Pandemic Chronicles #29: Recalling the calm before the COVID storm, March 2020
I recall vividly what it felt like two years ago, as we awaited the arrival of the coronavirus here in Boston, with a deepening sense of fear and uncertainty. At Suffolk University Law School, where I’ve taught since 1994, we were heading into spring break. During our last faculty meeting before the break, I raised my hand and suggested that many of us had probably taught our last in-person classes for some time. I sensed that others thought that I was being an alarmist. If only….
Indeed, the virus was already here in Boston; most of us just didn’t know it at the time. In February, for example, a major tech company, Biogen, would host a national conference in the city that eventually would be linked to some 20,000 COVID cases, one of the first “super spreader” events of the pandemic.
During that spring break, I had intended to park myself in one of the booths of the law school cafeteria and toil away at a big writing project that I had hoped to finish by the end of the month. I managed to get in a few productive days, but public health responses were moving quickly in anticipation of the storm ahead. During the break, my university joined others in deciding to teach remotely for the rest of the academic year. In a manner that now makes me wince a bit, faculty returned to campus to pile into a classroom to learn about teaching by Zoom. I don’t recall anyone being masked yet.
During this time, I engaged in some modest stockpiling of food and household goods, including the canned foods pictured above. Fortunately, the pandemic would prompt me to learn how to cook a bit, which resulted in an upgrade in my food consumption — though I still occasionally enjoy all three products in that photo!
This two-year mark is resonating strongly with me. Maybe it’s because we’re now relaxing many of the masking policies, while experiencing a steep decline in infections. Of course, I don’t take anything for granted. Another coronavirus variant could change things very quickly. But presently, at least, we appear to be enjoying a higher degree of normalcy, at least with the pandemic. (The awful war news from Ukraine, however, is another story, as I last wrote.)
In any event, the impressions of February and March of 2020 are quite sharp in my mind. Those days represent to me the start of a new major life chapter, one that is still in progress, with the conclusion not settled.
Yeah, I loved TV dinners
My childhood years overlapped with an era that a twisted nutritionist might call the Golden Age of Processed Foods. Convenience was the touchstone, and frozen, canned, and packaged food containers helped to deliver the product. (During this time, the organic and natural food gods apparently were being held hostage, perhaps in the basement restroom of a remote General Foods plant.)
Many moms of America’s burgeoning middle class, including my dear mom, were quick to take advantage of these easy-to-prepare meals. My favorites were TV dinners, like the Swanson Salisbury steak dinner pictured above. Mom was a much better cook than she ever gave herself credit for being, but when she’d announce to my brother and me that we were having Swanson frozen dinners for our evening meal, it was cause for small celebration.
I don’t know why I was so happy to be served a TV dinner. But there was something about those tin foil containers of food, typically featuring a good-sized chunk of some sort of meat, as well as a nice little dessert to wrap up the feast, that appealed to me.
Of course, I wasn’t looking at food labels back then. So I was blissfully unaware that each TV dinner tended to contain, oh, about a month’s recommended intake of salt, as well as a list of chemicals that rivaled the periodic table. But seriously, something had to be added to those foods to keep them “freezer fresh” for months on end.
While my food intake is hardly ideal today, I am happy to report that I’ve moved on from TV dinners. I must confess, however, that if a Swanson dinner suddenly popped up in my freezer, I’d be inclined to heat it up and give it a try.
Pandemic Chronicles #17: “A year ago this month…”
The turn of the calendar to February drove home to me how many lives changed suddenly and dramatically when the coronavirus entered our communities. Between my natural penchant for instant nostalgia and Facebook’s daily notices of items we’ve posted in the past, reminders of life a year ago are very sharp for me. They often start with “the last time I….”
The photo above is from my last meal in Boston’s Chinatown, at a restaurant called Penang, a favorite eatery that serves Malaysian food. I had finished teaching an evening class and decided to treat myself to a nice meal there, so I walked over to Chinatown and ordered enough food to guarantee a big bag of leftovers to take home. The restaurant was pretty empty, a sign that people were (1) already nervous about getting sick, and (2) associating our Chinatown with the apparent Chinese origins of the virus (sigh).
