Bringing Back Vintage Board Games in Pandemic Times

During one of our many moves, I boxed up all the old kids’ board games and donated them to Goodwill. It seemed ridiculous to keep toting them around when no one played them anymore. The kids themselves were off to college or in their own places, and I couldn’t remember the last time we had a gathering of people over to play board games. With tablets to hand, there was so much more to do: you could watch a movie, read a book, or play games online. I kept a deck of cards, but everything else went the way of Marie Kondo.

Then the pandemic hit.

For various reasons, my husband and I have chosen to maintain separate households. He can work from home. I cannot. Someone needs to be at the farm to take care of the livestock, and since I’m an essential worker, it made sense for him to move in with high-risk family members and be the person who ran errands for them when needed. We’re lucky that we can do this, I know.

Most days, by the time I get home from work and take care of the animals, I’m so exhausted that I scarcely notice how lonely my existence is right now. From dawn until dusk I’m run off my feet, only to sit down for an hour or two before it’s time for bed and start the cycle all over the next day. When I get a day off, I’m frequently playing catch up: grocery, laundry, cleaning the house. It’s a wonder I get any writing done!

In the past, Saturday evenings had been our Date Night. We’d go out to dinner, and either watch a movie at home or go to the theater. We also have several TV series that we watch together. I enjoy hanging out with my husband. He’s my best friend.

So I was determined to bring back Date Night in some form. The first challenge was what to do about meeting safely when we were apart all week–and I was being exposed to clients daily. Lack of a screened-in porch and a ferocious mosquito issue (one that defied all bug spray and gnat zappers) limited our time together until I purchased a mosquito tent. It only takes a few minutes to set up and we have hours of insect-free time in it. Instead of dinner out, we grill something and pair it with salad or greens. I make bread or dessert. We sit outside in the tent with a cold beer or glass of wine and relax. To be honest, I don’t miss eating out at all.

But what I do miss is some way of occupying myself while we talk.

I’m not a knitter, and both of us are a little too quick to pick up the smartphone and start scrolling if there’s a lull in the conversation, so I thought it would be fun to resurrect some of the old board games. Only I’d gotten rid of them all.

I started to simply replace them, but it didn’t take long to realize many of the games in question, like Uno, were best played with a group of people. I wanted to have that option for the future, but I also wanted games that worked well for just two players. I did a couple of online searches for the best two player games, and came up with a few I’d never heard of before. Most of the ones I ran across I remembered from my youth–games played at my grandmother’s house, or during summer camp. There were the classics, of course. Chess, checkers, and backgammon. But many were games I hadn’t thought about in years.

My husband is wicked-good at anything that requires some sort of strategy, to the point that it’s nearly impossible to win against him. I’m no slouch myself, but as soon as I change gears, he’ll effortlessly switch to a new tactic, and leave me in the dust. One of the two-person games I ordered is called Imhotep: The Duel. I believe it’s a modified version of a game for more players. We’ve only played it a couple of times, but each time, my husband cleaned my clock. That’s why I had to find something that had SOME element of chance in it as well, or else I’d never win a single game and the experience would be endlessly frustrating. 

Having been on a research kick for a series of books set in the 1950s, it was easy enough to turn to vintage board games. Bonus points if I could find a version featuring the original artwork. Though it’s unlikely my characters will ever sit down to play one of these games in my stories, it’s fun to know they could do so if I wrote it in. And so I bought Sorry! and Yahtzee. I replaced my backgammon board–and while backgammon is definitely another strategy game I’m probably doomed to lose, there’s a variant called American Acey-Deucy that would even the odds in my favor.

It’s hard to describe just how nice it was to sit outside last night in our little mosquito tent, laughing, talking, jeering at, and encouraging each other as we played. We spoke of our week, and of things that we needed to share, but the world and all its horrors seemed very far away. As dusk fell, the light from our bug zapper cast a friendly glow over the table on an evening pleasantly cool for mid-July while we studied rule books and started another game. It was such a nice night it was hard to say goodbye at the end of it. I could picture ourselves at some future date, when it is safe to gather in company again, pulling out these games for an evening of fun in the same vein.

So if you’re looking for an alternative way of spending the evening with your family, I suggest taking a step back in time. Turn off the news. Put down the smartphone. Pick up those dice and shake them in that can. It’s time to play Yahtzee, my friends.

