Food for thought

Changing the way we shop, the way we share, and the way we put food on the table in the face of a pandemic

Story by Leara Rhodes

A large pine table sits in the middle of the kitchen. There is no tablecloth. As meal time approaches, what will be on the table to serve family, friends, and the future? A pandemic caused by COVID-19 virus has given our part of the world a chance to pause and evaluate food insecurity. As people are sheltering and venturing out for food and medicine, decisions must be made as to how people will eat. Locally, there are many ways to get food on the table, food to share with others, and food for thought.

Food on the Table

Food is essential to life but has taken on a new meaning as households and individuals are sheltering in place. Some people are anxious about going to a grocery store; others may not even have money to buy groceries with unemployment. Supply chains are disrupted with closures of restaurants and processing plants. Life seems to have changed. How are people putting food on the table? There are many ways such as grocery stores with delivery and pickup, national delivery services, farm cooperatives, local farmers, and restaurants with curb service and delivery.

Grocery stores offer revisions on how customers can shop. Some reserve the first hour of the day for seniors and people with underlying health conditions. Others, like Trader Joe’s in Athens, limit the number of customers in the store at any one time. Masks are worn. Safety is being stressed for all customers with social distancing. However, customers are frustrated that items are not available. Media photos have shown empty shelves for any paper product, hand sanitizer, alcohol-based wipes, disinfectants, and yeast. Grocery store managements are limiting some products to reduce hoarding. Limits have been placed on chicken and beef. Sales of ginger, garlic, and turmeric are increasing as people are trying homeopathic remedies. Customers, as a whole, have been courteous yet frustrated when products cannot be found.

Delivery employees have experienced customer frustrations. “People don’t understand inventory in the stores and are frustrated when they can’t get items,” says Makala Richards, a full-service shopper for Instacart, a national delivery service. When Richards began the job with Instacart, work was busy and the money good. Now the volume of orders is quieter and Richards thinks that is because the company has hired more people. The customers’ lists are typical of what most people want from a grocery; however, there is one thing Richards says is on every customer’s list: toilet paper.

Toilet paper shortages are attributed to customers buying more than needed. Beware, during the Depression, food rationing began as a way to insure most people had at least a little food. Sugar, coffee, meat, fish, butter, eggs, and cheese were the main foods rationed in order to prevent hoarding and to try to help stabilize the economy, according to “Food Rations Throughout History” by Carlie Doll.

Figuring out the supply chain has given other national food delivery companies a chance to compete. Besides Instacart, other options include Shipt, Walmart, Amazon Fresh, and Peapod, according to Lisa Rowan in her article for The Penny Hoarder. One option used locally is Misfit Market, a weekly or bi-weekly delivery of organic produce cheaper than the grocery prices, according to Paul Rowan in a review of the company for Saving Freak website. The produce sold by Misfit Market is deemed not for sale by major chains; it may have a bruise or blemish, or is too big, thus the name “misfit.” According to the company website, they are working to help solve America’s growing food waste problem as well as providing organic produce at reduced prices.

Saving money may be important, so driving to pick up one’s groceries is cheaper than getting them delivered. What started as a trend has gained numbers during the pandemic. In some markets, the wait between ordering the groceries and being able to get an assigned time to pick them up may be a week.

Waiting is not an issue when using a farm cooperative like Collective Harvest or Locally Grown. These cooperatives provide weekly produce and other locally made products chosen from websites, then customers pick up at a designated place and time. Both use only local farmers. And both have had limited strawberries.

Berries that a customer can pick such as raspberries, strawberries, mulberries, and blueberries are offered by local farms. Most of these farms require a reservation or have a strict time frame when customers may come to pick the fruit and berries. Ron Putman manages Miller’s Blueberry Farm in Watkinsville. “We are a certified bee friendly farm with no pesticide used on the berries,” says Putman. As a certified bee keeper. Putman has fresh honey available. The farm produces seven varieties of blueberries and two varieties of blackberries.

Variety is part of what makes some restaurants survive during the pandemic such as providing groceries. Half-Shepherd Market and Cheese Shop in the Normal Town area of Athens provides a grocery order form on their website. Owner, Fritz Gibson says, “We want to be a neighborhood food store, that’s been our intent all along.” He felt that though online groceries were happening with the big box stores, a neighborhood store would work. Before the pandemic, Gibson had customers come in once a week to buy a few items. Now that behavior has changed, these same customers are buying their main groceries through Half-Shepherd. Gibson says, “We are getting closer to shortening the supply chain.”

Groceries aside, there are special days that need to be celebrated and often with food. Heirloom had closed but opened briefly to produce Mother’s Day Meals. Daughter and father owners, Jessica Rothacker and Travis Burch, posted on their website: “Mother’s Day is such a sweet time for us at Heirloom. We love watching family gatherings with children all dressed up and everyone fawning over Mom. While we are sad that we won’t get to experience your family joy in the way we usually do this year, we still want to be a part of this special day. Introducing Mother’s Day meal kits.” The menu was by item and would need to be picked up the day before.