February was also the last time I met up with friends visiting from out of town, sang at my favorite karaoke studio, went to a movie theatre, and took a plane trip. I know I’m not alone with memories like this. They are regularly popping up on Facebook, with friends posting memories about a last visit to the theatre, a 2020 Super Bowl party, and vacations of various sorts.
Most of all, though, I remember the odd blend of normalcy and foreboding. Here in Boston, we were a month away from going into shutdown mode. On the surface, life appeared to be going along as usual. But I did not have a good feeling about what was ahead. I’m not sure how many others felt similarly, but my forecasting instincts tend to be pretty good, and I sensed that life could be changing in big ways.
As the virus was spreading in other parts of the world, I started to feel like I was in a real-life variation of “On the Beach,” the Cold War-era book and film about Australians trying to live their normal lives, while knowing that deadly nuclear fallout from a third world war was heading their way and would soon overtake them. Although I didn’t fear that the virus would claim all of us, the news from abroad was becoming dire, and it seemed highly unrealistic that we’d avoid being affected. The question was when and how bad.
In Massachusetts, we were hit early and hard. Like many other parts of the country, we’ve also experienced a second, severe spike in infections. Our numbers total over 560,000 cases and some 15,500 fatalities. The individual stories behind each carry fear, suffering, and heartbreak. In addition, folks are struggling to make ends meet, businesses are scrapping to keep going, front-line responders are stressed and exhausted, and our health care system is stretched to the max. Now we’re in a race to get vaccinated, hopefully a step ahead of the various, predictable mutations that threaten to prolong the pandemic if we don’t wrestle it down promptly.
We’ve got a ways to go, but I still believe that this year holds real promise of getting better. In addition, a note to self: Never take for granted those everyday pleasures that have largely disappeared during the past year.
On a sort-of-related note, please visit my new blog about lifelong learning and adult education, More Than A Song (link here). The blog is inspired in part by the value of engaging in continuing education activities during this pandemic.
Pandemic Chronicles #14: I’m learning how to cook
When I thought about how I might conclude this year’s blog posts with something that encapsulates what the past ten months have been like, I found myself unable to come up with a big idea that could pull together such a momentous time. Professional writers and journalists are certainly making the effort — assessments of this challenging year now abound in the media — but for now I’m unable to do so in one modest posting.
So, instead I’m writing about something that came about unexpectedly: Faced with a lockdown mode of living, and realizing that I cannot survive on pizza and Chinese food delivery for every meal, I started to cook for myself. This is no small development. For decades, most of the pre-pandemic meals I’ve eaten have been prepared by others. For me to actually prepare meals with more than, say, two ingredients has been a rarity.
To my great surprise, I’ve enjoyed most of what I’ve prepared! I’ve largely improvised my so-called recipes, with a few assists from Google searches and suggestions & tips from friends. So my year-end post involves sharing some of these meals with you, dear readers.
My most ambitious meal is pictured above — beef stew — made with my new Instant Pot, a holiday gift from my dear friends Denise and Magic (the latter, a cat) in Northern Virginia. It took a bit of tweaking, but I figured out how to use the pressure cooker function without blowing up my condo, and the result was the best meal I’ve ever made on my own. I made it with stew meat, potatoes, baby carrots, onion, celery, tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, sea salt, pepper, corn starch, and beef broth. I put it over noodles or rice.
I discovered that a mix of olive oil, crushed bread crumbs, sea salt, and pepper resulted in fall-off-the-bone, baked chicken wings — done with my toaster oven. I was surprised how much I enjoyed these wings. I need to make these again.
I miss going to ramen shops in Boston. This quick version wasn’t a real substitute, but it made for a good fast lunch. I’ll be doing this again sometime soon, as well.
I discovered that a salmon meal is easy and healthy, and it tastes good. I used a skillet for the salmon, microwave for the broccoli, and toaster oven for the spuds.
