For about a week after the Emergency Services director issued a shelter at home order for San Luis Obispo County on March 18th, 2020, my predominant emotional state could best be described as…manic. Before that I had been preparing for the possibility of things going pear-shaped and COVID-19 causing widespread social and economic disruptions. But I didn’t entirely believe it, and I was afraid I was being paranoid, and the government kept saying people shouldn’t panic. So I forced myself to be leisurely about gathering supplies, even though every jangled nerve was screeching at me to up the urgency, even though experiences in my past had confirmed that my fears aren’t always misplaced, and sometimes paranoia is justified.
The situation put me in mind of the time a number of years ago that I stepped out of my pickup in a Wendy’s parking lot in Long Beach. I didn’t like the look of a man who got out near me. But I told myself I was being paranoid, that you can’t judge a person only by their looks, and that panicking would just attract his attention anyway. So I walked in, ordered my burger and Frosty, sat by the door with my meal as the only concession to that fretful voice in my head. And beat it the hell out of there, heart pounding, when I saw him pulling a knife out on his way in through the other door. Next time, I scolded myself as I headed for a pay phone to call the police (yes, it was that long ago) maybe you should trust your instincts.
Yeah. Preparing for COVID-19 ended up being like that.
Where to Go
My “don’t panic” mantra caused me to miss out on the last vestiges of toilet paper, sanitizer, and approved disinfectants at the supermarket, and as it became increasingly obvious that life was turning into less Candyland and more Go I was determined not to repeat my mistakes. I needed to figure out how to obtain food and other necessities in a safe, sustainable way. But first I had to calm down. The daily infection reports from SLO public health did not make that easy, since our northern corner of the county routinely had more cases than the south, and at the time we had no idea what trajectory that case count would take.
For a week or so my mind spun in agitated circles. Should I risk Vons or Trader Joe’s? Should I stick to the local market? Should I use the local market’s curbside pickup instead of going inside? But then they’d have their hands on the food! Should I not even do that and order everything online? But what if I was infected by the cardboard! Sooner or later I had to make some decisions. So I did what I generally do in these situations: read a bunch. About the odds of infection from various sources. About how to minimize risk. About how local stores were responding to the situation.
In the early days some of the information was confused. Cardboard was a possible infection vector, and the virus could linger for a day or so. But it also seemed that your delivery person would have to already be sick and then almost literally sneeze on a package immediately before dropping it off for the viral load to be remotely meaningful. Initially there was advice circulating about washing all of your vegetables with soap and water before putting them away. I admit I thought, Okay, well I’m not going to do that, so coronavirus here we come. But then both the FDA and USDA released statements saying that using soap on fruits and vegetables was not a recommended policy, and I breathed a (solitary, six feet away from anyone) sigh of relief.
When it came to stores, the local Vons was clearly out. It always seemed to be crowded, and the manager had been interviewed saying that he wasn’t going to police who went inside. The last time I’d gone, just before the shelter at home order, they weren’t providing sanitizer and the cart wipes had been emptied and not refilled. Trader Joe’s, with stringent limits on who could go inside and how far apart people waiting in line outside needed to stand, was a far safer bet. But that line was, the one time we checked, daunting.
So we stuck with the tiny store in the nearby tiny town, which had only a trickle of people at any given time, well-filled Purell dispensers, signs asking customers to please wear masks, and customers who (for the most part) complied without anyone getting shot. We set up a pre-pay account so no cash or credit cards needed to change hands when we shopped. And whenever I refilled the account I donated to the fund the owner was using to feed needy families in the area. I felt pleased with myself. I’d made a decision. And though I fretted for a while about whether they were going to have milk and when they were going to have eggs, I gradually settled into a steady state of – if not ease – at least cautious confidence in their offerings, which grew more stable and varied with every passing week.
What to Buy
Then came the first article about possible food shortages, accompanied by the assurance that if they occurred they would only be temporary, and the advice to above all not panic. I stared at my last small package of toilet paper and like Douglas Adams’ free-falling bowl of petunias thought, Oh no, not again.
I told my husband about the article. “Maybe we should spin up the refrigerator in the studio and lay in some supplies,” I suggested. “Not go crazy, but, you know…Anyway,” I added a little defensively, though he hadn’t looked at me askance, “the kitchen freezer is awfully full of leftover veggies and pasta sauces. It’s hard to find things.”
“Maybe we should get a freezer then,” he replied.
“A freezer? But when we have guests…” I trailed off as he arched an eyebrow at me. “Right. Guests probably aren’t part of the calculus right now.”
He began researching freezers and I made lists. Of what food we had, of what we could use more of. Tomatoes, an endless supply of canned tomatoes. Rice, beans, pasta, canned fish. Flour for making pizza or our own pasta if dried pasta for some reason grew hard to come by. Masa harina for tortillas and semola flour for a different kind of pasta if eggs should fail. Orbiting the basics were items that made those basics more varied and tolerable: pickled jalapeños, kalamata olives, artichoke hearts, dried mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes (always more tomatoes).