How a Worldwide Pandemic Became a Harsh Therapist

photo by cottonbro

CW for eating disorders, snakes, destructive coping mechanisms, problematic relationships, pandemic fears, body dysmorphia

I had a wonderful mother.

At a time when few women were encouraged to chase their dreams, my mother was all about her daughters growing up to be whatever they desired. As a result, I became an adult without realizing the degree of misogyny and inequality women faced in their careers. I thought that particular battle had been fought and won. Perhaps because of this, I entered the workforce confident of my place there, and it showed.

Taught not to expect help from anyone, I became the person who waded into a project, saw what needed doing, and got it done. Once, I was camping with friends when we discovered a copperhead near the tents. I trapped the venomous snake in an empty trash can and forded an ice-cold spring river to release it on the opposite bank. The river was deeper and colder than expected, and the trash can filled with water as I dragged it behind me. The snake began rising to the top of the can, but I didn’t panic. I kept my eye on the snake until I arrived, teeth chattering, to dump it out on the far bank and plunge back into the river. And yes, the photo here is a picture taken by me of that snake.

My mother also instilled in me a love of reading, a treasure that brings me joy to this day and for which I will always be grateful. My love of reading has sustained me through illness, isolation, depression, and times of high anxiety. It has also given me my passion in life, which is to write my own stories of love and adventure.

I also had a… problematic mother.

Her determination to raise independent daughters, combined with her own troubled upbringing, meant she brought her issues to the table when parenting. Fatphobic, her own eating disorder was reflected in most of her children. She had an almost pathological fear of aging, one that I struggle with today. Messages intended to make me self-reliant came across as “no one will ever want you” and “you’ll never be smart enough, pretty enough, talented enough, good enough for anyone.”

On meeting my mother for the first time, one of my friends said to me, “Oh, my God. All these years we thought you were exaggerating…”

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to understand my mother a lot better. Her complete devotion to her job meant she had little time and energy left over for her children, and working with disadvantaged children meant her own, privileged kids had better get it right on the first try. And oh man, do I get the irritability that comes with utter exhaustion now. I cringe when I hear my mother’s words come out of my mouth, and tell myself I’ll do better next time.

If I’m hard on those around me, that’s nothing to the internal monologue I aim at myself. Right now, I look the worst I’ve ever looked in my life: fat, frumpy, and old. Face it, I can’t really call myself “middle-aged” anymore unless the average life span of a human being is 110. I haven’t had a decent haircut in six months. I’ve added another ten pounds to the twenty I’ve been trying to lose. From the time I turned 25, I’ve been scanning my face and body for signs of aging. I used to joke that I had “Aging Anorexia”, but I have since learned there is a disorder called body dysmorphia: the inability to look in the mirror or see a photo of myself without adding imaginary years to the image or magnify perceived flaws. If I had a hard time believing I could be loved when I was young and fit, you should hear my inner thoughts now.

Yet all in all, I’m fairly well-adjusted, though I could probably use therapy. I was in the process of finding a therapist when the pandemic hit, which brought the process to a grinding halt. So many people were in the same boat, and most of the therapists recommended to me were overwhelmed and not taking on any new patients. I decided I could wait, even though it was clear I wasn’t handling things well.

The stress of being an essential worker during a pandemic triggered binge eating, stockpiling, and evenings where I stayed plugged in to Netflix. I bought a sewing machine in a desperate attempt to make masks. I planted a garden for the first time ever because I feared I’d need to grow my own food. I even looked into putting in bee hives and a chicken coop.

I’d already had a rough couple of years. Deaths of family members. Deaths of pets. Health issues. Work stress. The loss of communities. The horror of seeing every terrible prediction I’ve made about a Trump administration come true. I did whatever I needed to do to get me through my stress and anxiety over the pandemic, and to hell with the consequences.

But the pandemic didn’t end. It still hasn’t ended. It’s not contained. It’s out of control here in the US. We have no vaccine. We have no specific treatment. People speak of the Second Wave, but we’re still riding the first. We are in this for the long haul, with no foreseeable end. As of this writing, the global death toll from the coronavirus is a half a million people, and in the US, 128,000 people have died. Compared to the number of deaths from the flu in the 2018-2019 season (34,200), this virus is far worse. More people have died from COVID-19 in the US than the total death toll from WW1. There are those who believe we’re on track to lose as many people as the 1918 Flu Pandemic. Not surprisingly, there was an Anti-Mask Movement then, too.