French toast has turned out to be a quick breakfast treat. I mix an egg, some soy or oat milk, and some cinnamon together, soak two pieces of buttered bread in the mixture, and put them on a frying pan with high heat. Add real maple syrup (this is New England, after all) and you’ve got a delicious start to the day.
If I was to pick my two favorite home-brewed meals, my version of English breakfast would come in second behind the beef stew. I’ve been to England many times and always enjoyed the full English breakfasts served in B&B hotels. So I decided to make a Boston version of those breakfasts. The key non-local food item is British-style bangers (sausage), ordered from RJ Balson and Son. You need that taste authenticity — other types of sausages just don’t work.
The linguini dish was another improv. I had some leftover chicken, and I’m always up for pasta. It needs a little more punch to it, but it satisfied my appetite. By the way, I noticed that this is the third photo that includes broccoli. It’s not because I particularly like broccoli. Rather, it’s the easiest frozen vegetable to nuke in the microwave, while feeling somewhat virtuous for eating something healthy. I typically pick out the broccoli first and eat it quickly, so I can then enjoy the rest of the meal.
My mom made the best pumpkin pies. When I’d visit home for the holidays, pumpkin pie was always part of the food mix. My pandemic efforts at pumpkin pie have not come close, but given that I’ve been basically following the recipe on back of the pumpkin pie mix can, they’ve turned out pretty well.
I have been living very carefully during this pandemic. Here in my Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, my socializing has been limited to socially distanced, outdoor cookout dinners with my long-time friends Martha and Myra, who encouraged me to move to this wonderful ‘hood many years ago. I have photos of neither our meals nor our persons, but here’s a stylish shot I took of their backyard fence as dusk settled in.
Thank goodness for my local City Feed & Supply store, whose dependable deliveries have been a lifeline for me during this time. I haven’t owned a car since 1982, so having several bags of food delivered to my home makes a big difference. City Feed specializes in locally grown and organic foods, so the quality is very high. Just about everything here — except for the sausages — came from that store.
I do look forward to dining out more regularly, but I’m pleased to report that homemade food will likely supplant my penchant for fast food burgers even after it’s safer to eat out again. I’ve enjoyed making these relatively simple meals, and I’ll continue to do so. I see this as one of the personal bright spots of this otherwise difficult year.
As for 2020 as a whole, well, I just hope that it’s followed by a better and healthier year for this world. Best wishes to you for a 2021 worthy of gratitude and even celebration.
Pandemic Chronicles #9: Tastes of re-opening in Boston
As some of you may know, Massachusetts has been one of the nation’s worst hotspots for the coronavirus. It has taken a lot of sacrifice and commitment to reduce our infection rates and fatalities. It now appears that we are finally wrestling down this damnable virus.
Here in Boston, we’re going into the next phases of what I hope will be a safe re-opening of everyday economic and civic life. That became obvious to me on Saturday, when I embarked upon one of my rare treks into my downtown office at Suffolk University Law School.
As soon as I left my home, I was delighted to see that across the street, my beloved little neighborhood grocery/convenience store, City Feed & Supply, had partially re-opened for outdoor business. City Feed has a much larger store elsewhere in my neighborhood — “Big Feed” — that has been providing welcomed deliveries during this time, but this original “Little Feed” is my sentimental favorite. Alas, the Little Feed occupies such a tiny space that, given current social distancing guidelines, it may be some time before it fully re-opens for customers, but I nonetheless rejoiced at seeing this sign of neighborhood life making a reappearance.
After getting off the subway in downtown Boston, I then made my way to my favorite bookshop in the area, the venerable Brattle Book Shop, one of the oldest used bookstores in the country. Bookstores are both sanctuaries and places of discovery for me. Among the everyday activities that I’ve missed the most, dropping into bookstores ranks high among them. I actually felt a bit emotional, as I surveyed the Brattle’s outdoor stalls — source of many delightful bargain finds over the years — and then went inside to explore more. Four books and a modest $25 expenditure later, I left with new treasures.
Finally, I made it to my office at Suffolk! Despite wildly uneven levels of personal productivity in recent weeks, I managed to work through my checklist and print out a lot of materials for writing projects this summer. I made a useful afternoon of it and felt that the trip was fully worth the effort.
