When I graduated from the University of Wisconsin in the early Nineties, I was planning to go to law school. This is part of my origin story... I was studying to take the LSAT at the library and there was a catalog for New England Culinary Institute there. I'd worked in restaurants in college, and I'd come to understand food as a form of art when I lived in Germany. I also thoughts, 'if I become a chef I will never be out of work.' That sealed the deal for me, and it set the course for my professional career over the last 25 years.
And I was never wrong about that... we have a saying in food service, "if you are a chef and you're not working it's because you don't want to be." Meaning, jobs feeding people are always plentiful. Until now.
I've never regretted my choice to be in food service. I've seen the world, met incredible people, and continue to learn things that astound me. I've also never really worried about a paycheck... I could always cobble something together. With COVID19 I'm faced with a new reality... my business, Girlchef, is on life support. I face the very real question of how I will pay my bills next month. In thirty-five years of food service life I've never seen it turn this hard, this fast. This is scary stuff.
I also think this is what we are built for... adapt and overcome - grit.
My dissertation, Recipes of Resolve, looked at this very thing, the role food plays in helping communities recover from disaster and build resiliency. I know from that work that what we are now experiencing can be approached in a few different ways. The most intuitive for a lot of us is to freak out, buy one thousand rolls of toilet paper and sequester ourselves in our homes. That is actually a really logical response from a psychological perspective. One very real part of disaster is a sense of anomie, or the breakdown of how we make sense of the world. We all have structures that help us navigate life: where and when we grocery shop, where and with whom we hang out to unwind, the list goes on. It's important to note, that many of those things take place around food and food places like grocery stores, restaurants, cafes and bars. When we lose access to those things, or even if access is just disrupted, our psychological ability to make sense of things begins to slip away. "The reference points of private and communal life, those things that allow individuals to make sense of the world, are gone or seriously altered, and that calls into question the normative structures of the social system." (Menck, 2012)
In what I call a "quick onset disaster," this happens almost immediately. What was there yesterday is not there anymore. This can be literal, like if a hurricane washes away your house and your favorite bar, or it can be what many of us face now... those places and people are there but we really can't - or, more importantly in the case of COVID19, we SHOULDN'T - access them. That requires an immense amount of self-control. It's incredibly difficult to shift normative structures, it takes dedicated effort and self-awareness.
We're also struggling because this present situation was also a "slow onset disaster," we saw it creeping towards us, we had time to prepare. This is where we find ourselves thinking, "what if we had done X,Y, & Z differently?" That's such alluring thinking... it's fantasy, and it allows us to place responsibility for our present situation on someone or something else. Don't get me wrong... it's really critical to re-evaluate what went wrong in the management (or mismanagement) of a disaster, but that can't be done from the eye of the storm. It's counterproductive to waste energy and resources pointing fingers. That energy can be better spent preparing, and responding to what is truly in front of us.
Which brings me to the role food can play in this disaster that is unfolding in front of us...
I interviewed a lot of people in New Orleans about their experience during Katrina and the five years of recovery directly after the hurricane. Bits of those interviews come out every once and awhile, and one of them is particularly salient now. I interviewed Jenga Mwemdo, a resident and food activist in the Lower Ninth Ward. (Her interview is accessible on my dissertation, you can get that HERE.) I asked her what happened in the Lower Ninth Ward right after Katrina, and how the community gardens she eventually led evolved. She said that once people started trickling back into the neighborhood they would have "visioning" sessions. They would try to answer the question: 'What do we want for this neighborhood?'
At first the responses were things like: streetlights, sidewalks, pavement. Jenga shifted this question by saying, "That is what we NEED... we have to answer the question what do we WANT. What CAN this look like now that the slate is clean?" One of those answers was a green space for the community to come together in. Another was access to fresh foods in what had been a food desert. And you know what? They got those things, and those things continue to thrive and grow.
Within every disaster is opportunity. I'm not talking about price gouging people for hand sanitizer... I'm talking about reflecting on what you WANT in your life that is not there now. Yes, you need money to pay the bills and food to eat, it's critical that our society help us all find those things. But we also each have an opportunity to reflect on what this disruption shows us about our own needs.
"When physical structures are destroyed, and daily routines severely impaired the schematic cognitive structures they support must find new ways to make meaning in an altered landscape" (Menck, 2012). That means you're old ways of understanding your world are now laid bare for you to see because they are so altered. This is a chance to see what is important to you. What do you feed every day? What do you really love and care about? How do you nurture those things? How might you nurture them better? What do you want, and what can you do to get that?
What I learned in New Orleans was that food, and food places, are critical ways we make meaning. The simple thought of not being able to go to Friday fish fry sends terror into my Wisconsin soul. You've got your own version of this... take a minute and reflect on what it is, see it, and value its place in your life, and the sadness it causes you to lose it right now. It's okay. No, it's good to do that because now you tangibly see the value of that thing, that place to you and your worldview. It is completely natural and normal to grieve the disruption and lose of that thing/place in your life. Whether it's the gym, or your corner cafe... it's an important part of how you make sense of your world and it's not accessible right now. That's profoundly sad, and it should be mourned.
And it will come back. Here's the thing... this is temporary. For the vast majority of us, we will return to "business as not so usual" soon enough. Yes, we will lose people... that's a sadness that will become part of this narrative. It sucks. There's no way to make that better. But our places, and the cultural artifacts we find there will come back, and we will love them even more when they do.
My personal choice right now is to find joy in the rhythms of cooking. This is the thing that always has brought me solace. It's also how I can still engage people I love in conversation. We have social media right now, and it can be a tool for profound connection and care if we make it be that way. So, Girlchef (aka... me) will be posting daily videos on our IG and Facebook page. Silly, totally non scripted things that will be full of errors, and profanity... because that is what it is right now.
The picture at the top of this little diatribe was taken in Vermont at some point in the mid-2000's before I went to New Orleans. I have always love it because it is the sentiment I hold nearest to my heart: good food helps. It helps you to engage your historical narrative and pattern of nourishment (even if that is Spam burgers... wait, especially if that's Spam burger... shit, I don't have any Spam). Food is also a way we can still show each other love, by either sharing it or showing it. So, get your oven warmed up and your IG account going... I'll see you on the other side of this, and we'll raise a real glass to each other.
Until then, follow my COVID Cooking With Claire, and other nonsense on the Girlchef Instagram account HERE, and my personal Facebook account HERE, and Girlchef's Facebook page HERE.