Because a bunch of selfish wankers refuse to wear a mask that AT WORST is only an inconvenience and at BEST might stem the tide of a spreading pandemic, I doubt there will be a single family in the US not affected in some way by this horrible disease. I expect to lose more family members before this is all over, and I find that unforgivable.

The human psyche and body is not designed for sustained stress. For many people, this has resulted in pandemic fatigue and a desire to “get back to normal”, even if that means risking death.

Even among people still concerned about the risks of the pandemic, there is slacking off in taking precautions. You’re not as careful about disinfecting your hands after touching a public surface. You don’t pay as much attention to social distancing as you should. You don’t always time your grocery runs so that fewer people will be at the store.

But surprisingly, I’m finding that some good lessons have come out of the pandemic for me.

I am learning to find joy in little things again. Quiet time on walks with the dogs. Music. Reading.

I’ve realized that I am not willing to spend the rest of my life living only to make money to pay bills and lose weight.

Normally an upcoming birthday is a trigger to go into a frenzy of diet and exercise in order to feel better about tacking another year onto my life. Now I’m just happy to still be alive.

Making healthier food choices is about feeling better and being in a better position to fight off illness than about losing weight and “looking my best.”

Exercise is about mitigating pain and improving flexibility instead of losing weight. It’s about being able to continuing doing the things I love. As such, the diet and exercise choices have become smaller, quieter decisions I make every day instead of panicked, overly ambitious ones I make on a deadline.

Sunscreen and skin protection is about avoiding cancer, not about reversing the clock. “Oil of Delay” no more.

The pandemic has taught me about being in things for the long haul, and how we need to pace ourselves. How it’s okay to declare you need a mental break some days. 

If every day we were expected to place 100 pounds of rocks in a backpack and carry it with us to our destination, most of us would break down under that weight before we learned to carry it. Some of us couldn’t carry it regardless of all the training we put in. But most of us can carry a few small rocks a short distance. If we have to keep going back to the pile to transfer them all, if it takes us ten times or a thousand times longer to move them the entire distance, that’s okay.

We’re in it for the long haul.

 

The (Almost) Lost Art of Writing Letters

Photo by Abstrakt Xxcellence Studios from Pexels

Back before the internet made sending emails so easy, I used to love getting letters in the mail. Still do, actually. I have a handful of friends who still send snail mail letters, postcards, and holiday greetings, and every time I receive a missive in this manner I’m struck again with a kind of awe. Mostly I admire the time someone took to write to me in this format. Buying stationery, envelopes, and stamps. Taking the time not only to write the letter by hand, but frequently decorate it as well with stamped images, stickers, and other things that make me smile. Walking it out to the mailbox instead of just clicking “send”.

I’m a big fan of the Jacquie Lawson animated e-cards–both in their inventive beauty and the ease of sending them to friends and family–but there is something about getting a physical, handmade card in the mail that speaks to me of a whole different level of caring because I know how much time was involved in the process. I find it interesting that the majority of my friends who are still letter-writers are also fans of pens and ink. Sharing their epistolary love is one of the ways they get to play with their fancy ink pens, and it gives them an excuse to use up (and buy more) of those cute little stickers and stamps meant for journals and scrap-booking. I understand and appreciate the hobby interests, but I appreciate even more the time involved that goes into the creation of a handwritten letter.

To me, a handwritten letter is an act of love.

I have a lovely “crafty” friend who loves making things. Her cards and packages are a thing of joy and beauty as they come decorated with images of cats, and hand cut stamps of things from her favorite sci-fi show, and embellished with drawings and other decorations. A card is never just a card. A package is often so cleverly wrapped it’s almost a shame to open it–and I frequently photograph such deliveries before I destroy the outer paper. Her handwriting is practically calligraphy (and puts mine to shame) and these letters often appear out of the blue for no particular reason except to say she was thinking about me. They never fail to cheer me up. They also always seem to arrive when I need a pick-me-up the most.

I asked her recently how she found the time to put together such fun/beautiful cards, and she said she frequently made a bunch in advance when she was playing with her craft materials, and then set them aside to fill them out and personalize them when she needed them. I love this idea! More than half the reason I don’t send hand-decorated anything is a serious lack of time. If I pull out all the craft stuff to do one project–making additional things at the same time is more efficient and increases the odds I might send something out in the future.

This past week, I received a hand-written letter from a friend for the first time. We exchange emails, and meet up on rare occasions, but living as she does in another country, she’d never written to me before. She explained that since she’d been working at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, she felt the desire to hand write letters the old-fashioned way. I found I was utterly charmed by this.

