Web Exclusives #7: “Not Quarantine Food”

*For our recently published special issue, “Food in the Time of COVID-19”, we received more submissions than we could accommodate in the print version of the issue, so the following article forms part of a series of submissions which will be published as Web Exclusives which speak to the theme of Gastronomica 20.3.

By Tisha Marie Reichle-Aguilera

May 13, 2020: Los Angeles, California

On April 1, I texted Becca a photo of roasted pasilla chiles stuffed with quinoa, carrot, onion, and Queso Oaxaca.

Figure 1: Stuffed pasilla. Photograph by Tisha Marie Reichle-Aguilera © 2020

“That doesn’t look like quarantine food!” she responded. Maybe she thought I was foolin’.

“Why not?” I texted back.

She recounted our conversation two weeks prior about people stocking up on canned goods, frozen food, and things we ate in college like peanut butter and jelly and Cup o’ Noodles.

I haven’t eaten those foods in more than 20 years. Why would I start now? Even on a grad student budget, I have standards. And I’m using this time to get creative in the kitchen.

Becca worried I’d regret my food snobbery at some point if I could no longer drive to Northgate Market to select my own produce. But that hasn’t happened. She has groceries delivered—not something I can afford. Every two weeks, I put on my mask and wait in line six feet away from other customers.

I’d been safer at home almost a week before Governor Newsom required it. USC had planned a trial of online instruction the last few days before spring break, which started Monday, March 16. I had no travel plans to cancel. Instead, I had to figure out the best way to continue teaching argument writing via Blackboard and to prepare to take my oral qualifying exams via Zoom. But that didn’t require all the hours in my day, even when I slept until 10am.

I could be practicing my knife skills. The homie Tony’s voice in my head says, “Not like that,” when I extend my index finger over the blade to guide each stroke. He’d once demonstrated smooth quick strokes with the sharpest blade I’d ever seen. No thank you! I’ve chopped a chunk of finger flesh more than once. Not doing that again. Wouldn’t want to end up in the ER during a pandemic. Leave me and my dull, imitation-Ginsu-knives alone. I know making salad would be faster if I could cut better. The grilled marinated artichoke hearts from Trader Joe’s wouldn’t slip all over the plastic cutting board. The tomatoes wouldn’t squish under the weight of the blade before it pierced their skin. I wouldn’t have to rely on my body weight to chop carrot chunks. On the next shopping trip, I bought sweet grape tomatoes, grated the carrot, and threw the artichoke hearts in whole. No knife required.

Figure 2: Quarantine salad. Photograph by Tisha Marie Reichle-Aguilera © 2020

April 8th, my second attempt at stuffed chiles featured roasted Anaheims instead of pasilla: they have more heat, perfect for the cold and rainy afternoon, filled with cumin and paprika spiced ground turkey, orange pepper, and garlic, and then topped with queso fresco and cilantro from Sister’s garden.

Figure 3: Stuffed Anaheims. Photograph by Tisha Marie Reichle-Aguilera © 2020

The key to my quarantine menu has been versatility. The giant box of spinach I bought every two weeks was great for salad the first week, but once it was a little wilty, I threw it in a pan with two fried eggs. Wrapped in a flour tortilla with avocado and a little salsa verde, I had a scrumptious breakfast burrito. The leftover turkey filling was great topped with wilted spinach and diced serrano in a few warm corn tortillas.

In fact, tortillas might be the most versatile food I purchase. Flour or corn can be a tasty container for shredded chicken breast with spinach and queso or sautéed shrimp with garlic and butter, topped with shredded cabbage and slivers of chile güerito. Cut the corn ones into triangles and toast them in the pan with green onion, cilantro, and yellow pepper. Serve it with two fried eggs, queso fresco, and salsa verde. Maybe not the chilaquiles Abuela made, but tasty and filling.

On April 28, instead of tortillas, I put the eggs, queso, cilantro, and some salsa on top of hash browns—an homage to my Irish roots. I was inspired by a YouTube video for making them crispy like restaurants do. It’s time-consuming (and my nutritionist would be horrified by the amount of butter I used), but without a commute from Westchester to South L.A. for class, I have time to grate the potato into water, rinse off the starch, and wait for it to dry completely before I spread it in the pan and allow it to cook thoroughly.

Figure 4: Chilaquiles. Photograph by Tisha Marie Reichle-Aguilera © 2020

For the first time in my adult life, I’m eating at home more than out. As a high school teacher for twenty years, I had dinner at a restaurant almost every night, grading papers with friends. As a grad student since 2017, I ate out less but still indulged in bar meals with classmates or writer friends a few nights a week. And while I have some guilt now for not supporting local businesses, my body feels better because I’m making my own food regularly.

I enjoy eating. Even simple creations like sliced cucumber and pepper or tomato on garlic naan smothered with roasted garlic hummus, an avocado with salt and lime, or my staple oatmeal with cinnamon, ground flax, and blueberries. I roast tomatillos and serrano to make salsa verde and trade a jar with Sister for a dozen fresh eggs or give one to Emily in exchange for some yuzu from her next harvest.

Food soothes me. It also revives my consciousness. When I’m preparing meals, I pause to give thanks for the bodies that labored to plant, harvest, pack, and ship the food; for grocery store workers who are still risking their own health so the rest of us can cook and eat.

We’ve been safer at home for about two months. I’ve attempted adobo-style chicken and pork with half a cup of minced garlic—delicious over rice or in a burrito. I even embraced microwave mug cake. Did I mention my oven hasn’t worked since February? Which is fine because with summer approaching, there will be enough heat outside and I don’t have air conditioning. Now, according to the Los Angeles Times, I have about three more months to perfect my not quarantine food.

Chicana Feminist and former Rodeo Queen, Tisha Marie Reichle-Aguilera is an editor for Ricochet Editions and on the leadership team for Women Who Submit. She writes so the desert landscape of her childhood can be heard as loudly as the urban chaos of her adulthood. She is obsessed with food.