Planning food during a pandemic

In the days leading up to the COVID19 pandemic, photos of queues of people trying to buy food and that of empty shelves in supermarkets ( for some unknown reason toilet paper and pasta have been very popular!) have become the norm for a modern society used to having everything at the click of a finger (or a click on your computer screen). It is hard to get even delivery slots for food if you don’t want to shop in store.

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I saw this during early March when the panic buying had just started
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Within a few days, shelves were beginning to look like this!

I was also swept away by the societal urge or rather the herd tendency to stock up on food, although probably my shopping was nothing compared to the people who bought up shelves of toilet paper and even fought and got arrested over that.  I found that I had bought some extra onions and potatoes but its not too much of a problem to eat them.  Even then I have thought of some ways I could prevent myself from panic buying potatoes and onions or anything else.

  1. Make a food plan for each day and a grocery plan for the week: Write down a possible menu plan and what ingredients you may need. It is not always possible to find everything you need, so you have to be flexible about this.  Check if you really need to stock up a month’s supply of toilet paper or that you are a good enough baker if you are buying so much baker’s flour.  Food has limited shelf life and buying too much means you might end up having to throw it at the end.  There is a viral video of a man who stored hoarded items on top of his kitchen units, in the hallway, toilet and everywhere possible- creating trip hazards in the house and possibly, fire risks.  This also means that someone else didn’t get to have it- this is also selfish behaviour.
  2. If you really can’t find something, look up smaller stores: Many so-called ethnic or speciality shops have stocks of things not available in the supermarkets.  The last time, I looked they had toilet paper, pasta, bread flour and everything else- without the queues. Shopping at smaller stores helps them to keep going during the tough economic times. So it is a win-win situation.  I also learned some special recipes during my conversations when shopping.
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Smaller independent stores often have enough
  1. Look for long life items: These could be either dried foods such as rice, lentils, beans, etc. but also canned and frozen items.  I’ve no idea why people need so much pasta but I found that I could make many dishes by using brown rice for example- Chinese, India, Mexican, Japanese and Italian. Some fresh foods like onions, garlic, apples, and carrots also keep well for a long time.
  2. Freeze what you don’t need: I have prepared food and cut vegetables that might not keep in the fridge and so I’ve frozen these for quick meals. I have also frozen herbs (I found some on sale or about to be thrown by the shop and reduced).  Even opened canned food that can’t be used straightway can be frozen. I am also freezing milk in batches to use later.
  3. Share buying with neighbours: Buying in bulk will be cheaper and you may find that food shops will prefer larger deliveries, rather than small purchases.  Bigger shared purchases also bring down carbon emissions by reducing numbers of deliveries.  In my building, people have also shared shopping duties for older or ill people.  Many hygiene experts recommend washing hard items like produce, bottles and cartons while cardboard boxes, paper and cloth if left aside for 9 hours or more will kill any lingering virus on them.

There are many guidelines about disinfecting stuff bought from the shops.  But washing with water remains the cheapest and the most effective.  I’ve been washing all hard things like vegetables, bottles and cartons- a good habit anyway.  Research from the US National Institutes of Health found that the COVID19 virus survives for longer on cardboard – up to 24 hours – and up to 2-3 days on plastic and stainless-steel surfaces such as door handles, plastic-coated or laminated worktops and other hard surfaces. So it might be a good time to reduce the amount of plastic you have in the home! Of course, with fresh produce that is used immediately, the cooking kills all bacteria and viruses.

The researchers discovered that copper surfaces tended to kill the virus in about four hours.  So I’ve been using all my Indian copper and brass plates.  Coronaviruses can also be inactivated within a minute by disinfecting surfaces with 62-71% alcohol, or 0.5% hydrogen peroxide bleach or household bleach containing 0.1% sodium hypochlorite. Higher temperatures and humidity also tend to result in other coronaviruses dying quicker, so if you can, wiping surfaces with hot cloths or using steam cleaner might be more environmentally friendly and even cheaper. On can follow common sense hygiene practices handed down from ages like washing hands and wiping surfaces often, separating raw meat from other foods, cooking and serving to the right temperature. Many religious or cultural practices also require this- Jewish, Hinduism, Islamic, Indian, etc.

