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Personal story

Food during the pandemic

History is never terribly good at capturing emotions, and I think that posterity will probably underplay the mood of fear at the outbreak of the crisis; for many people, I think, the gravity of the situation wasn’t really appreciated until the rather chilling choice of words of the PM on 12 March – ‘many will lose loved ones before their time’. I think many subsequently reverted to comfort food to ‘get them through’ and I remember a conversation with a BBC producer in which he told me of how he’d pretty much reverted to what he called a ‘school dinners’ diet, which I thought was great way of putting it.

I try and keep abreast of international news and listen to a lot of Irish media, which tends to be a little less myopic than some British media output, so I’d changed my behaviour – and therefore my consumption habits – before the cold, clammy fear really struck here. I’m therefore ashamed to honestly record that I felt a small pang of schadenfreude when the UK death toll started to climb – in the sense that I hadn’t been patronising restaurants and pubs (activities which I love) for a good while beforehand.

However, like a lot of people, I’m pretty sure that my consumption patterns changed quite noticeably as a result of lockdown. I found myself buying and eating more, particularly comforts like wine and cheese. I’d heard an Irish expat from China on RTE radio talking about how whiskey had seen him through a nasty bout of the ‘Rona, so I used this as a (pretty flimsy) excuse to indulge in bottles of Jameson whiskey on a weekly basis, which I wouldn’t normally do. I tried to visit the supermarkets late, when there were less people around and no queues and therefore less chance of transmission. I remember driving to the horrid, enormous ASDA in Hunts Cross late one evening and hearing a particularly incoherent and unconvincing government minister being interviewed – it was Helen Whately, I believe – and thinking to myself “they don’t have a fucking clue what they’re doing”. Whilst resisting the temptation to go ‘Mad Max’ in my outlook, I did start to moderate my behaviour so that I avoided smaller food outlets altogether, which is sad because I want good local food businesses to thrive instead of ghastly big impersonal supermarkets. I started visiting big supermarkets which I’d never usually shop in, like ASDA, purely because they allowed more room to keep away from people. I wore the only face covering I have (balaclava) and soon found that shoppers and supermarket staff alike would jump aside as I went striding down the aisles in such forbidding attire. This was good – I no longer wanted to chat or mosey about or dither while food shopping, to ponder over this item of that, have a natter, think about what herbs or spices etc I would need for dishes I would cook that week. No, I wanted to get in and out as quickly as possible. Due to the inept and constantly shifting government info, it felt at times like it was ‘every man for himself’ and I noticed when food shopping others taking this sort of survivalist / efficient / ‘prepper’ (to use American parlance) approach. I abhor the idea of stockpiling or panic buying, so maintained weekly shops, but I noticed a good deal of this – whether evidenced through trolleys piled high or empty shelves.

Due to panic buying and certain shortages and the poor quality / reduced selection of items like meat etc this meant that I pretty much switched to a vegetarian diet for much of lockdown. I find myself eating stuff I wouldn’t normally have consumed, like Quorn, and when unable to get milk I was forced to switch to Soya milk and that kind of thing. I haven’t kept up these consumption habits now lockdown’s eased, but I’m certainly consuming less meat.

Lockdown has even encouraged my partner (a reluctant cook at the best of times) to try her hand in the kitchen, with mixed results, but – I’m happy to report – some notable successes too. I found that at first I resorted to making hearty, uncomplicated, reassuring dishes: spaghetti bolognese; bangers and mash and gravy (albeit veggie sausages); various cheesy pasta concoctions; good old cabbage and bacon; beans on cheese on toast; chilli con carne; curries (sauce from a jar). As lockdown wore on, I devoted more time to cooking and received plenty of culinary inspiration from the founder of this website, who also dramatically appeared one afternoon bearing confit de canard.

Separately, I started a fundraising appeal for friends in Peru who run communal kitchens (comedores populares) and set up a whatsapp group for the residents of my road so as to ensure that the elderly were getting food / having someone check in on them. I soon regretted this, as the whatsapp conversations soon turned from emergency food supplies and everyone confessing how much more alcohol they’d been consuming during lockdown (the more resounding clunk-clunk of the bin collections every Tuesday being a sure sign) to trivial matters, curtain-twitching complaints, and pathetic mini moral panics, prompting me to swiftly leave the group I’d set up. *As far as I’m aware, no little old ladies starved to death on Bundoran Road during lockdown, so I can rest assured that I ‘did my bit’.

With lockdown, my greatest sense of loss was attached to that inimitable liberty of being able to visit a restaurant or pub on a whim. When I grew tired and irritable and bored of home cooking, I started ordering a takeaway once a week. This started with pretty expensive and exotic takeaways – I recall eating a very nice Malaysian takeaway at one stage, an exquisite prawn curry – but quickly descended into pretty unhealthy ‘treats’ such as burgers and chips, and even a doner kebab consumed sober, which is an experience I don’t want to repeat anytime soon.