Cooking and Covid19: Justice and Dinner

Growing, making food can be radical politics that work toward nutritional equity

My goal with this project was simple: In the face of a pandemic, orders to stay home, restaurants closed, I wanted to share some ideas for mostly-healthful, delicious, easy-to-make food. Feeding one another, I reasoned, is a hopeful, loving political act.

Political action became more urgent from the day of George Floyd’s murder. Those of us who are white need to see the racism in front of us, call it out, examine our lives and feelings. We need to get educated. And food — who gets the best of it, who grows the most of it, who owns the land or the restaurants — speaks to race and class as much as to health and camaraderie.

Recipes still matter. What food we buy and how we buy it is likely our biggest political act of any single day that’s not an election day. Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter uprisings together should put the spotlight on access to good food for everyone.

There’s a smart and charming mutual aid project popping up in many cities doing just that. Maybe you’ve noticed a brightly decorated refrigerator that suddenly appeared, full of produce, eggs, prepared meals or other food. It’s all free, take what you need. Or, put what you can inside.

I added a few bunches of greens to a fridge in my Mid-City Los Angeles neighborhood outside a coffee shop called Little Amsterdam. Painted on the side of the fridge: “This fridge belongs to you and everything inside.”

Community Fridges in Los Angeles (All photos by Mary MacVean)

What I love about LA Community Fridges (the names differ in various locations around the country) is that there are no supervisors or guards, no forms to fill out, no qualifications to meet. And in the two refrigerator sites I’ve seen, the food inside was fresh and varied.

A friend asked me what would happen if someone took all the food. That’s fine if they need it. What if they sold it? So be it. Maybe they needed money for rent or medicine. It’s just not that sort of operation — though my guess is that that rarely if ever happens.

There is so much food that never gets eaten — as much as 30% of what’s grown goes to waste in this country — and this is one way to change that, from the community and for the community, as one of the organizers put it to the LA Times. Businesses or other sponsors agree to have the refrigerators outside, but the organization takes care of the rest.

(An aside about the greens. We get a produce box once a week, and all spring it’s been full of kale, mustards, bok choi and other greens. That’s why some people don’t want to subscribe to produce programs. I get it that greens every day could become a bit much. But if you find yourself overloaded, just cook them in a little boiling water, cool, drain and freeze them for soups or stews or rice dishes. Or drop them off in a community fridge.)

Greens from the Open Face Food Shop’s produce box

We all rely on farmers, of course, and since the current uprisings began, some people have looked at the role of Black farmers, from slavery to the present. It’s something I’d like to know a lot more about.

The activist Fannie Lou Hamer understood that Black land stewardship pushed back against institutional racism and enabled self-determination. She founded Freedom Farms Cooperative in the late 1960s in Mississippi on nearly 700 acres of land. What an imagination she had: One of the cooperative projects was the pig bank. Families would raise a piglet for two years, and then return it to the bank to breed.

Illustration by Sam Landsberg

Two of its offspring would remain in the bank, for other families. Imagine local pig banks everywhere. A DIY answer.

“Hamer’s life and work suggests how intertwined the strategy of raising food was with the mainstream of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. This synergy also suggests why it may be a key strategy in addressing inequality in America today,” writes Monica White in her book Freedom Farmers.

Reminds me of the community fridge and so many other mutual aid projects that are getting food to people in shelters, to those out of work and to anyone else going hungry.

I know a talented chef who deeply understands the connection between food and politics. Minh Phan is a terrific cook, and her LA restaurant Porridge + Puffs is always surprising and delicious. She works to create a business with a standard of success based on values more than money. She spends a lot of time working to raise up nonwhite women who work in low levels of the restaurant world. She responded to Covid-19 by feeding frontline workers and to Black Lives Matter demonstrations by feeding participants. Not to mention that she’s really fun and remarkably energetic.

Recently, she gave a talk (virtually) to the Women’s Foundation of California. She and her staff work to use parts of produce — like stems or rinds — that often become compost at best but too often go to the landfill. Pickling is a common answer, and she demonstrated how to make Unripe Fig Pickles, a recipe she developed for the foundation and the food recovery nonprofit Food Forward.