By sending me a cheerful, chatty letter, she was able to switch out inks with every sheet of paper, so that I received a veritable rainbow of colors. She also clipped the pages together with this novelty paper clip. It’s supposed to be a bunch of cherries, but as you can see, that’s open to interpretation…

I think the part that made me smile the hardest were the stickers she used at the end. I have a bunch of “encouraging” stickers myself, ones I bought from the local craft store, but nothing like these! This letter came on a day when I’d had an utterly exhausting day at work and I’d come home nearly weeping with resentment and frustration. The stickers, which I won’t post here, were about self-care and doing your best (only laced with expletives which made me LOL). Just perfect.

Which made me decide I should be writing more letters by hand as well. If I think taking the additional time to hand-write and mail a letter is an act of love, then why aren’t I spreading the love around? 

The first thing I did was dig through my stationery. I have some paper that I got from the National Wildlife Federation that I love, but not very much of it left. Sadly, it’s been so long since I’d purchased any stationery, the NWF no longer produces any.

This led to me looking online for replacement stock. I didn’t find as much as I’d hoped. Lots of cards, yes. But not as much in the paper department. That made me more determined than ever to start writing letters again though.

I had a conversation with author Amanda Weaver on Twitter yesterday that drove home the value of physical letters even more. She mentioned going through a box of keepsakes and coming across old letters from a past relationship. She spoke of the value of keeping memorabilia, and then wondered what people in relationships today would keep. It made me wonder too. For the longest time I kept a voice message from my husband, until it either got accidentally deleted or didn’t make the transition to a new phone. I decided I wanted there to be some sort of concrete piece of me out there somewhere with the people I love in case something happens to me.

That, and the fact that the United States Postal Service is in trouble. Turns out there are people in the government that want this Constitutionally-mandated service to fail so it can be turned into a for-profit business. Not only would doing so fly in the face of the Constitution, but it would force the cost of delivering the mail through the roof. Many seniors and people living in rural communities are dependent on the USPS to deliver not only the mail but to pay their bills, get prescription medications, and more. Not everyone has internet access, nor do all companies allow online bill payment. Heck, even the government sent the Census out by mail this year, and until this past year, I used to snail mail my Federal Income Tax Payments. I still mail my state and local tax payments. Who has the freaking time to go down to the Treasurer’s office and pay in person? And especially now, in the face of the ongoing pandemic, we should be able to apply for a ballot and send in our votes by mail in elections.

The nice thing about mail-in ballots? It’s harder to hack than an electronic voting machine.

If everyone in this country bought stamps to mail letters, it would be like a big GoFundMe campaign to save the USPS. So go ahead. Write that letter. You know you want to.

EDIT: Speaking of the PO, there’s a twitter thread that’s gone viral about a young, ardent letter writer and her thank you to her postal carrier. I came across it the same day I posted this blog post, and it seems appropriate to share here.

Pandemic Bread-Making for the Non-Baker

This bread was NOT baked by me!

There were so many different ways I could have titled this post. It started out in drafts as When Pandemic Baking Goes Very Wrong, and I still like that title but I wanted something to more closely reflect what this post is about. The truth is I’m a terrible cook and a fair-to-middling baker when I put my mind to it. The problem is I allow myself to get easily distracted, and the next thing I know, the smoke detector is going off, the food is ruined, and I am very, very frustrated about it. For baking to be done correctly, you need to pay attention to what you’re doing–or at the very least, set timers if you’re likely to wander off  to draft the next scene in your WIP.

My cooking skills are rudimentary at best. There are a few things I do well, and a few I can manage if I pay close attention to the recipe. Everything else is hit or miss without the aid of specialized machines, such as Instant Pots or bread machines, and the learning curve on them is usually steep with me. I’ve often said my life would be easier if Purina made People Chow and I could just pour myself a bowl when I was hungry.

But I love bread, and I’d been toying with making my own bread long before the pandemic hit and I began stress-eating my weight in carbs every day. A part of me is concerned about the health consequences of doing this, but the rest of me is savage about doing WHATEVER IT TAKES TO STAY ALIVE RIGHT NOW SO SHUT THE HELL UP THANK YOU VERY MUCH. Um, where was I? Oh, right. Making bread.