Finally the best tip is not look at supermarket queues and avoid social media or news stories about food scarcity- herd mentality makes people scared and buy more than what they need.  It is estimated that in the UK, people have hoarded up £1billion worth of food while some may go hungry while there is enough food and grocery in the supply chain.  Social media and news sometimes stirs up unnecessary fears.  Believe that you will find what you need or become resourceful enough to use what you have! As the Italian writer, Francesca Melandri, who has been under lockdown in Rome for almost three weeks due to the Covid-19 outbreak, wrote,

‘First of all, you’ll eat. Not just because it will be one of the few last things that you can still do.

You will count all the things you do not need.

The true nature of the people around you will be revealed with total clarity. You will have confirmations and surprises.’

(I have not printed her entire article but you can find it here)

Hope springs

‘And all the spaces of our past moments of solitude, the spaces in which we have suffered from solitude, enjoyed, desired and compromised solitude, remain indelible within us, and precisely because the human being wants them to remain so. He knows that the space identified with his solitude is creative; that even when it is forever expunged from the present, when henceforth, it is alien to all the promises of the future, even when we no longer have a garret, when the attic room is lost and gone, there remains the fact that we once loved a garret, once lived in an attic. We return to them in our night dreams.’ (Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard, 1958)

I’ve been very sad recently.  My childhood home in India which was locked up, had been burgled. Not satisfied with not finding much there (yes, we were very poor), the thieves then ransacked the place, even ripping apart the mattresses.  Even if a home has been a very humble place, with not many things there, it still has its memories. It was also my first home and a place I always went back to.  I learnt to walk there and play with the children who lived nearby.  Our school was nearby.  So many people came there.  The address is forever etched my heart.  My beloved uncle and my father both passed away there. That place was the centre of my universe for decades until I left but I always came back to it whenever I visited India from the UK. My British born children loved it too.

Then this burglary happened- totally out of the blue. I felt violated myself because my home was so intimately connected to me- it was who I was, it was my body. The mattresses that had been ripped apart lay on the same bed that my father had died.  I was angry and helpless. But there was nothing to be done. When I was praying, the thought came into my head, ‘You need to concentrate on yourself. There is nothing to be done by getting angry or upset’.  And then I read about the people in Australia who had lost everything in the recent bushfires- and precious things like their pets, photographs of their childhood, livelihood, etc.  Tragically some had even died trying to save their homes. I began to feel grateful that such physical evidences of my life were still there- photographs, mementos, and my memories too.  No one had been injured during the burglary.  I heard a woman say about her home being destroyed during the floods in the UK, ‘After all, it is just bricks and mortar.’  And I thought about all those people around the world who had lost homes, left their homes fleeing wars or other disasters, or were even homeless.  Suddenly I began to see a brighter side to everything- and really how lucky I was.

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Black mountain on fire, February 2020 (image: Wikimedia commons, Saritha Balram)

Then today, I saw this- a little tiny shoot of a cactus plant.  Cactus plants are quite difficult to grow at home from seeds but somehow this little thing had managed to sprout. I felt like it was saying to me, ‘Don’t give up hope.’  It is still a long way from becoming a proper cactus plant but I thought this little thing has struggled and found a way to come out of the dark sandy soil, so could I come out my own dark place.

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My tiny cactus plant!

Kettle’s Yard: a reflection

I recently visited Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, UK.  Kettle’s Yard was the home of Jim and Helen Ede during 1958 to 1973 . Jim had been a curator at the Tate Gallery in London 1920-30s.  Collecting and curating art and nature in his home, became his cure for undiagnosed PTSD brought on by the Great War.  He became a patron, collector and buyer of works by then unknown (and some famous) artists- paintings by Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Alfred Wallis, Christopher Wood, David Jones and Joan Miró, as well as sculptures by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Constantin Brancusi, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.

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This work, called ‘Bird swallows a fish’ by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, made a profound impression on me. Very pertinent for our ecological crisis.