Other restaurants have meal kits to finish at home with instructions from the chef. ExPat, a French-inspired bistro in Five Points, offers a variety of kits: vegetarian pasta, duck breast dinner, tomato and fennel poached cod, BBQ picnic, tomato and fennel poached cod, BBQ picnic, ramen, and brunch at home. Each meal kit has all the ingredients needed along with Chef Sasser’s notes on how to make the meal.

Food isn’t all that is offered for pick up. Jerry and Krista Slater, ExPat owners, wanted to try something different. On Saturday, May 16 at 6:30 p.m., a virtual wine tasting Q&A was hosted from their upstairs lounge via Zoom. To join in, customers order the Saturday Night Wine Kit: 4 wine selections in 3-oz sealed bottles, wine notes, and Chef Sasser’s fennel crackers; then the customer is able to Zoom for Q&A with the sommelier.

Unique cocktails are also offered through restaurants like The Place on Broad Street. Benjamin Ray, bar manager, has put together the following kits all for $20: peanuts and Coke, serves 4; Lavender Lemonade (spiked), serves 6; and half gallon of Mimosa. Businesses are finding creative ways to “make do.”

Shortages inspired the Madison Chophouse Grille to “make do.” The management posted on their website that they were offering full menu, seven days a week throughout the lockdown. Plus, they would throw in that extra special something: a free roll of toilet paper with every paid order. They were one of the first in the area to reopen their dining area once restrictions were lifted.

Throwing in everything possible to stay in business during the pandemic has been Gary Sofen’s method. Owner of the new Lake Oconee Bistro in Eatonton, Sofen hired and trained 40 people for two weeks earlier this spring and after three hours, they were closed by state regulations. Open again and following Georgia guidelines with groups of 10 per 300 square feet is easy since the restaurant is 6,000 square feet with several party-type rooms offering plenty of six-feet spaces between tables. Nothing is on the table, servers wear masks and gloves, everything is sanitized between guests.

“I am throwing everything I can at this to survive,” says Sofen. He uses his grandmother’s marinara sauce recipe and makes everything from scratch down to the salad dressings and breading. Sofen says customers at the lake want fish and ask for more sauté dishes. He gives them what they want and has two people working the sauté area to meet the demand. Observing that there are a lot of blue-collar workers in the area, particularly construction folks, he offers a lunch special. Sofen says, “I tell my customers we make everything here from scratch with a special ingredient: love.” Throwing in everything includes 30 beers on tap, wine menu, kid’s menu, lunch menu.  Everything. “We are very busy,” says Sofen.

Food to share with Others

During the Depression, according to historians with The Ganzel Group in livinghistoryfarm.org, self-sufficiency carried over into social life. On radio and in women’s magazines, home economists taught how to stretch food budgets with casseroles and meals like creamed chipped beef on toast or waffles, chili, macaroni and cheese, soups, and creamed chicken on biscuits. Similarly, during the pandemic people are finding ways to share with each other, with the community and with friends, often through social media.

Large families are finding new ways to share the experience of putting food on the table. Heidi Hensley, an artist, and Karen McDonald, a kindergarten teacher, have six children between the ages of eight and 13. Every dinner has a protein, carb, and vegetable. To feed a family of eight, they order Misfit Market boxes, use Instacart, and pick berries at farms, which are frozen to make smoothies with a protein powder. A giant basket of fruit sits on the table. “Three of our kids eat four to five apples a day,” says Hensley. They go through two-and-a-half gallons of milk a week.

“During the shelter in place, the children eat what I cook,” says McDonald. Meals are basic with chicken, steak, pasta, rice, and raw vegetables. The most popular night is Mexican Night with quesadillas and tacos.

Eating healthy is important to these parents who are using this time to teach their children how to prepare their own meals. All six children make their own supervised breakfast and lunch. One child had a birthday at the end of May. Her favorite thing is a snow cone. So, Kona Ice, a shaved ice truck, parked in their driveway. Friends were invited to drive by, stop and get a snow cone.

Smaller families like Karen Miller Russell, a professor, and her 15-year-old daughter, prepare food as they shelter in place. Russell posts every day on Facebook and explains that she started 60 days ago when a friend wondered what people were eating.

“I started counting the days because I thought it would be funny to see what we were eating when the groceries started to run out at the end of my two-week stock of supplies,” says Russell. However, friends started asking for recipes. Russell had to restock as friends shared back and forth. “I haven’t had any trouble finding things to cook,” she says, “I’ve made old family recipes like when I taught my daughter how to make my mom’s spaghetti sauce, and some of our favorites, like spicy basil chicken or Cincinnati chili.” As they continue to shelter, Russell’s daughter told her mom that so far, they haven’t had anything “too terrible to eat,” and Russell keeps sharing her meals.