Now I know that I do better when I restrict gluten in my life, so what the heck am I doing taking about and baking bread right now? Well, I suspect it’s a bit like Lucy Lawless’s character in My Life is Murder. Alexa Crowe’s husband has died, she’s in mourning, struggling with insomnia, and coping by baking bread, pretending she hasn’t been adopted by a stray cat, and consulting with her former colleagues at the police department on challenging cases. Ironically, Lucy Lawless herself is either gluten sensitive or highly allergic–she described bread as being “death to me.” But watching Alexa make bread week after week inspired me to finally replace my bread machine after years without one: choosing one with a gluten-free option should I get inspired to make my own GF bread.

Mind you, I didn’t go crazy and buy a $1500 dollar German machine like Alexa did so she could make all those fancy artisan breads she sells to the local restaurant. No, I read some reviews on Amazon, looked for one that had a GF option in my budget, saved up and treated myself to one.

The machine got used maybe once or twice before the end of the year. Then 2020 came, and by early February, it was clear to me we were in for a serious pandemic. I began buying extras of the things I used most with my regular shopping–and one of the things I stocked up on was bread flour and yeast. I know, both hard to come by now. But my understanding is the King Arthur Flour website is still shipping bread flour and possibly yeast as well. AND they make GF flours too! But for the rest of this post, I’ll be talking about regular bread.

The recipe I like best for your basic white bread made in bread machine comes from a website called Julia’s Kitchen. I found recipes that called for butter instead of oil tended not to mix as well, and Julia’s recipe in particular seemed to have that crusty surface and fluffy interior that I like so much. The website says the recipe was adapted from one included with the Williams-Sonoma bread machine booklet. You can check out the link for the recipe, but I’m including it here as well with my own adaptation. It’s pretty simple:

Ingredients:
  • 1 cup and 3 tablespoons water
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 3 1/4 cups white bread flour
  • 2 teaspoons active dry yeast
Instructions:
Julia recommends sifting or aerating the flour with with a whisk, then spooning the needed amount into a measuring cup. Using the cup to dip into your flour and scoop some out will result in measuring out too much flour because it’s somewhat packed down, and you might end up with dry bread.
 
My bread machine has different settings for crust darkness and size of loaf. I found the medium crust setting and the 1.5 pound loaf worked best with this recipe.
  1. Add water and oil into the bread pan. Add salt, sugar. Add flour.

  2. Make a small indentation on top of flour and make sure it does not reach wet ingredients. Add the yeast to the indentation.

  3. Keep yeast away from the salt. I find if the salt and sugar are added to the liquid ingredients and the flour poured in on top of this, keeping the yeast and the salt separate isn’t an issue.

    My secret ingredient at this point is I add mash up half of an over-ripe banana and drop it in on top of the flour. This extra touch results in a deliciously moist loaf of bread and the amount of banana is so little that it doesn’t affect the taste of the bread. So don’t throw out those old bananas if you’re about to make some bread! And if your machine has an “add fruit setting” ignore it for this step. Drape the banana in on top of the flour around the pile of yeast and press “START.” You’re good to go!

Want to make this recipe but a wheat bread instead? Replace 1/4 cup of bread flour with whole wheat flour and you’re good to go.

I DID make this loaf of bread. Not bad, eh?

So I seem set, right? I have bread flour. I have sugar, salt, and oil. I have yeast. I have a bread machine. But I can see a time in the not too distant future where I might not be able to get yeast, so I wanted to look at some other alternatives, including making bread without a machine.

The first problem was what to do if I didn’t have yeast? Well, author J. G. MacLeod shared this no-yeast recipe for dinner rolls with me on Twitter:

See that listing of “baking powder” there? If you’re like me, you have an ancient can of that sitting on your shelf that you haven’t used in a thousand years. Fortunately, I bought some recently, so I didn’t have to worry about poisoning my family. Also, apparently, you can make substitutes for it if you have baking soda and cream of tartar–which I do because of a sour cream cookie recipe I always want to make at Christmas and almost never do. Anyway, delving into the differences between baking soda and baking powder brought me to Irish Soda bread, which doesn’t require yeast, but DOES require buttermilk. Sadly, I’ll have to wait to attempt this. I’m not planning to go to the store for several weeks. The funny thing is I came very close to buying buttermilk on my last shopping run but decided against it as I could only think of one thing that might use it: my grandmother’s fried cornbread recipe. I should have gone with my instincts. The soda bread recipe I intend to try is from the AllRecipes website called Amazingly Easy Irish Soda Bread. You can see why that title appealed to me, right? This calls for baking soda AND baking powder. Why, I have no idea. But I’ll report back once I try it.