Jim did not distinguish between high art, naive art, and nature.  There are no labels, so the visitor enjoys the work as it is.  Surprisingly for a curator’s home, there no curatorial statements either.  Alongside carefully positioned valued artworks, we find broken and old furniture, glass, ceramics and natural objects. The aim was to create creating a harmonic whole, not perfection. He was influenced by his visit to India after the war and his work reflects his interests in Eastern religions and folk art.  He invited students for talks at the end of each term and in the end, left the house to Cambridge University.  He meant this humble home to be neither ‘an art gallery or museum, nor … simply a collection of works of art reflecting my taste or the taste of a given period. It is, rather, a continuing way of life from these last fifty years, in which stray objects, stones, glass, pictures, sculpture, in light and in space, have been used to make manifest the underlying stability.’

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Humble collections of stones, arranged carefully, give a peaceful ‘zen-like’ calm to the home.

Looking and reflecting on the interiors, as an architect and home maker, I came to realise that to create a home you have to know yourself and your own needs deeply.  And to create such an harmonious home, you don’t need expensive things- just things that reflect who you are.  So Jim and Helen Ede’s home could be viewed by some as eccentric and unsophisticated but the abiding impression is that of a couple who consciously chose to eschew the materially rich for that which is soulfully rich.  A lesson indeed for these chaotic times and materialistic culture.  Such expression where someone’s inner life has been thrown open public gaze requires inner confidence, critical thinking and unwavering certainty.  This is the home of someone who has absolute happiness, not relative one.  In the end, the lesson for me wasn’t from the art but from the collection and the home as one.

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Works of art by famous artists are placed deliberately low on the floor so that the viewer can sit down and contemplate these.
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Light and shadows play a part in how sculptures are placed
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Plants also part of the display- a living natural art
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You are invited to sit on the chairs to contemplate the space and art

Lessons on design and interiors from Kettle’s Yard

  1. Make the design work for you, don’t follow others blindly.
  2. Choose things that enhance the spaces- these might be cheap things like plants, rocks, books and sea shells. They could be things that you love to touch and see.
  3. Follow the design through as you walk from space to space.  It might be simpler and cheaper to have a flow, rather than each space having its own ‘theme’.
  4. Remove and hide things seasonally.  This gives a sense of the home through the seasons.
  5. Eclectic collections have a charm of their own.  Many design magazines feature empty monastic looking spaces but as this home shows, you can have many things if displayed well.

 

The power of saying ‘I don’t know’

There is much we don’t know about.  While we may know about our own lives and that of close family and friends, our area of work or what is happening near where we live, there is much going on that we don’t know about.  It is good to be curious, good to listen to others and good to learn about new things.  Recently I have become a convert to saying, ‘I don’t know’ after years of saying, ‘I know’.

The reason comes from a childhood incident when a teacher told me I was stupid because I confessed that I did not know the words to a Christmas carol by heart.  I was being truthful but was upset when this woman declared that I was stupid in front of all my classmates.  So I started saying ‘I know’ to everything and saying ‘Yes’ to everything.  Both are stupid reactions but how is a child to know?  I carried this shame and reaction in my heart for many decades although I had long left that school and teacher.  It is only now that I realise that saying ‘I know’ is actually stupid.  There is very little we know and most of what we know is of little importance. It is better to be humble and look at the world with new eyes of learning and gratitude.  It is also such a release. When you say, ‘I know’, you are also waiting to be found out that you actually don’t know. So less stressful!

It is also so powerful to say this because you open your heart to new experiences, to be able to listen and to gain knowledge.  Even if you find out later that you knew something, it still adds to your skill and knowledge to hear it from someone else.  Most people are keen to talk and tell you something.  So the ‘I don’t know, please tell me’ has actually increased my knowledge and I have made more friends by being able to listen.  It doesn’t sound unprofessional at all- in fact it makes you look more professional by wanting to listen and understand colleagues.  Social media wants you to look like an all-knowing clever (and barbed) quip-a-dozen personality.  But opting out of that restriction is always an improvement to one’s life!  Be simple, be ignorant- or to follow the quote beloved of Steve Jobs, ‘Stay hungry, stay foolish’.

anxiety in children

I have children who always seem to be anxious about something or the other.  My older son used to have many anxieties and had counselling.  My younger son is now doing his school exams and constantly studying or revising. His only method of relaxing is texting and seeing his friends from time to time. In his anxiety about the exams, he started revising during his school lunch breaks and forgoing eating and meeting his friends in the break or after school. I tried to get him to relax through conversations over dinner and asking him about things other than exams.  But he seemed very averse to the whole thing and told me that I didn’t understand ‘modern exams’.  I also enrolled him into a service that offers telephone counselling on anxiety issues but he refused to speak to them. I told him he should join some local sports which would help him with anxiety issues.

