Staples provide us with the basis of variety, and variety itself does seem to be one of our primal needs. COVID-19 has forced us to rethink what our staples are, what they mean to us, and our relationships with them. The following is a creative nonfiction piece, a collaboration by three classmates from Karen Pepper’s Food and Literature class, and is about the ways we are coping and thinking about our staple ingredients.
An Ode to the Staples I’d More or Less Forgotten About and How to Wing it with Them
This time has given me space to reflect on the staples. Flour, in particular. No, I am not baking bread,like a large portion of the inspired population, though I do not blame them for stress baking.
I am here to talk about the roux, the building block for other things: sauce, a thickener, maybe gravy. Mac and cheese is made of things that last: flour, butter, pasta, cheese, and salt. A béchamel may sound intimidating, but is nothing more than a handful of ingredients— those listed (sans pasta), and milk. Cook the pasta, drain and set aside. In a pot, over a medium heat, add a few knobs of butter, a healthy amount (here “healthy” means “generous”). Let melt, and add a spoonful of flour (about equal parts butter and flour). Whisk constantly for a couple minutes. Slowly whisk in a couple cups of milk and incorporate into the roux; let thicken, whisking occasionally. When thick, add loads of grated cheese, taste, and season with salt. Add vinegar or Tabasco to brighten it up. Pour the sauce over the pasta.
Alternatively, use a roux to thicken a soup and make it heartier. Melt the butter, whisk in the flour, then whisk vigorously, directly into a soup that is cooking. Let it simmer together for a few minutes. Play around with how long you cook your roux, using a dark roux or a light roux to experiment with depth of flavor.
Some use flour only to make vegan roux, the “dry roux.” Lay out some flour on a sheet tray and toast it in the oven. Whisk it into whatever sauce or soup to add body.
Staples foster versatility in cooking. I’m remembering ways to use flour that I’ve been too lazy or too busy to pull out of my back pocket. Flour is always laying around for one reason or another; now it’s for me and not the moths.
“Mush:” the Staple I Never Knew I Needed
Throughout my childhood I would look forward to Grandpa’s “mush.” My Grandpa was the king of making breakfast—bacon, sausage, homemade sourdough pancakes, fried eggs, toast, a big glass of OJ, and fried “mush”— a breakfast fit for a queen. The aromas drifting from the kitchen would linger throughout the air, hinting to my nose that breakfast was ready. I have gone through my life not knowing exactly what “mush” was, aside from the fact that it was delicious. Crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside, slathered with butter and syrup. Who knew it would take a pandemic to awaken my inner child-like appetite and reintroduce the beloved “mush” back into my life?
The stores were bare and the shelves almost empty as I reached for the polenta loaf. What is this? I added it to my cart and knew that I could create something with this reasonably priced cornmeal product. When I brought it home and slit open the package, I was in shock. It looked and smelled like “mush.” I took out my cast iron skillet and melted some butter. I sliced the log into thin pieces and threw them into the skillet over medium-high heat. You want the “mush” to get crispy on the outside, with a dark brown crust. After flipping them once, they were ready. A little butter on top and warm syrup to taste. You want your fork to crack into the crust you’ve created and then dip the piece of “mush” into buttery and syrupy goodness. Now that I know the true identity of “mush,” I’m adding it to my personal “belt” of staples.
Be Careful with the Butter
It was the “Don’t come in here, Mom!” that made me leap up from the couch. (Though the absolute silence from the kitchen, after some faint scraping sounds, had raised my suspicions.) I surprised my son when I walked in on him: there he was, standing on a step stool, butter dish askew, the neat rectangle violently smooshed and gouged. The perpetrator clutched a large spoon and his face showed smeared traces of his crime.
Two months ago, I would have regarded this behavior with mild annoyance and amusement, a to laugh for the family group text. My son has always loved eating butter, something many might indulge in if it weren’t for the cripplingly unhealthy consequences of such a habit.
Now this brought a different feeling: a bloom of panic in my chest. This wasn’t any butter— this was the second to last stick of Kerrygold—which had been sold out at the grocery store the last two times we suited up into our PPE to replenish our supply! If we used it all, we’d have to switch to the languishing stick of ersatz vegan butter, left over from a dairy free houseguest. I found myself spiraling into wild theories about the international butter trade— was this the beginning of the end? Would they still manage to milk those Irish cows and fly Kerrygold across the Atlantic?
Like my son, I too love butter. I enjoy it every morning on toast. This minor indulgence, a daily staple in our house, felt threatened. Luckily, my worst fears proved false and we were able to replenish our stock within days. I hope that I can feel cavalier about a stolen tablespoon again.
The reliable and mundane has become precious. We use and think about our staples differently than before, re-discover food memories, and cherish what we have taken for granted.