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By Jacques Couret
I learned how to make a roux in 1989. That summer, I asked my Mémère to teach me everything she knew about Creole New Orleans cooking. An outstanding cook and loving grandmother, she specialized in all the classics – gumbo, red beans and rice, jambalaya, you name it. Understand that where I am from, making a roux is as important to living a Godly and decent life as learning to walk or graduating from college. Food is a blessed sacrament, not just a utilitarian necessity. My lifelong passion for cooking, grocery shopping for the best ingredients and eating well comes from that culture and my grandmother.
After nearly three weeks without a visit to the grocery, I ventured out early this morning to restock my pantry and fridge. What used to be something I looked forward to now felt like dread. The fear of being around others or touching anything contaminated with the coronavirus upset my stomach. A queue of a couple dozen or so shoppers all standing ridiculously far apart kept guard facing the automatic front doors. That isn’t normal. I lined up as the queue began to move after a guard opened Publix for business.
I imagined the things I needed most – bread, in particular – and headed to the far side of the store first to get a loaf or two before they vanished. As I stood between the long shelf of bread to my right and the sprawling produce department to my left, my nightmare began. I saw a large, empty space where the onions used to be, and I felt a sense of anger, panic and disbelief rolling into one unsettling emotion. Nearby, more empty spaces where bell pepper and celery should be. How the hell am I supposed to cook anything without onions, bell pepper and celery? The Trinity!
In that moment, my plans to make gumbo, red beans and rice or jambalaya evaporated. The dishes I grew up with and always turned to for comfort and when I needed to stretch a buck would now be impossible. Imagine New York without pizza or bagels, Philadelphia without cheesesteaks, Boston without clam chowder or San Francisco without sourdough bread or Dungeness crab. Culinary tragedy!
I continued to the meat department – no chicken, no beef and no sausage. Bye-bye jambalaya, bucatini with meat sauce and pretty much every recipe I usually make during any given week. I “settled” on turkey breast cutlets, ground bison and ground lamb. I’m fantastic in a kitchen. I know I’ll make something delicious out of these proteins. My belly will certainly be full. But it’s just not the same. These days, few things are.
America’s Southern culture is one where we look a stranger in the eye as we pass and say hello or share a smile. We make friends with strangers in the checkout line, because that’s what our mommas and Mémères did. Our hearts are warm like our weather, and we do insist upon being polite and kind as much as possible. If you wear your favorite SEC school’s logo when out during football season, you expect and welcome the likeminded, and similarly dressed, strangers to high-five you and give an old school cheer. You also expect and welcome others in rivals’ apparel to give you some “clean, old-fashioned hate,” as they say in Georgia.
But at the store today, there was little eye contact, chatter or warmth, and there were no SEC cheers despite my LSU sweatshirt. Instead, there was stress, anxiety and a desire to get in and out as quickly as possible without catching COVID-19. There may not be any SEC football, or any other type of football, this year. And there certainly won’t be gumbo on my stove any time soon. It all broke my spirit when I thought about this while putting groceries into the car.
I tried to sort out my emotions as I drove home. Those damn empty shelves! I thought about growing up during the Cold War, all those images of Soviet Bloc countries on the nightly TV news. The rationing and endless lines of severe-looking babushkas and old men in heavy coats and ushankas hoping to get toilet paper. Lines for toilet paper! Toilet paper! Can you believe that?!
The quarter-empty store I saw is nothing compared with the misery people behind the Iron Curtain endured and what today’s citizens of Venezuela, North Korea or Cuba continue to suffer. But this is America – the Norman Rockwell painting promised us “Freedom from Want” in 1943! Where’s my toilet paper?
I wondered what my Mémère and Pépère would have thought about the current pandemic. They grew up during the Great Depression and never wasted a scrap of anything forever after. She dealt with rationing stateside, while he fought the Japanese Empire in the Pacific. They reared two boys on a meager budget after that. To them, whining was unacceptable. It was OK to feel stressed or to worry, but then you had to do something about it or “fermes la bouche!” It’s something I continue to struggle with as I, and we, work from home and wonder when, and if, our “normal” lives will ever return. COVID-19 World – there are moments of despair and there are moments of joy.
Before I got home, some final thoughts crossed my mind – gratitude and perspective. As an American, I, and perhaps some of you, got used to having everything anyone could possibly want on-demand 24/7. I, and perhaps some of you, grew up believing in this land of plenty, that we are indeed blessed, will never run out of anything and should be immensely thankful. There’s even a holiday every late November devoted exclusively to that concept – and over-eating, football and booze.
But I, and perhaps some of you too, have clearly taken a lot for granted. It’s hard not to. We got spoiled. How I’d now gladly fight an hour of traffic twice a day to get to the office and see my colleagues. Some people no longer have jobs. How I’d now gladly run an errand even when tired and browse the merchandise without fear of touching and contracting a potentially deadly illness. Some people cannot afford to buy whatever they want, whenever they want it. How I’d now gladly go to the gym even when feeling lazy. Some people aren’t healthy enough to even stand.
Gratitude and perspective – maybe the bison étouffée can become a real thing?
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Jacques Couret is editorial manager of All Told and works out of Allison+Partners’ Atlanta office, where he boasts the company’s best collection of Star Wars desk toys.