Then it was time to hop back on the subway for home. The evening’s main activity was a three-hour, online karaoke session with the Boston Karaoke Meetup Group. Despite some wacky challenges of integrating two online platforms and teaching one another how to make mic and setting adjustments on our various devices, it is turning out to be a surprisingly enjoyable alternative to face-to-face gatherings!
Singing is my favorite hobby, and I’ve missed it terribly. For years I’ve taken a weekly voice workshop through a local adult education center, and more recently I’ve become a regular at a downtown Boston karaoke club. Months before the coronavirus hit, I had also discovered this wonderful karaoke meetup group. Sadly, the pandemic has forced all of these activities to stop, and it may be a while before they return. That’s why I’m especially grateful that we can harness online technology to bring folks together to sing, however distanced for now.
I keep reminding myself that, at least here in Boston, it has been only three months or so since we’ve gone into this shutdown mode. Over the course of history, and currently on our small planet, countless millions of people have experienced much longer, more brutal jolts to their everyday lives due to circumstances largely beyond their control.
Nevertheless, I must admit that this time has been a head spinner for me, and I know we’re not through it yet. It has also been a firm reminder of the things that I must simply accept. So, I’ll take days like Saturday, which provided a wonderful taste of life before the term “social distancing” ever entered our vocabularies. I hope there are many more to come.
Pandemic Chronicles #4: Could I actually be eating healthier than before?
Before this public health crisis changed our lives, I confess that many of my meals were ordered and consumed at Boston eateries. This includes assorted pizza and fast food restaurants, various sit-down places, my university cafeteria, and occasional higher-end establishments. Food eaten at home usually was via delivery.
Obviously, I’m eating differently these days.
So, basically it has taken a global pandemic to get me to do more cooking and to cut my food expenses in the process. Indeed, this is the first time in my entire adult life that I’ve spent an extended stretch of time preparing most of my meals at home!
Take the photo above. I took some leftover pita bread, added pizza sauce, shredded mozzarella cheese, and sprinkles of shredded parmesan cheese (ingredients all organic), and popped it into the toaster oven for 8 minutes at 400 degrees (F). Out came a crispy, flavorful, fresh-tasting improvised pizza for lunch.
Now, it’s not as if I’ve turned into the kitchen magician. I’m experimenting with a packaged meal delivery service, in part to get some veggies in me. (I truly, deeply loathe most vegetables, so this is a form of force-feeding.) I’m ordering pizza or Chinese food about once a week. But I’m also making a lot of simple meals…pasta with marinara & meat sauce, eggs with a big dollop of salsa mixed in…peanut butter & jelly sandwich…that kind of thing. And I’m snacking on stuff like nuts, apple sauce, and crackers.
Granted, it’s not exactly a health food regimen. After all, my original food stash in anticipation of this situation included some canned ravioli and corned beef hash — all gone. But I realized the other day that I’m actually eating healthier than before. My food intake, overall, is of better quality. Among other things, I haven’t had a fast food burger and fries since early March, and I seemed to have recovered from the withdrawal.
As for caloric intake, well, I can honestly say that my belt isn’t getting any tighter, so that’s good.
It would do me considerable good if some of these better eating habits were to stick for the long run, beyond this compelled time indoors. When things open up again, I will appreciate the variety of eateries that city life provides. But hopefully I’ll continue to prepare more meals at home, while being a bit more discerning about food choices beyond it.
Pandemic Chronicles #3: Carless in Boston
It has taken a global pandemic to get me to a point where I feel limited by not owning a car.
Here in Boston, we’re experiencing a predicted surge in COVID-19 cases. Sheltering-in-place and social distancing remain the recommended best practices for those of us not working in essential businesses, and I’m taking these directives seriously. Thank goodness that my local grocery store and a number of area eateries continue to offer reliable delivery. But a car would make it easier to take occasional trips for other goods.
