The thing I remember most clearly is the feeling of terrible surprise.
If I’d lived in the middle of things instead of five hours away, of course, I would be remembering, and writing, an entirely different story – if I’d been lucky enough to live to write the story. But I was in Memphis, close enough to know people in (and from) New Orleans but far enough away to feel removed and, thus, safe.
Our neighbor had driven her oldest son down to Tulane to start his freshman year, but they were turned around and sent immediately back home because of the hurricane. The storm itself had gotten the media attention, at least for those of us watching from afar. And then the storm weakened from a Category 5 to a Cat 3, and that news felt like relief, like maybe the predictions were wrong, in a good way.
Then came the news that the levees had been breached, which didn’t seem possible or real. I remember exactly where I was standing at that moment, in the den, walking to the kitchen to get some more coffee because I’d been expecting the news to get better, not worse. In particular, I remember feeling helpless, because there was not anything I could do to affect what I was watching.
Now, as New Orleans prepares for Ida to hit, 16 years to the day after Katrina hit, it would be impossible not to feel a sense of dread. If you are the praying type, then say a prayer for the people of the Gulf Coast, because Ida is a double dose – a storm and a trauma trigger.
It’s a triple dose, actually: a storm, a trauma trigger, and a potential pandemic nightmare.
Within this weekend’s terrible deja vu, I’ve realized that the emotional rollercoaster I felt 16 years ago is exactly how I’ve been feeling about the pandemic for the past few weeks. In spring and early summer, as my family, friends, and I got vaccinated, and we all watched the caseload and daily death rate decline, the feeling of relief was overwhelming and liberating. And, of course, false.
Because here we are, again, only somewhat worse for the wear in an ongoing, brutal storm. Tired of being cautious and isolated and closed off. Tired of watching people we love get sick and die. Tired of fighting the virus. Tired of fighting one another. Tired of feeling helpless and frustrated and angry.
But here we are. We will live with this virus, and its effects, for the rest of our lives. It is the way things are now, this tempestuous ebb and flow. We will live with catastrophic storms – literal storms – for the rest of our lives, too. It is the first noble truth, and it was true long before any of today’s headlines became manifest.
There isn’t a tidy conclusion here, if that’s what you were expecting. There’s no beginning-middle-end to this particular story, and there never was. In the face of that staggering reality, maybe there is an equally stabilizing one: Hold fast to the people and things that are most true, that can keep us afloat, together.
Food | August 28, 2021
This week’s food forecast is in two parts: Tomatoes and gnocchi. The common theme? Comfort, in the face of life’s storms. Because if you are lucky enough to find yourself healthy and out of harm’s way, then it might even be a duty to give thanks for that blessing by nurturing your physical body and perhaps sharing some food with people you love.
We’ll start with tomatoes, even though I know you’re tired of reading about tomatoes.
This morning, after a communion of lady peas, I said to a friend (who stopped by, while I was cooking): “I’ve discovered the secret to a good tomato sauce: Butter.”
And my friend said: “You’re just now learning that? Where the hell have you been. Butter is the secret to everything.”
Well, yes; it is. And it’s the secret to tomato sauce in particular, at least the sauce I’ve been making, which is a riff on that classic Marcella Hazan sauce I wrote about last week. Here’s my version (which also makes a terrific tomato soup base):
- Half a white onion, sliced thinly into half rounds
- 2 quarts of fresh San Marzano tomatoes, blanched and skinned* (note on this at the end)
- Half a stick (4 Tablespoons) butter
- Salt, to taste
Melt the butter in a deep saucepan over medium heat (try not to let the butter brown too much, but don’t get fussy about it). Add the onion and cook until it softens a bit. Add the tomatoes, give a stir, and then let all of that cook, on medium-low, for a while, stirring occasionally and lifting out any remaining skin or other undesirable parts of the tomatoes that might appear as their structure breaks down. Salt to taste. That’s it; that’s the sauce. Puree if you like, or don’t if you don’t. Keep it in the refrigerator for a week or let it cool and then pop it in the freezer. Use by itself, for pizza or pasta. Add meat and other seasonings, if that’s your thing. Add some cream (or yogurt, or coconut cream), and enjoy it as soup, either hot or cold. Also good: stand at the stove and eat with a spoon, directly from the saucepan. Not kidding.
*Note: I bought these tomatoes from the market, so they were very fresh and exactly ripe when I got them. These particular tomatoes take a little longer to skin in boiling water. By the time the skin breaks under the heat, the tomato has started cooking, which is okey-dokey. I lift them from the boiling water, transfer them to a bowl to cook for a few minutes, then remove the skins with my fingers and cut the tough stem end in the process (also cutting off any bad spots). I put that glass bowl of skinned tomatoes (covered) in the refrigerator for a few days before I make the sauce, and when I add them to the hot saucepan, as described, I dump the entire contents of the bowl in the pan – tomatoes and accumulated juices. That’s how I do it; you may do it differently. As my mother said: That’s why they make chocolate and vanilla.
Too much work, all that tomato cooking? I got you. How about some gnocchi?
Shelf stable gnocchi is like a little pantry miracle. You might remember that browned butter/Brussels sprouts/lemon gnocchi I wrote about some time ago. It’s a favorite dish, and super easy to make, even on a school night.
These 3-ingredient sheetpan gnocchi recipes from The Kitchn are also easy and delicious, and even if you don’t like the sound of them as written, reading through the list might give you ideas of your own.
That photo, of the gnocchi and herbs and peas, with a side of salad? I made that last year, using whatever was in my refrigerator. I did not write it down. Maybe you’ll find your own special gnocchi dinner that same way one day.
Be well; stay mighty.
This post is 19/56 in a self-directed challenge to write (or at least post) something (SOMETHING) every day – a birthday gift to me from me, because writing gives me a place to put the clutter that lives in my head.