Around the Island

Charity’s Column: Making history, and making dinner

The Thanksgiving spread at my house this year may be heartbreakingly modest, but I’ll still take pictures of the toy turkey and the mini-marshmallows on my sweet spuds.

I’m not just making dinner, I’m making history.

There is nothing like the weight of history to feed my urge to document what we eat. On the day my first child was born, I made stew, chili and soup, went into labor, and did not step out of the kitchen until every bite was labeled and stored.

People said it was “nesting instinct” but my instinct was to preserve and document every dish I made on the most important day of my life.

I reacted the same way to the COVID emergency that forced me to cancel all plans and shelter in place last spring. I started keeping track of every meal on a chalkboard in the kitchen.

Eight months later, looking back at the list of dishes I made that first week, the fear (will I be able to buy another ham hock, or is this my last batch of Cuban black beans, ever?) and the anxiety (why, Oh Kitchen Gods, did my oven have to die now?) of the first week of shut-down returns.

I wasn’t the only one creating a record of repast. Linda Zavatto started baking cookies for homebound friends years ago, but when suddenly everyone was homebound, she decided to ramp up production.

Starting in March, she baked a different cookie recipe every week, and as of this week has baked 24 batches of cookies from a mix of favorite recipes and new discoveries.

Keeping four cookies from each batch for herself, she posts the beautiful bakes on Instagram and distributes the rest. “I’ll keep baking and waiting for this virus to subside,” she said. “Although I have been told recently by one of my recipients that I cannot stop, ever!

What we eat expresses our experience; not just what fruits are in season, or what kind of fish is running, but the need for comfort, to make do with what is on hand, and the deep appreciation for a treat, whether it’s a fancy homemade cookie or a take-out meal.

Farm Manager Cristina Cosentino sees how food creates the connections so many of us are desperate for. Sales of Sylvester Manor-grown produce at the farm stand this year increased by 200% over last year, and sales in November are still at levels usually seen at the height of the summer season.

“People are more willing to go to small farms for their food as a result of the pandemic,” Cristina said.  “With few opportunities for outings and socializing, the farm stand and CSA pick-up became people’s chance to get out and socialize.”

To preserve the pandemic history being made right here, the Shelter Island Historical Society put out a call for accounts of life on the Island during COVID. In came a book of photographs documenting 60 days of meals cooked and eaten by Karen Kiaer, a long-time Island resident, and her friend Jaquelyn Ottman, who came East from her home in New York City to ride out the storm in Karen’s Hay Beach aerie.

What started as an open-ended invitation from Island-dwelling Kiaer to city-dwelling friend, became a journal of the plague year when Ottman, who was researching a book about food waste and leftovers, decided to pivot to pandemic food history. Together they cooked and ate meals while sheltering in a community Ottman wrote, “where everyone seemed to be pulling together.” 

Ottman documented each meal in pictures and prose. The result, “Connecting from a Quarantine Kitchen” tells a story of friendship and resilience expressed in daily meals.

When Terry Lucas, the director of the Shelter Island Library, was exiled from the stacks by COVID, she also documented her kitchen activities with an eye to history. Shots of her ferry-commute on Instagram were replaced with mouth-watering photos of weekend cooking projects, including a puffy, olive-oil soaked focaccia that still haunts me in a good way.

Terry found connection through her food in the real world as well as the virtual one as she and her neighbor left packages of goodies on each other’s doorsteps when face-to-face meetings were not safe.

And she started keeping a journal. “I think the urge to document things during this time was really strong,” Terry wrote. “My great-grandkids might want to know about life during the pandemic someday. This time is something I could have never imagined, and I feel like it should be remembered.”