A Journal of the Plague Week 10

Sunday, May 24th, 2020

I’ve come to like Mondays. Monday is one of Jeremy’s workdays, so he gets up early, gets dressed and gets his “desk” (i.e., our dining room table) set up for the day. I follow not long after, make coffee for both of us and then settle down in front of my own computer to get the day started. Sometimes I’ll manage to squeeze in a Monday morning ballet class, but more often than not I’m still sipping a latte and checking email by the time class rolls around, so I reluctantly give it a miss. We break for lunch, eating in the garden if the weather’s nice enough, and then Jeremy goes back to his “office” and I go back to mine and we work (or at least try to) until the working day is done. It all feels very normal. On Monday, there’s comfort in this routine.

But at some point the routine—like any routine at any time, I suppose—becomes stifling. Tuesday: deja vu. Wake up, coffee, work. It’s veg box day: carrots with carrot tops, apples, oranges, potatoes. I’m grateful for all of it and I also don’t want to see any of it ever again. We have a fridge packed with food and all I want is for someone to bring me something I can’t have. I don’t know what, just something, anything I haven’t prepared myself with ingredients that have been staring me in the face for days. I’m so tempted to order the fancy meals that some local restaurants have been delivering, but I always balk at the last minute. They’re too expensive to justify when we’ve got so much to cook at home, and anyway, eating a restaurant meal at home is not like eating a restaurant meal in a restaurant. Half the pleasure of eating out is the change of scene. Even the non-fancy foods lose their luster. Chewing on tepid chicken wings while hunched over a TV table winds up being more frustrating than fun.

I remind myself: I was ecstatic over a tiny cabbage two months ago. We didn’t have a reliable food source, and the only thing that kept me from truly freaking out was the “quarantine box” I’d started a few weeks before and the frozen vegetables I’d stashed away for emergencies. Now we’re gradually breaking into the quarantine box, using things up and crossing them off my scribbled inventory without replacing them. Do we still need a quarantine box taking up valuable ballet space in the kitchen? This is the difference between now and then, and it’s a good difference. But as I strip spiky leaves from carrot tops week after week (because it’s a waste to throw them away when you can eat them), I forget to be grateful and just feel like a turnspit, moving and moving and moving and getting nowhere. (I was going to say I felt like a hamster in a wheel but decided that was too clichéd, so this is a good opportunity to break out one of my favorite historical oddities: the turnspit dog. That’s me.).

On Tuesday night I dreamed that we ate at a restaurant. The dream was very specific: it was a pop-up restaurant on a corner in Kemptown, opened by a local chef we knew. The chef wasn’t actually a specific chef, but everything else was specific, from the restaurant decor (sleek dark wood, deep blue walls, a bar along one side and big windows along the other—a lot like Etch now that I think about it) to the way we stood chatting with the dream chef about the beautiful premises and the difficult situation. It was a just-post-pandemic scenario, not so dangerous that we shouldn’t be in a restaurant, but also not normal enough for us to feel comfortable (which is just how I felt the last time I stepped foot in a pub ). In my dream, the restaurant was bustling with eager diners, and no one was wearing a mask, and there was a man standing too close to me, and I wanted to be enjoying myself but I wasn’t. And I imagine this is what it will be like in reality, when restaurants start to open again and Jeremy and I have to weigh up the risks and rewards of going out. (By coincidence, I read this article by Charlie Warzel the morning after my dream and just thought, “Yep, that’s going to be us”.)

Well, it’s not a decision we’ll have to grapple with anytime soon. Cafes and restaurants in Brighton are still only open for takeaway or delivery, so Jeremy and I do our best to create a good in-house dining situation. That situation grew somewhat more complicated on Friday, when our stove decided to act up. I turned on the gas burner to make some instant noodles (don’t judge me) and noticed that the flames were more orange than I thought they should be. I called Jeremy in and we both stared at all the lit burners, trying to determine whether they were really more orange or if we were imagining it—and if they were more orange, what we should do about it. In the end, we did what was perhaps the overly-cautious but also safest thing and called the gas emergency number.

Within an hour, there was a gas engineer in our flat chastising us for having (functional! but) outdated carbon monoxide detectors (fair), questioning us suspiciously about the cleanliness of our stove (our oven is a nightmare, but we keep the stovetop really clean, and he was sure we must have used some product on it which might account for the flame color), and saying not a word about the massive pig leg poking out from under a towel on our kitchen counter. He was actually very friendly and thorough, and after hours of trying to rule out other factors, he reckoned there was something wrong with the burners so he’d have to disconnect the stovetop for safety. We said we totally understood—even though my heart sank at the realization that it was 5 p.m. on a Friday before a bank holiday weekend, so we were going to be without a stovetop for quite a while. But on his way out he offered to leave us an electric hotplate, and though my initial instinct was to say, “No, no, no, that’s fine, we’re okay, don’t go to any trouble,” the much more practical part of brain took over and said, “Yes, please, that would be great!” So we got a free hotplate to see us through the next several days. Using it makes me feel like I’m in a dorm room or a bedsit, but it cooks food (slowly), so I’m not complaining.

Anyway, it’s been grilling weather around these parts, so we have no shortage of ways to cook. In the middle of the week, with the sun lighting up our little garden and our veg box providing a first glimpse of summer in the form of zucchini and plump green beans, we made one of those meals that manages to change your outlook on life, at least for the length of time you’re eating it: luscious pork chops from Barfields Butchers crusted with a fennel, peppercorn and chile rub and tossed on the BBQ alongside strips of zucchini for Frida Kahlo’s Zucchini Salad (a really outstanding dish, deceptively simple and infinitely adaptable) as well as those big green beans, which were just blistered over the flames and then dressed lightly with lemon, olive and lots of flaky sea salt. We washed it all down with a bright pinot noir from Quaff Wines, and I felt both transported and grounded.

I could imagine being in Spain, snacking on those salty charred beans in a tapas bar with a cold glass of cava rosado, watching the sun set on Santa Maria del Mar in Barcelona or on a plaza in Madrid. But at the same time, our meal was very much of us and of our home, good Sussex ingredients cooked right in our backyard and enjoyed at our own table. As we ate our dinner while the sun set over Brighton, we were perfectly content, savoring every bite and not needing to be anywhere else in the world. I miss restaurants and I miss traveling, those defining features of my privileged pre-plague life, but some of the joy of traveling comes from the memories of having traveled and the echoes of faraway places you sometimes find (or deliberately create) when you’re back home. As Charlie Warzel wrote in the article above:

“I realized that the [restaurant] meal would not be a respite from daily life, but a reminder of its many anxieties. So we fired up some leftovers. I relaxed a little. I felt a deep gratitude and even some pride in realizing that, over the past few months, we’ve managed to recreate some of the little comforts we used to seek out in public in our little quarantine life.”

I look forward to the day (still a long way off) when the anxiety abates and world opens up again. But until then, we’re doing okay.


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