When you don’t know what you’re going to find on supermarket shelves, it pay to stock up on versatile staples, be flexible in menu planning, and get a little improvisational in the kitchen

Grocery Cart Contents

What a grocery cart looks like the first night of lockdown. Photo by Hugh Garvey

I didn’t plan on cooking as opulent and inappropriately celebratory a dish as swordfish the first night of lockdown. Nor over the next week did I expect to boil kale stalks into submission, actually enjoy a variation on much-maligned pea guacamole, eat cauliflower three days in a row, and yell at my kids for not following my egg-rationing edict.

All things considered, the nuances of technique, flavor, and personal taste are petty concerns. But as an editor and cookbook author, I’ve relied on food as not just my livelihood, but also as entertainment, creative outlet, and in the past week, my primary escape. The world may be ending, but I’m not going to go down without a (food) fight. I needed do what it took to keep my wife and two teenagers fed and happy, and myself sane. The tragedy of lost lives and jobs, the hopeless headlines, the isolation: The sadness and anxiety I feel about these realities ease when the knives come out, the flame is on, and the family is hungry and waiting. Cooking and eating (and the attendant cocktail) have become the highlight of these dark days. 

Stocking up on Staples

I was in my car when Governor Gavin Newsom told Californians they needed to stay home for a month. Earlier that day I’d heard two radio stations play Prince’s 1999, perhaps for the last time before the gallows humor party vibe gave way to real panic. Four days prior Mayor Eric Garcetti had placed restrictions on dining in, gathering in public places, and conducting non-essential business. Toilet paper, cleaning supplies, and water were already disappearing from grocery store shelves and I knew they’d be cleaned out come morning. So I set a course for the supermarket, pulled into the lot, and took the last open parking space. 

Inside the lines were already long and I made a beeline to the butcher counter. The dwindling supplies of meat I’d observed on recent trips to the grocery store had confirmed what I suspected about Angelenos: The rumors of rampant vegetariansm have been greatly exaggerated. Apparently during a pandemic the meat sells out first. Call it fight or feast.

Which is how I ended up with the swordfish: It was the last package of fish in the case and apart from an $85 prime rib roast it was the last piece of fresh protein in the meat and fish department. My vision suddenly started translating the caloric value of every purchase: Swordfish is a fatty meat; skip the lean chicken breast, go for the rich thigh; buy the tuna in olive oil. And hell no don’t drain it.

Don’t Discount Anything

The pasta aisle was cleared out but then I remembered the neglected gluten-free pasta section over by the now empty rotisserie chicken broiler. There were 6 packs of fresh mushroom ravioli. Expiration date? One mounth out. Okay, that’s suspiciously long, but I’ll take ‘em all. Near the yogurt somebody had discarded two packs of bone-in lamb loin chops. Score! I grabbed a bottle of bourbon and got in line between a guy with a cannabis-appliqued balaclava and a woman wearing surgical gloves and an N95 mask. I looked at my random haul of corn chips, arugula, factory Chianti, and Havarti. When was the last time I bought Havarti? When would I able to buy cheese again? The checkout guy saw my stack of gluten-free ravioli and nodded: “You figured out the gluten-free pasta trick. I just taught that one to my wife.” When I walked out into the parking lot some twenty cars were circling looking for an open space. I haven’t back back there since, but I’ve cooked just about everything I bought that night. Here is some of what I’ve learned and cooked so far.