I didn’t want to strain the tiny local market with a bout of stocking up, so I hunted for alternative sources online. With only a few exceptions, Amazon was a sea of third party price gouging when groceries were available at all. I settled on Target for pantry items. Several cooking sites name-checked iGourmet.com, so I decided to give them a try for more exotic things.
I made a conscious decision to go wide, not deep, in my purchases. I told myself it was all the things I’d buy anyway, just not typically all at once. I also tried to guess the next thing grocers would be out of. First it had been toilet paper. Then it was yeast and flour as people took up comfort baking. In California the weather was trending warmer. Mayonnaise, I thought. People are going to want to barbecue. And with barbecuing comes macaroni salad. Potato salad. Fruit salad. I ordered two extra jars. Time will tell if I was prescient or silly.
There were a few exceptions to the rule, mostly with regard to staples. Unwilling to contemplate life without rice, I bought a 50 pound bag of Botan. Unwilling to contemplate life without pizza, and with the more reasonable five pound bags of Caputo 00 flour either utterly unavailable or selling for the price of a small mansion, my husband bought a 55 pound bag of that (it’s also good for fresh pasta and bread, and we offered to share it with pizza-loving friends, so I don’t feel too profligate). Since we have a fiendish granola habit I laid in healthy stores of rolled oats, walnuts and almonds.
But other than that – aside from tomatoes and tuna – I stuck to a rule of threes. Three cans of each kind of bean, three bags of dried. Three jars of artichoke hearts, three containers of cooking oil. Replenish as we use to keep a reasonable, rolling stock on hand. And so we got a handle on non-perishable goods.
The Freezer Saga
Keeping reasonable supplies of fresh fish and meat on hand was another matter, and for that we turned to a freezer. Unfortunately, my husband discovered as he looked online, many forward-thinking foragers had trodden this path before us, and pickings were as slim as late season berries after the wild deer have passed through. The best reviewed freezers were out of stock. Home Depot was offering a popular GE model which would theoretically be available in late June. I pre-ordered it immediately as a hedge against our other leads drying up, since in the current climate freezer preorders seemed like they could be snapped up as quickly as hot concert tickets in bygone times, and then we’d be left with nothing.
Meanwhile my husband spent the better part of a Sunday afternoon on the phone off and on with a local appliance store who could offer us a 10.1 cubic foot upright freezer or a 22 cubic foot chest model. For efficiency reasons, my husband had his heart set on a chest freezer. But this one was big, so big that we’d have to put it in the garage rather than the detached studio.
“Let’s do the right thing,” I said after a little back and forth, “but I have to confess that the thought of having to fill 22 cubic feet of freezer space for just the two of us is making me hyperventilate a little.”
We were at a bit of an impasse. So we did what we generally do in these situations: read a bit. And discovered that the upright model was only slightly less efficient than the chest freezer. I tentatively ventured that the former might also be slightly easier to organize than the latter. So by late Sunday we were the proud owners of an Energy Star compliant, manual defrost Danby 10.1 cubic foot upright freezer. All that remained was delivery the following week. No installation, for obvious reasons. They would drop it anywhere we liked outside. After that it was our problem.
Sometimes at night I have COVID-19 inspired nightmares. People crowding at the windows of my house, trying to get in. People in public spaces breathing on me and then laughing. The delivery of the refrigerator was one of those made manifest. I had imagined a freezer cocooned in cardboard that we could let bake in the sun for 24 hours. But it was just wrapped in thin plastic. And the weather report forecast rain for the late afternoon. The delivery man who talked kept invading my personal space. I kept backing up. The delivery man who didn’t talk was perched on the passenger side of the truck cab eating a sandwich. Then wiping his nose. Then eating his sandwich again. He pulled on a pair of nitrile gloves before handling the refrigerator, but not in what I would describe as a “careful” manner.
“It’ll be fine,” my husband said when I described the scenario. “We’ll be careful.” We pulled on our own nitrile gloves, carefully. We pulled off the plastic and wiped the entire refrigerator down with 91% rubbing alcohol. We got it shifted onto a dolly, and with some creative maneuvering my husband manhandled it up the awkwardly placed stairs and through the awkwardly situated door. After it was in place I looked in dismay at his torn glove. “It’ll be fine,” he said again. “I’ll wash my hands.”
In my mind I silently calculated out fourteen days from delivery. Happily no one sickened in the interval. And meanwhile we stocked the freezer with frozen vegetables, fish, and ten five-gallon ziplocs of 00 Caputo flour.
As that initial article on “supply chain disruptions” spawned ever more, I cast about for other ways to ensure a stable supply of food. The easiest way to accomplish this, of course, was to find local sources. And where we live we are blessed with an abundance of options.
First on the agenda was fresh vegetables. Social distancing and mask wearing were not as ubiquitous as I would have liked at our farmer’s markets, so I went in search of a CSA. We had participated in Community Supported Agriculture for a while back when the local university’s agriculture department ran one as an exercise for their students, but it ended up being more of a hassle than not. The weekly boxes contained far more food than my husband and I could possibly eat, so we had to find a friend who wanted to split them. And while I appreciated seasonal produce, there was only so much I was willing or able to do for weeks at a time with a seemingly endless supply of beets and turnips and not a whole lot else. (The program folded eventually, so I suspect I was not alone in my discontent.)
