15 June 2020, The Tablet

Family food in lockdown

Family food in lockdown

A family is seen keeping social distance in a food court during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Taki, Japan -19 May 2020
SOPA Images/SIPA USA/PA Images

One of the questions everyone had to sort out during the lockdown was how to get food when you couldn’t go shopping.  In normal circumstances, I shop almost every day, either picking up one or two things when I’m out or on a special trip with my trusty trolley (years ago I moved seamlessly from a baby buggy to a shopping trolley).   We do a bigger shop with my husband and the car every month or six weeks, when we need to stock up on the heavier things.  We don’t carry huge foodstocks because of the lack of room to store them, but also to keep things fresh both literally and metaphorically;  to make it less boring to have to feed everyone every day. 

I have various games and challenges I have invented over the years, like buying only from the bargains and making a meal out of it; or doing vegetarian with no one noticing (aubergines are my trump card here); not using any basic ingredient more than a couple of times a week (like pasta, rice, or potatoes;  onions are the exception that proves the rule) even if you cook it differently, and so on. The biggest challenge in large-family catering is keeping the cook enthusiastic, or at least it used to be.  And now everyone is at home all the time, they are taking an even keener interest than before in what they are eating (I am indebted to my husband for this observation).  I can’t settle to work until I know what we’re all having for supper; once I’ve decided, I know how long I’ve got before starting to cook, and I can forget about it until the evening.  Until I have, I’m twitchy. 

When supermarket shelves started to empty, it was a real nuisance.  Basic items which I buy regularly were suddenly just not there.   I make our bread, a legacy of living in many places where no one has ever heard of wholemeal, but suddenly there was no flour, nor yeast, nor oats or other staples.  Suddenly you realise quite how much bread we eat (even more if it’s fresh, and you can’t eke it out with what we call "boughten" bread).  And then there was lockdown, and it all became tremendously complicated.  One of the hardest things was when the shops decided to allow only one person in at once, because I find Margaret’s help with shopping invaluable.  Luckily, that has just changed, so we have enough hands again to cope with the trusty trolley and a normal shopping trolley at the same time.

Rachel tracked down some local delivery options, not through a shielding network, but online.  She has even sourced compost, so that John can plant out his seedlings (when he gets round to it: digging for victory takes time).  She found us a local business which we think must be a restaurant supplier diversifying to stay afloat.  It does no-contact deliveries and carries mostly fresh fruit and vegetables as well as handy things like olive oil and feta.  At first we had real problems getting a delivery slot.  We had to work three weeks in hand, which was a bit like living abroad again. Years ago, living in eastern Europe, we depended on monthly deliveries from Germany for any fresh vegetables beyond kohlrabi—but there were fewer of us then, and the children were less vociferous about what they liked or didn’t (though kohlrabi was never very popular).  Now deliveries are easier to organise so we are working only a week in hand, which is much easier to manage, although we still have storage problems.  In countries where shopping regularly was more problematic, we tended to have more storage space (partly because the children were smaller and took up less room), and sometimes even more than one fridge, which I could really do with now.

When the lockdown started, it was Lent. That brought an extra dimension to family catering, as some of us gave up various things, though virtuously not always mentioning it.  I like to try and organise little treats for the children, especially if they are feeling unhappy about something, but there’s no point in making a favourite pudding and then finding that someone has given up chocolate.  Once Easter arrived, that problem eased, but I still have to remember who doesn’t like what, because John takes it badly if I mix up his preferences (doesn’t like mackerel paté, kedgeree or lemon pudding) with Edmund’s (adores mackerel paté, will eat kedgeree only if the peas and eggs are separate, likes lemon pudding but has a gluten-free beloved).  The fact that Edmund is away in London and hasn’t been able to come home for months apparently makes any confusion unforgivable.  John has also lived away from home for several years; but I’m still meant to remember.  And every now and again, he will behave as his own virtual twin and swear blind that he likes/doesn’t like something, just to try and catch me out. 

Mary does not eat lunch when the rest of us do, so that she has a chance to attack the fridge without witnesses.  She has lived in a different abroad and entirely under her own steam, so her fridge basics are slightly different from mine. No open jar of pesto is safe for more than twenty-four hours, especially if there’s any goat’s cheese.  As our trips out are limited to once a week, if someone hoovers up something very quickly, there’s a long wait for its reappearance. You can’t always rely on a crucial ingredient being there, and I can’t hide things out of reach now that all the boys are taller than I am. 

Everyone has specific favourites, so to cover them I have to keep ringing the changes. All the children love banana bread with chocolate chips (one of Margaret’s signature creations), but my husband prefers brownies.  If I make brownies, they disappear far too fast, so I need to make something else as well that keeps a bit longer.  Rachel’s preference is a different sort of brownies with nuts; Edmund hates nuts, so we usually make the other recipe, but he’s not here, so I’ll make Rachel’s version next time.  They disappear just as fast.  Everyone likes bakewell tarts, except Margaret, but she’ll happily eat jam tarts from the same batch of pastry.  Keeping and lasting are quite different concepts, but nothing does both for long. 

I think the household is getting through more cake and biscuits than usual because of being at home all day (sometimes I feel like a modern office supplying desirable snacks at the water station).  We are throwing away slightly more fruit and vegetables than usual as a direct consequence of shopping less often, but I’d rather the family ate lots of fruit than yet more cake, even if we have to discard the odd mouldy pear or orange.  We were fine for apples for quite a while, because of a mistake in the weekly ordering over whether they were counted singly or by the kilo.  But it turns out to be quite easy to get through even eight kilos of apples.   We try to send the odd food parcel to our outliers; sadly, mackerel paté does not pack, but Peter, my eldest boy, texted to ask for the recipe, and proudly sent me two pictures, one of the mackerel and one of the paté.  His cat ate the fish head; zero waste.  Attaboy.  

Many people have noticed how hard it is to keep tabs on what day it is, with so few external markers.  Our own butcher will now deliver, but you have to remember to ring and order on a Thursday.  He delivers only on a Friday, which feels counter-intuitive (and there has to be enough storage room in the fridge, because you can’t eat it till the following day).  But then the fishmonger delivers only on Saturdays.  Again the problem is remembering to order, and he’s a different day from the butcher.   If you miss the ordering day, you’ve had it till the next week.  Sometimes it feels like 3-D chess.  With careful organisation we have now sorted out the dates which are flexible so that milk is arriving often enough to be there when needed, but not so long ahead that it goes off and takes up too much room in the fridge.

The huge sacks of bread flour are another storage problem, though I am very relieved to have it.  I do worry about storing so much flour, partly because it’s extremely heavy and bulky, but mostly because I am a complete fool about mice.  So we have the flour I’m using at the minute (roughly four batches-worth) available in the larder, and the rest is lovingly wrapped and hidden upstairs in the small room next to the study, but on top of the bookshelves.  Do not tell the mice.

Kate Keefe composes musical settings for the Mass and writes about the psalms. You can follow her on FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn

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