But this got me thinking about bread starter and how I could get yeast-risen bread without yeast. I ran across a viral thread on Twitter posted by @shoelaces3, a yeast biologist on how to make starter without yeast.

I’ll summarize here: there’s yeast all around us. So it’s possible to create starter from dried fruit, all-purpose flour, and warm water. But go to the thread here for the deets. I was VERY excited when I came across this thread. I had some dried cranberries I thought would fit the bill, and I made my mixture. I didn’t have a scale to weigh the flour (and two tablespoons of water is 60 ml, not 40) but I approximated according to the directions and set my jar up in a warm place. I definitely got bubbles after 12 hours but never really saw the flour paste “loosen up” so I could repeat the process. After 48 hours, I couldn’t tell if the pinkish tinge to the concoction was due to the cranberries or the fact I was growing penicillin without a license. I chucked that batch and decided I would try again. I might steal one of my husband’s bottles of ale to see if that will make a better starter than the cranberries. I want to give this a serious attempt in case yeast becomes impossible to find.

Notice how the dogs are in focus but the starter is not. I have my priorities straight!

I mentioned this process to a friend of mine who is a former baker, and she said that most bakeries have yeast floating in the air from making so much bread, and that it practically self-generates in those conditions.

But that brought me around to an old sourdough starter recipe I’d used many years ago. It calls for using yeast in the initial batch, and then you keep it going by feeding it every 3-5 days. I’d done that before. I could try it again, right?

I dug through my old ‘recipe” file. It’s literally a manila folder where over the years I’ve tucked slips of paper with favorite recipes scribbled on them. Yeah, not much of a cook.  Not much of an organizer, either. Part of the reason I’m writing this post is to have my bread recipes in one easy-to-find location. Or I could, you know, organize my files. But not today.

Right, so I dug out my old bread starter recipe. Back when I was making bread by hand, this was my go-to recipe. Fair warning: in the final form it makes 3 loaves. I’m as hopeless with math as I am with cooking but I’m looking to cut this recipe by a third unless I plan on giving bread away. I’d freeze it, only my freezer is so full right now, I have to duct tape it shut.

This recipe came from the local newspaper many, many years ago.

Sourdough Starter and Bread:

Starter:

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 package dry yeast (I have no idea how much this holds: I’m guessing between 1.5 and 2 tsp)

I tablespoon sugar

2 cups warm water

3 tablespoons instant potatoes

Instant potatoes? Yes, you read that right. But chances are you don’t have any at the house so save that for your next grocery run.

Combine flour, yeast, and sugar in a non-metal bowl. Mix the potato flakes and warm water, and add to the flour combo. Cover loosely with aluminum foil and let stand in a warm place for 48 hours.

Remove one cup and store in the fridge. Discard remainder (or share with a friend)

Keep refrigerated and covered with foil 3-5 days. To feed starter in 3-5 days, combine 3/4 cup of sugar, 3 tablespoons instant potato flakes and one cup of warm water. Mix well and add to starter. Let stand in warm place 8-12 hours. This will only bubble, not rise.

Remove one cup starter to use in making bread; return rest to fridge. If not making bread, remove one cup and discard it. Store starter in fridge in a quart jar with holes punched in the lid. Feed every 3-5 days.

Bread:

1 cup starter

1/2 cup corn oil

1.5 cups warm water

6 cups bread flour

1/4 cup sugar

Combine all ingredients in large mixing bowl. Place dough in separate greased bowl, turning to coat. Cover with foil and let stand overnight. Do not refrigerate. Next morning, punch down and knead lightly. Divide into 3 parts. Knead lightly on floured board and place into three greased loaf pans. Brush tops with oil and let rise 4-5 hours. Using foil, make a tent over the pans and leave room for the dough to rise.

Bake at 350 degrees for 30-45 minutes. Remove from pan and brush with melted butter. Cool on wire rack.

I do like this bread very much, but it’s time consuming and sort of implies that you’re home to do all this feeding, kneading, proving, and baking, right? Well, perhaps if you’re on a stay-at-home order, you can give this a try. Otherwise, you’ll have to time it so your feeding and baking coincide with time off work.