Yet another bout of reading turned up a consortium of farms in southern SLO county who had banded together to form a CSA. Their boxes seemed to have a nice variety, including fruits as well as vegetables. They offered a Junior box designed for one or two people. And, especially important to me during these COVID-19 days, they shipped to your door. In happier times they’ll even allow you to customize your box, though with the sudden massive but predictable jump in demand for their services – because of course I wasn’t the only person thinking that going local had suddenly taken on a more personally critical importance beyond the abstract desire to help the environment – they’ve had to restrict that for now.
There, I thought happily, I’m done. I can relax, insofar as one ever relaxes right now.
Then I started hearing rumblings about tofu shortages.
I have, I think, been doing well under my doctor’s plant-based diet regimen. Lost thirty pounds, felt stronger and more energetic, kept my blood pressure under control. (Although I admit the monitor hasn’t left its dark and lonely cupboard since mid-March. The pressure is either still good or it’s not, and if the latter…well, I don’t need one more thing to worry about, and the odds that I’m actually going to walk into my doctor’s office right now are well into imaginary numbers.)
Given my progress I was loathe to give the diet up, but I also wasn’t comfortable ignoring the shrinking protein sources around us. Trust your instincts and all that. The first reports of a COVID-19 outbreak at a Midwest meatpacking plant decided me. A local butcher we used to frequent for the occasional tri-tip or blueberry duck sausages offered a monthly or quarterly box of assorted meats: a whole chicken, a couple of pounds of ground beef, half a dozen steaks, a handful of pork chops.
As my husband pointed out, that quantity of meat spread out over three months didn’t have to be unhealthy. We could easily split a single steak at a time and cradle it in a pile of vegetables. And if something untoward happened to vegetables…well, we still had the meat. So at eleven p.m. I filled out an online form requesting a quarterly subscription. By four o’clock in the morning I received a response and was signed up.
When It’s All Over but the Living
And now, when it comes to planning, I am truly done. Local farmers and butchers buffer us against national supply chain disruptions. The owner of the tiny local market single-handedly works what sometimes seems like literally night and day to keep the store stocked with staples and even with more frivolous items like beer and gelato, pivoting as needed to ensure supply. (You may not get the yogurt you had last week, but there will be someone’s yogurt.) If for some reason one or more of those fail us we have enough packaged food to get by for a while. Target and to a lesser extent Amazon let me fill gaps in cleaning products and household supplies, though toilet paper is still a little thin on the ground and an order I placed with a restaurant supply house has neither arrived nor been cancelled, leaving me stuck in a hygienic limbo.
I looked up from my laptop after several weeks of ordering, tracking orders, finding websites to fill orders canceled at other websites for lack of availability, and was astonished to realize how far down Mazlow’s hierarchy I’d slid. It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that – aside from obtaining a second PS4 controller from BestBuy to broaden our entertainment options, and kitting out the detached studio as a possible isolation space should it come to that – I hadn’t thought about much besides food since the shelter at home order was announced. I can’t even say whether it was necessary or a psychological response to the morass of uncertainty into which we’d been thrown. I can’t control COVID-19, but I can control this.
Now the freezer was nicely stocked. (But ooh, I could use more fish! a tiny voice that I ignored insisted.) We’d spent a weekend reorganizing the study closet to make room for a secondary pantry. Buying anything more would start shading away from prudence and into bizarre behavior. So I stopped.
But it was harder than I expected. Before the coronavirus I had spent years at the tippy-top of Mazlow’s triangle, reading and writing and thinking. Now, even though once I was confident that our basic survival needs (and somewhat more than that) had been met, I could see at a casual glance that (for now at least), safety (well, persistent threat of the virus aside), belonging, and esteem needs had all clicked back into their accustomed places in the hierarchy. So why was I having so much trouble reading and writing and thinking again?
In the midst of that last paragraph a pair of orioles flew into the yard. It’s a hot day, and they were circling the freshly filled birdbath nervously, uncertainly, flitting from branch to nearby branch with their heads turning from side to side. I’d never seen them before, so I can only assume that they were new to the yard and assessing the terrain, guessing at their safety. The female flew to the rim of the bowl, but before she could sip or dip in the male flew away, and after a moment she followed.
I can’t help but think that right now my brain is like that. That even though I’ve lived in this space for twenty-three years, it doesn’t feel like the same space anymore. I’m nervous, uncertain, too much of my mental energy diverted to assessing the terrain, guessing at my safety. Nothing has changed, but everything has changed. I keep expecting “normality” to click back in, but somehow it never seems to. And in a world where I can’t go grocery shopping without a mask, I probably shouldn’t expect it to. So I guess, whether I like it or not, that’s where the thinking has to dwell for now: meditating on how to live in this strange new/old world.