Guest blog by Allison Williams: The logistics of cooking in a double-lockdown




Lasagne is the answer, but the question was complicated. What is the best way to feed four people for a fortnight, with two self-isolating, without anyone leaving the house?

It arose just over two weeks ago when my dad had an emergency trip to hospital, a trauma for all far beyond his homemade haircut. Luckily, he is well and was discharged after a day of tests in the "green zone", the area of a hospital where no one shows any symptoms of the novel coronavirus.

The paramedics who came were astonished that our family had been shielding for a month. My mom is immune-suppressed and had been inside since falling at the start of March, weeks before the government imposed its lockdown.

I've come back from Berlin and spent two weeks in self-imposed isolation before coming to my folks in order to avoid bringing an unwelcome surprise. And I was glad to find my sister still in South Wales after her medical school studies, via Nepal and Scotland. She is still waiting to be dispatched to a virology lab or to the "frontline", we don't quite know yet.

In hospital, my dad was seen to by over 10 people; some were not wearing masks so when my sister brought him home, we decided that both had to enter two weeks of strict quarantine.

The main challenge was the cooking. After we decided against making eggs, cereal and fruit proved easy for breakfast. Supper was also straightforward: crackers and cheese. But lunch, the main meal, was trickier and also needed to be carried up the stairs.

© Allison Williams
© Allison Williams

Over the two weeks we discovered that the best way wasn't necessarily making the meals that were fastest to put together. One-pot meals aren't easy to dish out in a hallway, I worked out belatedly, dripping curry on the floor.

The availability of ingredients was also not as great a problem as we had expected, although there are still shortages of flour, tea and rice. We just did some swapping for less popular grains such as barley and quinoa, for example.

During these days of double-lockdown, our local butcher Griffiths, a family-run business minutes away, literally saved our bacon. We were also grateful to Jan and Tony who run a fruit and vegetable store and deliver. Without them, it would have been an immense struggle, as finding a delivery slot from the supermarket has proven almost impossible even though my parents are longstanding customers and users of online ordering.

I scoured the cookbooks and online for suitable meals and resolved to scale back the experiments I usually inflict on my family, despite the captive audience.

As bowls fit more easily on our tray, we made Meera Sodha's sweetcorn and butternut squash stew. There was pizza, there was quiche. There were baked potatoes.

It was harder when mom's rheumatoid arthritis flared up, and when I was working. I was tempted briefly to serve up a packet of cream crackers and a jar of peanut butter.

© Allison Williams
© Allison Williams

As each mealtime approached, my mom and I would load up trays of food in the kitchen and grab our masks. When I remembered, I also grabbed a pair of rubber gloves, to bring the dishes down again with, though it felt sort of harsh.

Chairs placed outside the two rooms replaced the dining table. My sister and dad, in adjacent rooms, sat back from their doorways, unable to see each other, shouting back and forth. Mom and I ate perched outside their rooms, my mom with a view of my dad, me with an eye on my sister.

I kept suggesting the environmentally-unsound idea of paper plates to my mom. She wasn't convinced but occasionally we passed the covid-prisoners pieces of fruit on paper towels. My sister claims we threw it, but I don't think so.

My mom couldn't wait to move back in with dad. My sister longed to empty the dishwasher and to get herself a sandwich - in that order, she claimed.

To brighten the mood, mom made her lemon meringue pie.

© Allison Williams
© Allison Williams

These hallway picnics were no picnic, though easy recipes included Mary Berry's orange cake after a sudden glut. Sunday bacon and eggs left us glad we wouldn't do that too often. Bran muffins and scones, on the other hand, are easily portable. On an optimistic day, we made Nadiya Hussain's recipe for coconut chicken.

Whatever we ate, these doorway meals were a chance to catch up after decades away. Sitting down together and sharing well-meant advice and growling about the government over cups of tea helped us process the fact that there would be no imminent return to "normality".

All the fruit-ordering, the cheese-washing and plate-juggling distracted us from the grim fact that shopping and meeting up with people won't be safe before a vaccine is found.

We survived, but it was a tough fortnight and we are still living in a strange state of limbo. Mom starts each day by searching for a date and trying to order groceries. When deliveries come, we race to the window, wave our thanks, mime that we are self-isolating, gesticulate that we'll pay online. It's quite a dance.

We then leave the food in packaging for 24 hours and hose down dairy products before putting them in the fridge.

Berlin's cafes, restaurants and bars seem sort of far away right now. Fried chicken, Vietnamese noodle soup, or coffee from a machine all sound strange and exciting. I fear the homemade kimchi (see Anne's blog post about Brexit Kimchi) I left in the fridge is fermenting furiously and will someday announce itself to the neighbourhood with a fearsome smell.

Speaking of which, lunch is ready. Thankfully, the two ex-covids can come to the table, carry their dishes and graze when they feel like it.

Mom has since decided that if any of us has to go into quarantine, she wants to be the isolated one. As a dental problem emerges, this looks likely. Hopefully, we will be better prepared next time - and smarter.

I doubt she'll be fobbed off with a pack of protein bars.

© Allison Williams
© Allison Williams