It has been over a month since I’ve taken the subway, which during 26 years in Boston and 12 years in New York City has been my primary way of getting around besides walking. I haven’t ordered a taxi or Uber since then, either.
As for having a car, well, I haven’t had a car of my own since 1982, when I left my home state of Indiana to attend law school at New York University, in the heart of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. During college, I owned a 1968 Buick LeSabre, a hand-me-down from my parents. A quick visit to New York during the summer before starting law school easily persuaded me that keeping a car there was neither practical nor affordable. I decided that the gas guzzling Buick would remain in Indiana.
The seeds of my new lifestyle had been deeply planted a year before, during a formative semester abroad in England through Valparaiso University, my undergraduate alma mater, which included a post-term sojourn to the European continent. Walking, buses, subways, trains, and the occasional boat trip became my modes of transportation, fueled by a sense of adventure. In addition, I didn’t have to worry about stuff like parking, upkeep, and insurance.
So, upon moving to New York, I became a happy city dweller and a creature of public transportation. I’ve never lamented a lack of wheels to take a quick trip to the country. In fact, since relocating to Boston, I’ve never traveled to Cape Cod or Nantucket, and I don’t have a burning curiosity to visit either.
In other words, for well over three decades, I’ve felt quite free bopping around cities without a car.
Until now, that is.
This afternoon, I left the immediate area of my home for the first time in a couple of weeks, to walk over to the drugstore for various provisions. Donning safety mask and gloves, I walked up the street, maintaining distance from the handful of others on the sidewalk. With a car, I could’ve completed a more ambitious shopping trip, and maybe hunted around a few other places for those elusive rolls of toilet paper and paper towels.
Honestly, though, I wasn’t unhappy about that. I did, however, feel genuine sadness at the eerie quiet in my neighborhood and the occasional sight of other masked pedestrians on what normally would’ve been a livelier Friday afternoon.
Okay, I’m not about to buy or lease a car because of this. I just hope that between various delivery options and occasional short walks to shop for necessities, I can continue to obtain the goods and supplies I need during this shutdown and any similar stretches, as we wrestle down this damnable virus.
When a legendary restaurant closes, a lot of good memories go with it
This weekend marks the closing of Durgin-Park, a Boston restaurant featuring classic Yankee-style cooking that has been around for over 190 years. In explaining their decision to close, owners cited the rising cost of doing business and competition from newer, trendier restaurants.
Durgin-Park is located in Faneuil Hall, a popular tourist location with shops, restaurants, and pubs. During Boston’s early history, this was a commercial seaport, market, and meeting place, and Durgin-Park served up many meals to those who toiled hard to make a living. Between Faneuil Hall’s period of commerce and its 1970s reincarnation as a tourist site, Durgin-Park continued on as a favorite local eatery.
The closing of Durgin-Park has been big news here in Boston, with much of the coverage sharing nostalgic reminiscing over meals, family gatherings, and visits to the city. Here’s the lede from a piece by Shannon Dooling of WBUR public radio:
Durgin-Park, the Faneuil Hall restaurant that dates back to the early 19th century, is slated to close its doors Saturday. Known for its traditional New England fare, and at times surly wait staff, patrons have been coming out in droves to show support, share memories and enjoy a final meal at the Boston institution.
Durgin-Park is part of my Boston history as well. In the spring of 1994, when I traveled from New York to Boston to search for an apartment in anticipation of my move later that summer, my long-time friends Don and Sharon Driscoll drove out from their home (then in Connecticut) to add a bit of sightseeing to the trip. Sharon was familiar with Durgin-Park from a childhood visit to Boston, and so we made it my first bonafide New England restaurant meal as a soon-to-be Bostonian.
Since then, I’ve taken many guests there, including friends and families visiting Boston on a vacation, as well as groups from academic conferences. The food was always hearty, plentiful, and delicious.
Some of the news reports about Durgin-Park’s closing allude to the possibility of a buyer stepping in to save the restaurant. I have no idea if this is simply wishful thinking. I do know that great cities make room for the new without jettisoning the best of the old. Durgin-Park certainly qualifies as the latter. If it is to serve its last meal this weekend, then it will be missed for years to come.
