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Grocery Shopping for the Pandemic

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Perhaps the strangest thing about living through a crisis is how much stays, relentlessly, normal.

There are already 120,000 people in the world infected with this novel coronavirus, and those are only the cases we know about. But this number is an abstraction.

I cannot grasp the magnitude of the problem—not the grandmothers and uncles and friends this number comprises. Not the families in locked-down areas in China and Italy. Not the parades and conferences and festivals already canceled.

Not the empty planes. Not the universities closed abruptly in the middle of the semester.

Today, at least, the grocery store looks like it always does. Full bins of colorful produce, dry goods on the shelves, refrigerators stuffed with meat and fish and dairy and eggs, freezers abundant with pizza and ice cream and peas and pineapple.

The only sign that something is amiss is the section of empty shelves where the hand sanitizer should be. And even that feels mostly benign.

And so the question is, what should I put in my basket to be prepared to cook my way through the quarantine?

There are, of course, practical answers. Rice, beans, pasta, canned tomatoes. Things that won’t spoil in a couple of weeks.

But the question is so fraught. Its magnitude, too, is beyond my grasp.

What would I like to have for dinner when I learn that my mother’s cousin was on that cruise ship that the president wanted to leave at sea. Is that a pasta e ceci kind of night?

Will I want nachos or black beans and rice when I hear that the ICUs in Seattle are overflowing with patients with acute pneumonia?

Should I get an avocado? Is that, somehow, too optimistic?

Getting an avocado is always a tiny leap of faith in that it affirms that I believe, despite evidence to the contrary, that I will think to use it during the brief hours it is perfectly ripe, and that it will not turn out to be bruised all over after being squeezed by one too many shoppers.

Am I contracting the virus this very second by touching this particular avocado? Have I spread it throughout the bin? Should I have sanitized my hands between handling each one?

How long does a coronavirus remain infectious on the surface of an avocado?

Should I google that or is my phone so unsanitary as to render that moot?

The act of stocking up is itself an act of optimism. It’s an expression of a belief that we will need to cook regular meals in the coming weeks. That neither my husband nor I will be in the hospital needing respiratory assistance. That our lungs will hold up.

We are young enough and healthy enough that this is a reasonable assumption. But there have been exceptions. I read that an otherwise healthy 38-year-old man was hospitalized in Boston this week. I don’t know how he’s doing. I can’t even find evidence at the moment that he ever existed.

Will I want lentil soup when I learn that my friend’s dad is in the ICU with trouble breathing?

Do I have enough kosher salt and spices and cooking oil in my pantry to last for 14 days without leaving the house?

Do I have enough flour and butter and eggs for the stress baking that I will inevitably do?

Meal planning always involves a bit of fortune telling. And usually I get it slightly wrong. I try to project my best self onto the coming week: the person who eats mainly salads and vegetables. But when Thursday comes, sometimes I don’t have the energy to do the trimming and chopping for what I have planned, and I let the Brussels sprouts and kohlrabi linger in the crisper bin like a bad version of a 17th century vanitas painting while I order a pizza.

And that’s the memento mori of meal planning in ordinary times.

I read that in the Lombardy region of Italy the hospitals are overwhelmed and doctors and nurses are having to decide which patients to treat and which ones to let die. I think about that while I try to determine how many cans of chickpeas to add to my basket.

I hear someone talking on their phone say, “it’s basically the flu,” and I hear the line that becomes a refrain in John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza about the 1918 Spanish flu: “It was influenza, only influenza.” And it killed somewhere in the vicinity of 30-50 million people.

This virus is not influenza. And despite being in the same family of viruses, it is not the common cold. COVID-19, the disease that this novel coronavirus causes, is ten times deadlier than typical influenza, and appears to be quite a bit more contagious.

Do these times call for coconut milk? Will I want a Thai curry while I wonder if this outbreak will come for my parents, my aunts and uncles, my in-laws or will all of the elders in my life, miraculously, be spared?

This kind of grocery shopping is the opposite of shopping hungry. It is shopping while staring into a void.

I buy some more hand soap.

And I go home to my kitchen, my dog, and my dread.

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