In the previous part of this story, I talked about how culinary nostalgia provided me (and many others) some much-needed comfort during this period of uncertainty. But from the very start, I knew that I’d intended to write a much longer piece because several months of lockdown has clearly provided me with an ample amount of material. So today, I return with another instalment of lockdown cooking, venturing out to the situation beyond the walls of our own kitchen.
Credits: Emma Benoit
Simply put, beyond the household, food became a source of discord during the pandemic. The mad rush to stockpile was more than a media-manufactured panic: the shelves of supermarkets were a dystopian sort of empty and online delivery slots were like needles in a haystack. During the first few weeks, public discourses were extremely unpleasant, and the internet only amplified feelings of bitterness.
I knew that the story I told of my nostalgic cooking was an incomplete one because it didn’t exist in the comfortable vacuum of my household. A particularly important entry is the potato salad – and those warm and fuzzy memories of Vienna in December, right? Not exactly. That evening, after coming back empty-handed from the local supermarket (yes, it was actually that bad), mum headed out to our backyard allotment and came back with a basket of potatoes, covered in mud and soil. Apparently, she’d ‘planted’ them a while ago and they’d grown into a fairly fruitful underground colony ever since.
Admittedly, neither of us has green fingers – the extent of our gardening venture are those potatoes, plus bits of herbs on the window sill. But that wouldn’t matter all that much because we had our neighbours, Fred and Nigel*. Fred lives below us, and Nigel next door – we were all driven out to our backyard by the April heatwave. With all the free time on our hands, we all ran into one another more often and formed a sort of socially-distanced hangout: we talked over iced-drinks, and sunbathed with dancehall music playing in the background.
It turns out that both Fred and Nigel have impressive and productive allotments, and weren’t only happy to share their gardening tools, but their produce as well. Little wooden crates were set up on the fence that borders our gardens, and every few days it’ll be full of fresh fruits and veg. In return, we shared with them some of our home-cooked dishes. I remember diligently baking something every few days and passing pieces and slices to our neighbours, even when baking ingredients were still sparse. That feeling of catastrophic panic quickly vanished, and my mental health was in a far better state than it was in at the start of lockdown.
In some ways, I think, this is a part of that taste for nostalgia. The difference is, this is a yearning for something that I’ve never experienced – something that might never even have existed even. I’m hardly an apologist of some bygone era when “you can leave your front door unlocked” (please, spare me the WWII/COVID-19 analogy), but the cooking for the small utopian bubble in my backyard became a sort of escape from it all. It was a much-needed reminder that in the face of raging inequality, injustice and competition, on top of the looming uncertainty about the future, our best chance at surviving is through looking after each other.
I appreciate that to an extent, having the time, space, and labour to maintain an allotment and cook a hearty meal is a privilege (something that even politicians fail to understand). If anything, it’s been quite clear from the very beginning that the pandemic is anything but a “great leveller”. According to the Trussell Trust, there has been a 20% increase in emergency food parcels being delivered to children across the country compared to last summer: donating your time, money, or resources to your local food banks and soup kitchens, could be a great way to give back to your community if you don’t have lovely neighbours like Fred and Nigel. Or better yet, when another lockdown does inevitably happen, consider not hoarding that last pack of tinned tomatoes.
For now, as life begins to return to normal-ish, we’re being encouraged to return to our old pattern of living and consumption (and it’s branded as some sort of civic duty, no less). There’s a common saying that “nothing is free”, and it rings more true now than it has ever been at any point in history. Commodification has proliferated every little detail of our daily life, and food is no exception.
A few months back, Nigel handed us some apples from his garden, and I turned them into a Dutch apple pie (and he did get a slice of it in return, of course). Fred’s carrots and potatoes had a starring role in the dinner which I hosted for my old group of friends in my backyard. Some day, the swanky London restaurants may return to my agenda, but for now, I’ll happily spend the rest more time in my kitchen figuring out what to do with the pears from Nigel’s garden once they’re fully ripe.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of my neighbours.
Dutch Apple Pie Recipe:
250 g plain flour
50 g caster sugar
125 g chilled butter, cut into small cubes
1 tbsp very cold milk (for better results, mix with some ice)
4-5 tart green apples
60 g soft dark brown sugar
2 tbsp cornflour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla extract
A pinch of salt
70g light brown sugar
55g chilled butter, cut into small cubes
1 tsp ground cinnamon
A pinch of salt
Make the filling: Cut the apples into slices and combine with other filling ingredients in a bowl. Leave to chill in the fridge.
Make the pastry:
Using a food processor: process all ingredients until the pastry forms.
By hand- rub flour, butter, and sugar together until it becomes fine crumbs. Add wet ingredients and
Knead the pastry on a flat surface until smooth, making sure it’s not too wet or dry. Roll the pastry into a ball, and wrap with cling film. Leave to chill in the fridge.
In the meantime, make the crumble topping using a food processor or combine by hand, like the pastry. Preheat the oven at 190c.
Slightly grease the pie dish. Roll out the pastry and lay it on the dish, making sure to cut any excess around the edge with a knife. Prick the bottom of the pastry case with a fork to allow air to escape.
Add the apple filling, and finish with the crumbs on top, spreading evenly.
Bake for 45-50 minutes, until the top is golden in colour.
Edited by Anoushka Chakrapani, Food and Drinks Editor