People have been sharing on social media. The following examples are from just one neighborhood. A group of four friends, The Traveling Ladies, have happy hour on Zoom every Friday with different beverages: a side car, scotch, water, and red wine. They talk about theatre, literature, articles read, and happenings. A physician’s business manager, Cynthia Dickerson, has been preparing dinner on Sunday and sharing with two households for two months. This week’s meal was country fried steak and gravy, mashed potatoes, and green beans. Another neighbor, lab manager for Agricultural & Environmental Services, Daniel Jackson, brought home Vidalia Onions and gave them to any neighbor who asked. Having been gifted some of the onions, Sandra Bussell, master gardener, emailed a recipe to the neighborhood called “Tuna and Bean Salad” (Insalata di Tonno e Fagioli). 

“My mother made something similar when I was growing up,” writes Bussell. “My variation was to add a much higher proportion of Georgia Grown Vidalia onion to highlight Danny’s kind gift and because Vidalia onions are much sweeter, crunchier and juicier than regular onions.  The Italian version would have had just a little finely sliced red onion and used white cannellini beans. I also used parsley, whereas the original includes basil,” says Bussell. She suggests that the recipe can be adapted based on what was available in the pantry. 

People share in times of crisis and remember what their families shared with them, the recipes, the stories, the community. Back during the Depression there were lessons learned and offered concerning food. The first lesson was to stock up on ingredients for bread. Second, was to know how to make different types of bread.

Gary Nason, gardener and home chef, remembers, “My mom made bread weekly using a bread bucket that had a clamp that attached it to the kitchen table. A dough hook and crank handle attached to the top of the bucket. Mom would call for me in the morning to crank the dough before school in the fall and winter. I asked why my older brother or sister couldn’t do the work. She quietly told me that I did it better, it was our secret. However, it was most likely because I was the hardest one to get out of bed in the morning. I am just shy of being 60 years old and still don’t buy store bought bread. There is no comparison to home baked.”

Annette Bergins, retired, reads Robin Sloan’s “Sourdough” during the Pandemic shelter in place. According to Goodreads, “Lois Clary, a software engineer at a San Francisco robotics company, codes all day and collapses at night. When her favourite sandwich shop closes up, the owners leave her with the starter for their mouthwatering sourdough bread.” Bergins reads the book and remembers having a sourdough starter in her refrigerator. She gets it out, feeds it, and then makes a loaf of bread.

Reading during a crisis can encourage creativity and resourcefulness. During the Depression, books emerged about how to put food on the table. Fannie Farmer’s “The Boston Cooking School Cookbook” and Irma Rombauer’s “The Joy of Cooking” provided ways to use new foods and ways to not waste food. The takeaway was to eat every bite on the plate.

Along with the books came Aunt Sammy, a fictional female counterpart to the U.S. government’s Uncle Sam, a creation of the US Department of Agriculture and its Bureau of Home Economics. Through the radio program Housekeeper’s Chat, Aunt Sammy gave lively advice on food preparation as she encouraged women to embrace the radio and a host of modern consumer household products. The recipes she shared were gathered, in 1927, into a cookbook. A million copies were sold during the Depression. Today, the book can be found through the University of Arkansas Press.

Food for Thought

The phrase “food for thought” came out of the French Revolution as a positive way to think about something in order to improve it. During this era of reason, people began to shed the beliefs that were taught and started questioning things.

Brian Head, catering chef for LRG Provisions located in Five Points has had time to think. He is sheltering at home with his wife and son. Chef Head had worked with good interns from the Athens Community Career Academy, so when he learned that Emmanuel Stone, the Community Chef and Culinary Arts Coordinator at the Academy, was starting a program to provide meals for service industry workers and teachers, Head volunteered.

“I have learned a lot, like no one likes low-fat wheat bread and it goes to waste. We prepare 170 portions on Monday and distribute the food on Tuesday. We get food from restaurants that want to use things up before they spoil or from a restaurant owner who can order things from US Foods cheaper or from the Food Bank,” says Head. Based on what is available, they have had to find creative ways to use a lot of diced onions or 400 pounds of pork. The results are a hodgepodge of recipes from curry to casseroles.

People who move the food chain along are waiting to see what the future may be; however, Head has been thinking. “This has been an eye opener for me,” he says. “I am a workaholic putting in 60 hours a week, not seeing that much of my wife and son; I’d be cooking the whole time.” How does he see the future? “We will have to slow down and think it through, run it way cleaner. We have to support local farmers.” Head thinks that the real problem with food insecurity will be with unemployment.

“It is crazy that it has brought us to this. I don’t want to go back to the way it was. We need to help each other and take care of our neighbors better. I want to build a humane work environment. Truth is, that environment is very fragile. I went from being the busiest I have ever been with weddings and graduation, to nothing. Now I am hanging out with my family. I am taking time to see the Spring…. has it always been this gorgeous?”

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