My Pandemic Diary, Entry #76

My Pandemic Diary, Entry #76

Hello Fellow City Cooks,

It’s a gloriously beautiful day in New York City.  Pitch perfect. I’m sure the sun is shining on more large demonstrations here as well as many places around the country, maybe except for those where tropical storm Cristobal is a serious damper, as in New Orleans. 

Today is the last time I’m publishing My Pandemic Diary as a daily entry because tomorrow Governor Cuomo is allowing NYC to begin phase one of our re-opening. Although our journey continues, I chose to change the frequency of my diary because after these long many weeks, I have some projects to do and I need the time, and tomorrow's milestone seemed to be a marker.

Of course, there’s no requirement that a diary be done every day. In one form or another, diaries have been around for centuries; even Marcus Aurelius wrote one and his wasn’t daily. In simplest terms, a diary is a record of events and feelings, arranged by date. I like to think that I’ve done just that by sitting down every morning for the past seventy-six days to make a record of these remarkable months by memorializing things major and minor, such as the weather and my state of mind, commiserating about the tasks of domestic life while we were all at home, confronting fears and hopes, and trying to help turn the chore of making dinner into something with purpose and pleasure.

Not surprising since I am an inveterate advice-giver, I found that all these musings spilled over to include tips for such things as grocery shopping, fixing computers, and favorite books and television shows, as well as sharing some views of civic life.  

I’m so grateful that anyone reads what I write and I’ve marveled at the kind and generous notes I’ve received from so many of you. I have especially been heartened by those who wrote that your days and your thoughts were similar to mine. I found that so comforting and it’s given me extra resolve. But I'm only slowing down, not stopping, and I will periodically send a diary entry because we’re by no means finished with this journey.

Since the pandemic began, The Times said that more than 21,000 New Yorkers have died of Covid-19, and about 111,000 in our whole, saddened country. Re-opening will be a long process and it will have bumps and interruptions that we, being human, may be stubborn to accept or adjust to. And now we are responding with such a mighty voice to the killing of George Floyd and so many others before him. Maybe we need more than one vaccine, one for Covid-19 and another cure for, as I heard someone describe it this morning, our original virus of racism. Before we have either, however, the large crowds that gather, whether it’s at a demonstration or a newly opened amusement park, may make us sick again. I worry.

We have some difficult challenges ahead of us and we have no choice but to rise and meet them. History says we can do this. I hope we do not prove history wrong.

Cooking and Groceries

Last night’s dinner was a beautiful piece of fresh cod that I had bought at Whole Foods the day before. I used Rika Yukimasa’s really delicious teriyaki sauce to marinate and cook it; this is the second time I’ve used her sauce with cod and I wrote about it with more details in this diary entry. I served it with a crispy salad of thin slices of raw fennel, scallions, radishes, and baby cucumbers, dressed with a dressing made with 2 tablespoons fish sauce, one tablespoon rice wine vinegar, one tablespoon vegetable oil, and one tablespoon fresh lime juice. It was a light but very satisfying meal.

The other day I made a reference to buying foods that are organic and posed the question as to whether it’s worth it. I suspect that most people know that foods labeled organic have been grown and processed without pesticides and must meet specific and rigorous standards that are set and enforced by the USDA. Because of the farming and documentation requirements, organic foods are almost always more expensive than those that are not.

Even after spending a lot of time reading and talking to farmers and grocers about what organic means and why it’s better for us, I still get confused when I’m standing in the supermarket and trying to decide what to buy. So I’ve come up with my own system that may not be perfect, but I think it’s reasonable and healthy.

First, I pay attention to the annual produce lists published by the Environmental Working Group that show the EWG’s assessments of which produce has the most or least pesticides. These lists are called The Dirty Dozen and The Clean Fifteen and I use them to help me choose which foods are most worth the extra cost.

For example, these lists tell me that this year, number one on The Dirty Dozen list are strawberries. So I try to only buy organic strawberries (and spinach and kale and tomatoes).  But I worry less when I buy frozen peas, avocados, and onions, just to name three, because of the EWG’s data on these crops that gave them places on The Clean Fifteen. I try to be prudent but also practical and I make economic choices.

I also make choices based on where and from whom I’m buying my produce. A lot of small farmers and producers comply with most, if not all, of the USDA’s organic rules but they can’t afford to pay for all the paperwork. If I’m at my Greenmarket, I’ll ask the farmer about their practices and if I’m comfortable with their answers, even if they are not USDA certified organic, I will absolutely still buy from them. 

I feel this way, too, with cheese producers. Small goat farms may be making exquisite small batches of chevre but it’s often one farmer and a tiny herd of goats. There’s no one to deal with the U.S. bureaucracy and I’d much rather have her cheese than an orange-tinted, plastic-wrapped cheddar that officially is organic. 

However, I do have a few specific foods outside of produce that I am 100% strict about. The first is dairy. We have enough hormones in our food supply systems that we don’t need to get more from cow’s milk. So I am meticulous about only buying organic milk, yogurt, half-and-half, and cream.

The next is seafood. I will only buy wild shrimp and I do not eat shrimp in restaurants because it’s extremely unlikely that any shrimp on a menu is wild. I am strict on this point after learning how farmed shrimp are “farmed,” which is often by digging pits in the ground to grow them and when the pit becomes toxic and the shrimp start to die, the shrimp farmer just digs a new hole. I know this description may seem a bit hyperbolic, but it’s essentially how it works. These shrimp can also contain antibiotics. While I have read that there are shrimp farmers whose product is cleaner and safer, I find it a challenge to know what’s-what while I’m standing in front of a bin filled with shrimp and crushed ice and the person behind the counter, unless it’s the owner in a small shop, can’t really document the shrimp origins. Mark and I love shrimp so therefore, my rule is to only buy from a good fish monger and only buy wild.

I’m more flexible on some other seafood. For instance, I’m not opposed to tilapia, although I wouldn’t eat it every day (nor would I eat swordfish or tuna every day, even though their past toxicity levels are vastly lower than they used to be). Nor do I have to have wild or organic salmon; again, it depends upon the source. If you buy and eat seafood often, your best expert to consult is the Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. Here’s the link to their Seafood Watch Consumer Guides and there’s one for every state.

For meat, there’s also a lot to know and the recent Covid infections in some of our largest meat processing facilities have put a spotlight on how our meat is butchered and brought to market. Mark and I are meat eaters, although in normal times, I limited red meat to once a week; with the virus and shopping challenges, that number has crept up. Ideally, for both health and environmental reasons, we should limit (or eliminate) red meat, and when we do buy it, we should try to choose organic and/or grass-fed products that were grown on smaller, local farms. But life isn’t always so simple and it can be complicated or expensive to do everything we want. What’s most important is to be an informed consumer – to know what’s in your food and where it came from. After all, isn’t this one of the main reasons we cook?  So that we can really know what we’re eating?  

I’ll be back in a few days. I am so grateful to continue this journey with you.

Stay safe, stay engaged, and have a nice dinner.

Kate McDonough

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