Dessert was frequently guava paste and salty white cheese served with hot chocolate made by dissolving cinnamon-scented chocolate tablets into evaporated milk. Sometimes, we had my favorite, pain au chocolat.
You’d never guess how poor we were from the abundance of our table. In reality, Mom conjured most meals from ingredients we had on hand: beans and lentils, meat bought on sale and frozen, herbs and vegetables from her garden. Goya guava paste and Mexican chocolate were modestly priced treats with long shelf lives. Even my beloved chocolate croissants were donated day-olds from the community food bank.
Like many people from immigrant families — my grandmother was part of a wave of Puerto Rican economic migrants to New York in the 1950s — I learned to do a lot with a little when it came to food. Early in the pandemic, I noticed that many of my friends from more affluent backgrounds did not.
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For them, picked-over grocery store shelves or not having the exact ingredients a recipe calls for are sources of stress, not a moment for culinary experimentation. They fail to see the glorious potential in a pile of disparate ingredients. In a way, I’m lucky. My family’s financial constraints necessitated ingenuity and improvisation. It is the only way we know how to cook, and it has been my superpower during the pandemic.
History is on my side. Wars, pandemics and other crises have always spurred food innovation on personal and industrial scales. Some of us just show up better prepared.
“It’s during the times of greatest hardship or duress that you see some of the most creative expressions in the kitchen,” says Ashley Rose Young, a food historian for the Smithsonian Museum’s American Food History Project. “And it’s not only that they’re innovative or creative, they can also be incredibly delicious.”
Enslaved Africans, she notes, shaped American cuisine using only basic rations: salted meat, leftovers from plantation kitchens, what they could grow. Wartime gave us new technologies such as canning and products such as margarine — a gastronomic war crime, in my opinion. In post-Soviet Cuba, cookbook author and TV personality Nitza Villapol taught people to make such inventados (inventions) as marinated eggplant steaks or potato-based mayonnaise.
Even now, “A lot of Cubans talk to me about how they are proud to innovate in their kitchen. They’re proud to be able to come up with recipes that are very frugal and use the most cheap ingredients possible,” says anthropologist Hanna Garth, whose new book, “Food in Cuba: The Pursuit of a Decent Meal,” was released this year. While more affluent Cubans lament the continued necessity, “the ability to sort of roll with whatever is available is a more positive thing among lower socioeconomic status people.”
The art of improvisational cooking emerges in times of scarcity but may be just as easily lost. For example, the skills to transmute wartime rations into satisfying dishes that used less wheat, sugar, fat and meat than their peacetime predecessors were quickly subsumed by convenience foods, says Sara Baer-Sinnott, president of Oldways, a nonprofit group that addresses public health through heritage-inspired dietary guidelines and education.
Later, when women began to increase their participation in the workforce, “Mom wasn’t there cooking dinner every night with an apron or looking beautiful when her husband came home,” she says. “So convenience and necessity and growing population just changed things.”
This was certainly true for my father’s African American family, who were proudly part of D.C.’s Black middle class. By the time I came along, Grandmommy, may she rest, prized kitchen convenience over taste and nutrition. She relied on MSG-laden onion soup mix to tenderize roasts. Bland frozen vegetables cut into weird little cubes and instant mashed potatoes were her preferred side dishes. Thirty years later, I still remember the particular gloom of lemon Table Talk pies with their floury pastry and cloying industrial filling that left a plasticky coating in my mouth. Grandmommy took no delight in cooking, and you could taste it.
Nine months into the pandemic, I’m making condiments to stave off hopelessness. To roasted veg, I’m adding a tahini vinaigrette made with forgotten kombucha that had turned to vinegar, fresh garlic and, my mother’s go-to herb, thyme. I’ve recently become enamored with the magical emulsion that is classic French vinaigrette; I adore it on roasted broccoli. I garnish everything, including tacos and tuna salad, with what I call “slaw,” an incandescent magenta concoction — the color alone makes me smile — of onions, red cabbage and caraway seeds pickled in sweetened white vinegar. I take 2020’s lemons and preserve them for an intense hit of salt-sour tang on tagines and my signature breakfast hash: onions fried in niter kibbeh, with chicken and collard greens.
Beans, with their cultural relevance and personal significance, provide the most comfort. Since the pandemic began, our pantry has become a visual feast of wine-dark kidneys, creamy cannellinis, orange lentils and dark olive mung beans. My partner and I use our new pressure cooker almost every day to make refried beans, bean dips and bean salads dressed simply with olive oil, macerated red onions and heaps of fresh herbs. Rich and earthy tomato-based bean stews, such as this one I make with butternut squash, are the only thing I’m looking forward to this fall.
There’s a sense of triumph from my slapdash cookery. Nourishing myself with what I happen to have in my apartment feels quietly revolutionary, a shaking of the fist at the year trying to kill everyone. Cooking with what’s on hand reminds me that I still have agency in this precarious world — if only over what I put on my plate.
Terry is a freelance writer based in Istanbul.
Black Bean and Squash Stew
Stewed beans make an appearance in just about every cuisine, but these, which rely on a tomato base and a cilantro-heavy blend of herbs and aromatics known as sofrito, reference Puerto Rican and Cuban styles.
The squash may be roasted up to 2 days in advance. If not using right away, transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate.
- 4 cups (26 ounces) peeled, seeded and diced butternut squash
- 4 tablespoons olive oil, divided, plus more as needed
- 1 large white onion, diced (about 11 ounces)
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 1 large red bell pepper, seeded and diced (about 1 1/4 cups)
- 1/2 large bunch (2 ounces) fresh cilantro leaves and stems, plus more for garnish (optional)
- 8 cloves garlic
- 3/4 teaspoon dried thyme
- Three (15-ounce) cans black beans (about 5 cups), drained and liquid reserved
- One (28-ounce) can tomato sauce
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Cooked rice, quinoa or couscous, for serving (optional)
Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees.
In a large bowl, combine the squash, 2 tablespoons olive oil and the salt and toss to combine. Spread over a rimmed baking sheet and roast for about 15 minutes, or just until the squash can be easily pierced with a fork. Remove from the oven and set aside.
In a large heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat, heat the remaining olive oil until shimmering. Add the onions and cook, stirring until the edges start to brown, about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions turn light brown, about 10 minutes.
While the onions are cooking, in a bowl of a food processor, combine the bell pepper, cilantro and garlic and pulse until very finely chopped and uniform but not fully smooth — this is your sofrito.
Add the sofrito to the pot and raise the heat to medium. Add the thyme and stir until aromatic, about 1 minute. Add the beans, roasted butternut squash and stir to combine.
Add the tomato sauce, tomato paste and 1 scant cup bean cooking liquid or brine. Taste and add more salt, if needed. Bring the stew to a simmer, then reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook until slightly thickened, 7 to 10 minutes. If you prefer a thicker stew, simmer, uncovered, for a few more minutes, until your desired consistency is reached.
To serve, ladle the stew into shallow bowls or over couscous, quinoa or rice, and garnish with cilantro and a drizzle of olive oil.
Calories: 318; total fat: 8 g; saturated fat: 1 g; cholesterol: 0 mg; sodium: 94 mg; carbohydrates: 52 g; dietary fiber: 14 g; sugar: 11 g; protein: 13 g.
Adapted from a recipe by Ruth Terry.
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