The Manhattan diner: 24/7/168
Tara Isabella Burton, in a feature for The Economist’s 1843 magazine last year, serves up a human interest story on an iconic Manhattan institution, the 24-hour diner:
Londoners have their pubs. Parisians have their cafés. New Yorkers have diners – altars to cheap coffee and mayo-spackled pastrami, where you can order a mug at dawn and stay until dusk, where you can hurl invective at the waiters and where they’ll hurl them right back. New Yorkers may be brusque, but at the diner counter, they’ll tell you every one of their secrets before the second cup of coffee.
. . . The diner, after all, is at once the result of New York’s loneliness and its solution. It’s a place where social rules among strangers – no eye contact, no smiling, especially no conversation – are suspended. The greatest diners, like Chelsea Square, are the 24-hour ones that cater to morning workers and midnight drunks, and to the people who find themselves in those sunrise spaces in between.
Yeah, it’s something of a clichéd piece, characterizing the NYC diner as a refuge for loners and eccentrics in a sort of romanticized, 1940s kind of way. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading it, because it pushes my nostalgia buttons: The 24-hour diner ranks high among the institutions I miss most about living in New York City, where I lived from 1982 to 1994.
During that time, two such places were regular stops for me, the Washington Square Diner on West 4th Street and 6th Avenue, and the Cozy Soup ‘n’ Burger on Broadway and Astor Place. It’s no accident that both are in the heart of Greenwich Village, near the buildings of New York University, where I went to law school. The Washington Square Diner was a short walk from Hayden Hall, then the primary dorm for first-year law students. The Cozy Soup ‘n’ Burger was close to the Mercer Street residence hall, where most second and third year law students lived.
When I visit New York, a meal at the Cozy is a required pilgrimage. I usually order the same thing: A cup of their incredible split pea soup with croutons and a delicious turkey burger. Some of the same guys who worked behind the counter in the 1980s are still there. I also make occasional visits to the Washington Square Diner, where their challah bread french toast remains one of my favorites.
For most of my life I have been a night owl type. Coming from northwest Indiana, the 24-hour city diner was a revelation to me. Good, basic comfort food at decent prices, available around the clock. Awesome!
I’ve been in Boston for some 24 years. While NYC is the city that never sleeps, Boston tends to go to bed early. Although there are many things I like about Boston, how wonderful it would be to see a bunch of 24-hour diners pop up. After all, sometimes a burger or plate of eggs at 2 a.m. just hits the spot.
My dream vacation is pretty geeky and dull
My current dream vacation doesn’t involve traveling to popular or exotic tourist sites. In fact, it may sound downright geeky and dull to a lot of folks: A few weeks with a box of selected books, DVDs, and magazines. Television with cable. Favorite music. Some tabletop sports games to play. Several good eateries within walking distance. Maybe a few tourist attractions or get-togethers with friends, but no demanding sightseeing or social calendar. I’d have my computer with an Internet connection to keep up on the news and do some writing, but work-related activities would be kept to a minimum, including e-mails.
It sounds like pure paradise to me.
You might logically assume that creating this vacation should be easy for someone who enjoys the flexibility of an academic schedule. But in reality, academic work has a way of collapsing work-life boundaries, such as they are. So long as you’re checking your work inbox, or opening a Word file just to peek at a draft of something, you can get sucked back into it in a second.
This geeky vacation fantasy also reflects a considerable downsizing of my travel bucket list. I’ve been fortunate to visit some pretty cool destinations during my life. And there are still places that I’d like to visit or revisit.
But I’m not yearning to spend more time on the road (or in the air). Right now I travel a lot to see friends and family, and to participate in conferences and other work-related events. I look forward to these trips, but I’m always happy when my calendar shows several approaching weekends that don’t involve printing out boarding passes.
Maybe I can make this aspiration a reality. At the very least, I could plan it as an extended staycation. I wouldn’t need a list of sites to see, performances to attend, or beaches to visit. Just a comfortable space to read, binge watch, order pizza delivery, and think big and little thoughts.