You might give it a try, and this could be the start of a pickling future. Many fruits and vegetables can be pickled. If you don’t process them for canning, remember to refrigerate them. Like most chef recipes, the amounts are in grams; the google can help you translate if needed.

I made Minh Phan’s pickles

Unripe Fig Pickles

500 grams unripe (firm) figs

70 or so grams fig leaves

400 milliliters rice wine vinegar

400 milliliters water

200 grams sugar

15 grams coriander seeds

20 grams salt

For a quart of these pickles, line the bottom of a large jar with washed fig leaves that you have crunched and bruised to activate the oils.

Clean and dry the figs. Cut them into wedges or slices and place them into the jar. Make a brine by combining the vinegar, water, sugar, coriander and salt, and bringing it to a boil. Gently pour the brine over the figs. Cool the mixture and then refrigerate overnight. They’ll be ready in 12 to 24 hours. The flavors will get better over time. Eat within a week.

Enjoy. And, by the way, how are you?

A rabbi at our synagogue, Zoe Klein Miles, called me recently and I asked, automatically, “How are you?” She replied by asking whether that’s a good question these days, adding that someone suggested simply, “Are you?”

I get it. This is a rough and chaotic time. I miss my sons, who live across the country, and I don’t know when I’ll see them again. I miss being with my friends, whose love and support make my life. My anxiety balloons when I walk past people without masks or who seem utterly unable to judge 6 feet. And I worry about whether our isolation will diminish the Black Lives Matter efforts to create a just and loving society.

Delicious food for everyone is a start. Conversations over meals actually matter, actually offer opportunity for real, revealing, mind-opening discussions. That power is where this series of stories began, and while discussions often must continue virtually, I deeply believe they must continue.

I’ve been baking a lot lately, especially a blueberry lemon pound cake. In part because the stores have reasonably priced, organic fresh blueberries. Every time I shop, I buy a couple of large clamshells, because I’m worried those will be the last I’ll buy for a year. I try to never buy produce from far away — I don’t see the point except for bananas.

I don’t recall seeing berries often when we moved to California, about 20 years ago, but that has changed. Husband and I eat them for breakfast — him in cereal, me by the handful. And snack on them all day. I’ve got company: Fresh blueberry demand has tripled in the last decade, according to a report from Rabobank.

It’s also time for my garden, and lucky me, my friends’ gardens, to begin producing their summer glories. I’ve had a lot of eggplant and tomatoes lately, among other vegetables. Tomatoes, of course, can be eaten out of hand as well as in hundreds of dishes. I decided to put them together for a risotto.

The eggplant growing in my tiny urban backyard.

This is one of those dishes that is flexible. First, I made tomato sauce by sautéing celery and onions in olive oil. I used the celery I had left, maybe a quarter of a bunch. And one onion. If you have half an onion, use half. Or leeks. I added fresh thyme, oregano and basil — a handful. And then a bay leaf and some salt. After the vegetables were pretty well cooked, I added four tomatoes, cut into quarters. I let it all cook for maybe an hour on very low heat. And then pureed it. I used an immersion blender, which is inexpensive and handy but a food processor or blender will do.

Meanwhile, I roasted three eggplant at 450 degrees. I cut them in half and coated them with olive oil.

Cut the cooked eggplant into bite-sized pieces and add to the pureed sauce, and you have the vegetables for a risotto. Or you could use it on pasta or lots of other ways. I cooked the risotto fully and then added the vegetables and a generous handful of freshly grated Parmesan cheese. I didn’t have stock for the rice, so I put a couple of carrots, an onion, a bunch of parsley stems and some other herbs in a pot of water and let it simmer for an hour or so, topping off the water when needed.

Find joy, wear a mask and be good to those around you. Thanks for reading.

Mary MacVean has been cooking for half a century. And writing about food for a few decades. She also has been an urban farmer. When her day sucks, she finds her equilibrium by coming in the door and starting to cook.

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

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