with these vegetables just coming into season: spinach, fava beans, raw zucchini and chopped mint, parsley and dill. My dressing included diced preserved lemon (see my previous post), shallots, white wine vinegar and olive oil.

If you don’t feel too sure about making vinaigrette, you’ll be fine if you use about a third acid (vinegar, lemon juice) and two-thirds fat such as olive oil. Add herbs, salt and pepper, or other flavorings. If you make it in a jar, just screw on the lid and shake until mixed well. You can make extra and keep it in the refrigerator; just make sure you take it out in time to let the oil return to liquid.

If you are among the bread-bakers of coronavirus, that works great with the salad and soup. By the way, some recipes work better than others. Some bread turns out better than others. This one, for instance, has a nice-looking interior but the bread is barely risen and tastes boring. If you are not baking, serve the best bread you can find.

Another simple and delicious dinner is polenta, topped with tomato sauce, or sautéed mushrooms, or greens sautéed with olive oil and garlic and red pepper, or cheese and herbs Polenta is an Italian dish; grits is a Southern one. Both are made from ground corn, the differences being the fineness of the grind and the color of the corn.

Polenta is very easy to make and inexpensive. Here’s a recipe from the Food Network that’s easy — water and three other ingredients.

I offer these ideas with respect for the extraordinary work toward justice that lies ahead for us all. And with the hope that we can do that work with healthful, delicious food in our bellies.

Husband, dog Beanie and I took a break and a hike.

Longtime food writer, now food grower. Journalist, reader, traveler

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store