Un-Canny

As I write this, there seems to be two things on everybody’s mind—the corona virus and the U.S. presidential election. I’m not going to write about either. Well actually, I guess you could say this post’s about something related to the virus—the quarantine. Sitting in lockdown trying to find ways to stretch our food supplies and paper and cleaning products has reminded me how helpless we’ve all become compared to our ancestors.

Back in February, on behalf of the local historical society, I published a column in the local newspaper about canning tomatoes when I was growing up, entitled, “Tomato Wars and the Italian Elixir of Life” (published in the Suburban Newspaper September 4, 2019). On another occasion a friend and I interviewed a lady who had grown up in rural America at a time when people baked their own bread in outdoor ovens, sewed their own clothing and canned anything and everything, including sausage. These two remembrances remind me how dependent on others I’ve become.

Some years ago, I got the bold notion to can tomatoes as my parents and grandparents had done. Buying two dozen mason jars, lids and caps, I fantasized about the rows and rows of puree and whole tomatoes that I would put up. But dust was all those jars ever saw.

Lured by the cheap convenience of the well-stocked grocery store, I allowed my self-sufficiency to be snatched away like some victim of a 1950s sci-fi movie. My independence faded as I was drawn deeper and deeper into this advanced alien civilization—a world of quick and easy. One by one my survival skills were erased from my memories. I became comfortable with having bread already baked, vegetables that appeared before me on my grocer’s shelf without me ever having to pull a weed, and meals that could be cooked in a flash in my microwave. I yielded to the luxury of having fresh fruit anytime I wanted, no matter the season.

I regret having become so lazy that I no longer have the skills to be self-sufficient. I have to give my wife credit for making delicious bread and pizza during our stay-at-home time. I’ve come to appreciate toilet paper like never before.

I know we’ll recount our adventures of making bread with brewers’ yeast before my sister found us packets of bakers’ yeast in Florida and mailed them to us. We’ll tell the next generation the toilet paper jokes that went around—offering toilet paper in exchange for a condo, betting rolls of toilet paper in poker games, rationing it, using both sides …

One thing the pandemic has taught me is to be more conservative. I’m not so quick to waste food or paper products anymore. I know I’ll never learn to put up jams and jellies like my mom did, or cure my own olives and make eggplant salad like my dad, but being in quarantine has given me new respect for how much more self-sufficient our ancestors were than we are.

Perhaps one of the TV food programs will teach me how to preserve my own food. I’d be interested in seeing how it’s done—but I know I’ll never get off my butt to do it myself.

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