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Anxiety by Edvard Munch

Talking about this situation with a friend over lunch, it struck me that I was asking my son to do things I didn’t do myself. I was constantly talking about work or working all the time without breaks, I didn’t meet up with friends regularly enough and never did any sports myself.  I spent many sleepless nights due to anxiety over various things (last night I slept for about three hours!).  My two children were only reflecting the anxiety I felt myself and were modelling themselves over me.  But what a terrible role model I was. Social media has made our lives difficult when we see people being successful and earning money, having millions of followers and having public profiles. Although I don’t think anyone tries to become like these lucky people (and they are lucky); we also want to achieve smaller victories in our lives.  But what if we just tried to be happy and not ambitious?

I have just started re-reading the ‘One straw revolution’ by Masanobu Fukuoka.  Fukuoka was a scientist turned farmer who started a farming revolution by doing nothing.  He was laughed at and ignored for over 25 years until people noticed that he was growing far more crops that way using no insecticide, no fertilisers, tillage and no ‘wasteful effort’.  This morning as it turned 5-00am and the skies became light, I started reading the book after having failed to sleep. In the book, Fukuoka says bluntly, ‘There is no intrinsic value in anything, and every action is futile, meaningless effort.’  I realised that we overdo everything- work, thoughts, worries, money, relationships- when we could just relax and be happy.  In trying to overdo everything, we get anxious.  Realising this at dawn today after a night of no sleep was rather ironic but enlightening.  Fukuoka’s terse words reminded me of the movie ‘The fault in our stars’ in which the lead character, Hazel Grace, says that in reality as we die, everything we do dies with us.  Though again quite a sobering thought, it really means that we are not that important in the scheme of the universe. If we just let go of our own importance, relaxed and became happy without trying to accomplish and over achieve, we would be happier beings.

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So this morning, I tried some ‘no or little work’ gardening following the advice of Fukuoka and my son joined in.  He then went to a see a friend for lunch and as he left, I joked, ‘I hope you don’t talk about exams!’ He laughed and waved goodbye.  In his writing, the Buddhist monk Nichiren advises his follower, a typically hot headed alpha male samurai warrior, Shijo Kingo, ‘Though worldly troubles may arise, never let them disturb you. No one can avoid problems, not even sages or worthies.  Drink sake only at home with your wife….Suffer what there is to suffer, enjoy what there is to enjoy. Regard both suffering and joy as facts of life.’ I had smile as I realise that often I enjoy what is there to suffer and suffer what is there to enjoy! But it is actual so much simpler just to enjoy life.

Small matters

While the UK and Europe are battling over the Brexit process, it is easy to find yourself drawn into this like a moth to the bulb, spending hours thinking about pros and cons, and who said what.  Then there is a perpetual source of amusement coming from the USA, which generates reams of journalistic coverage and hours of entertainment.  It is easy to lose yourself in these things everyday.  But one day I took a look at my terrarium- and realised that there were small events happening daily in my own room that I ignored. Things that gave me joy and courage. And hope and happiness.

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A life was emerging and there were more signs of life to be found in my living room that I hadn’t acknowledged, like this Peace Lily from a pot that hasn’t bloomed for years.

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Then I realised there were big things also happening that could affect our life on the planet at the time when politicians appear to have taken centre stage.  Climate change threatens our entire existence and no one really seems to be paying any attention, despite the student protests on Fridays.  In December 2018, a meteorite came close to causing catastrophic damage to all forms of life when a force close to ten Hiroshima bombs was unleashed.  Except, thankfully this meteorite exploded over a water body and no one was hurt.  So I realise that when the immediate seems to capture and hold your attention, then try looking up into the heavens or inside your home.  There are things happening there which are far more meaning to your life and others.