Cooking in a Time of Plague
by J. Patrice Marandel · March 23, 2020
Clara Peeters, Still Life with Cheeses, Artichoke, and Cherries, ca. 1625. Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Clara Peeters, Still Life with Cheeses, Artichoke, and Cherries, ca. 1625. Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Art Critics on Emergency is a real-time collective diary by AICA-USA members about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on art critics, artists, arts institutions, art education, and the arts at large. AICA-USA members are invited to submit journalistic reflections and critical observations about this moment as it unfolds.

Going to my market yesterday morning was, in American terms, a dismal experience. I chose not to go to the fancy market patronized by bobos and hipsters, but instead to the more local one—the one that carries ethnic food: Armenian breads, Mexican chilis of all kinds, Russian sausages and Baltic herrings. I like the place for its variety, its diversity as we would say today. The women at check-out speak Russian, Armenian and Persian. I learned over the years that Armenians enjoy foods close, in fact, to French food. Armenians are picky about the quality of produce and choose string beans one by one. Mexicans don’t. The place has, in normal times, an amazing array of Russian sausages, some too fat for my taste, others absolutely delicious. I will not buy meat there, nor fish, particularly if I do not recognize what those fish are. But I will settle for a very authentic German-Alsatian choucroute, the ingredients for which I never found so easily elsewhere in America.

So, today the shelves were almost empty. Gone the Armenian breads, gone most of the sausages; gone the Persian cucumbers, the Japanese eggplants and the exotic fruits from South of the border that I never buy because I do not know how to peel them. Strangely for this land of plenty, the place looked amazingly like Poland where I lived briefly during the martial law when apples were about the only thing to buy. A salad would require a trip to an improvised market in the suburbs where people had gardens and could grow them. Today I get my salads from my own garden in Los Angeles: Warsaw on the Pacific.

My neighborhood, Los Feliz, at the edge of Hollywood, is a strange mix of people: Asians, Eastern Europeans, Filippinos are nearby, Armenians and middle-class Iranians from adjacent Glendale. My next door neighbors are from Serbia and Morocco by way of Switzerland and Holland. In true American fashion we do not know each other well. We have landed here because of jobs or wives or lovers. We’re happy to be here; we are not really nostalgic for the old countries but often, among ourselves, we make fun of the American way of life. Even though we carry American passports, we are different and will remain so. I was told when I got my US citizenship that I was now an American, not a French-American. This was not true. I am and will remain a foreigner in this country. Accepted but not integrated. We have accents which set us apart, identify us, and sometimes even make us suspicious. “Where are you from?” At the market I watch how these “foreigners”—like me—operate. They buy different things, they buy carefully, not in bulk, and I often think that they may have learned that from where they come from: the empty markets of Communist Europe, the depleted ones from the Middle East. They do not buy pre-fab food, but instead ingredients to be peeled and chopped and cooked and spiced and served. Their history is unknown to me. This is the first quarter of the 21st century, a time of anonymity. By contrast, when I first arrived in New York in 1967 I used to sit on the benches of Amsterdam Avenue with old Europeans, many of whom had numbers tattooed on their arms. We exchanged smiles and a few words in English or German. They were nice people whose history I didn’t have to ask or guess. I knew.

I have been cooking since the age of five. I wrote cookbooks as a child and in approximative French, all my recipes ended with the phrase “Cook and eat.” Why this interest, or perhaps obsession with food? My family never lacked food. I do not remember ever being hungry, but I remember stretching supplies because they were hard to come by. Recently I found my French ration card for bread. It was dated 1949. rationing in France lasted, I believe, until 1950. I remember shortages of flour and butter and just about everything else, and of electricity that plunged our family dinners into terrifying darkness. I remember my mother’s girlfriend inviting us for tea and my mother criticizing her afterwards for having made cookies that obviously had not been prepared with the full amount of butter available.

Food was a concern. There was actually a kind of snobbism in pretending that food was not essential and that we were “above it.” My mother was of this school. Food was good at home, and well prepared, but it was not extravagant precisely because we were middle-class. By contrast we knew a family that lived two floors above us “under the roof,” as we used to say—referring to former or still functioning servants’ quarters—that painstakingly went to Paris’s central market (Les Halles) every day and returned loaded with food. I remember peering at plucked ducks and chickens whose necks hung over the rims of baskets filled with turnips and leeks, potatoes and carrots, celery and lettuce, most of which were unknown to my family’s kitchen. And I remember the complaints of the woman, Madame Marie, carrying that loot and telling my father, “Look at that, what misery…you call that food?”

So, here we are, back in America where for the first time in its history, supermarket shelves are depleted—at least in California. There was not much to buy when I went out yesterday before I prepared to cloister myself for the next two weeks. And yet I found enough to cook food that should last me a long time, perhaps not for the duration of the crisis, but American optimism has taught me to believe that things will get better soon. In the meantime, try this.

First of all , I will not give you the recipe for the tuna fish soufflé. I am not kidding. This is really good and easy and is served in France under the pretentious appellation of Pain de Poisson. You know how to make a soufflé, right? Béchamel and egg whites. Just replace the cheese (for the cheese soufflé) with tuna fish—if possible preserved in water—mashed with a fork with egg yolk. Serve it with a tomato sauce or coulis. It is delicious.

Since Belgian endives are aplenty: Steam them until almost tender through, roll them in a slice of good ham, put in a gratin dish with a béchamel in which you have put sliced mushrooms and grated cheese. More grated cheese (gruyère, Swiss) on top and bake for about 20 minutes at 350.

Finally, buy a chicken, roast it well on both sides at 450 degrees. Let it cool, carve and remove all bones. Put the pieces in a deep dish with tarragon leaves—also plentiful at the market today—and pour over a mixture of juice from the chicken (no more than a tablespoon to ensure flavor while avoiding unpleasant greasiness in the gelée), a small glass of white wine (or port, or madeira), and a packet of unflavored gelatin. The chicken should be covered with the mixture. Refrigerate. When it is set and you are ready to eat, cut slices and serve with a few leaves of salad.

You may even keep those recipes for after the crisis.

J. Patrice Marandel has been a curator of Old Master paintings in various American museums since 1968. His last position was Chief Curator of European Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He retired in 2017 and is now a freelance art consultant and writer.

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