When I attempted to make this starter recently, the first 48 hours went like gangbusters! Lovely bubbles, perfect reaction. But when I fed the starter 5 days later, nothing happened. Nada. Zip. Nary a bubble. I suspect two things went wrong. The first is that we had a cold snap, and I don’t tend to run the heat very high. Most likely the starter never got warm enough during feeding. The other thing that probably didn’t help was I tried to cut the recipe from the get-go, using a third of the ingredients to make the starter in the first place. I’m guessing I didn’t get the proportions right, so I ended up tossing it out and starting again. I hated the thought of wasting 2 tsp of yeast (the equivalent of one loaf of bread in my bread machine) but I very much want my own starter, so there you are.

While I was pawing through my recipes, I came across a handwritten note from Mrs. Crouch, my childhood babysitter. I’d asked for her honey wheat bread recipe many moons ago because I thought it was the BEST BREAD IN THE UNIVERSE and she wrote it out for me. Seeing that spidery handwriting took me back to the child I was, sitting in her kitchen, closing my eyes as I inhaled the scent of baking bread in the oven. I hadn’t thought of Mrs. Crouch in decades, but there she was again, a tiny bird-boned woman with a mass of snow-white hair who lived in what seemed like a fairy tale cottage with a massive oil stove that heated the kitchen like a furnace. I suppose in retrospect, she was a widow in tight circumstances, living in her old house in the middle of nowhere, keeping children for their busy mothers. But I loved going to her house.

I loved her bread too. So I’m sharing her recipe with you. I suspect her special ingredient was a magic known only to her, but I hope you find it.

Honey Wheat Bread Recipe:

4 cups whole wheat  flour

3 cups unbleached white flour

1/2 cup non-fat dry milk

1/4 cup wheat germ

3 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon salt

2 packages of active dry yeast

1.5 cups of water

3/4 cups of milk

1/3 cup of honey

1/3 cup vegetable oil

Sift flour. Mix all dry ingredients. Stir together water, milk, honey, and oil. Heat over low heat (130 degrees). Dissolve yeast in a little warm water and gradually add to warm milk mixture to yeast mix plus dry ingredients. Stir in enough flour mixture to make a soft dough, keeping 1/2 cup in reserve to spread on a pastry cloth. Knead until smooth and elastic, at least 8-10 minutes. Place in greased bowl, cover and let rise in warm place until double in size (1 to 1.5 hours). Punch down and make into loaves. Place on baking sheet or in loaf pans and cover. Let rise again until double in size (about 1 hour). Bake at 400 degrees for 25 minutes.

This recipe seemed so complicated, so time-consuming to me as a young woman asking for the recipe from a cherished caretaker, that I’ve never actually made it. Maybe I was afraid it would disappoint. More likely, it was because I never had the time.

So it occurs to me as I’ve spent hours writing this post–what are we looking for, we bakers of pandemic bread? I think the answer lies in my memory of sitting in Mrs. Crouch’s kitchen on a snowy day, happily anticipating brushing hot-out-of-the oven bread with butter and taking that first heavenly bite. We want the comfort that the scent of baking bread brings us. We want to be that small child again, in a world where the grown-ups took care of things and we didn’t have to worry. For many of us, food is love and there’s something about homemade bread that is both fundamental and special too, making it the quintessential expression of love.

I think the bread baking and the mask making and the garden planting are all practical steps we are taking to manage our anxiety about an uncertain future. I suspect for many, it’s easier to throw ourselves into something we might never have done before, tasks that require our full attention and take time to complete than it is to do the familiar, especially if we’re on lockdown with too much time for worry to make noise in our heads. Or maybe it fulfills some primal need to put away food for anticipated famine. Make hay while the sun if still shining because there are dark storm clouds rolling in. I don’t know. 

All I know is I’m baking a lot of bread right now. Me and Alexa Crowe. And I’m going to make that honey wheat bread at least ONE time in my life. You can count on it.

 

Social Distancing and COVID-19: It’s Not Just About You #flattenthecurve

photp by Ashutosh Sonwani pexels.com

I’m kind of mad at one of my neighbors right now.

I ran into him the other evening as he was loading his car for a cross-country trip–the same day the US government declared a national state of emergency due to COVID-19. Everywhere, medical experts are desperately pleading with the public to stay home, to avoid all non-essential trips. My neighbor, in his 30s and without known health issues, is attending a wedding with his wife out west. They’ve been planning this trip for months, intending to take in some tourist sights while visiting friends. His vacation is here, and he’s taking it, damn it. Given how hard most of us work, I understand his attitude. I do. Most of the time, that is. Not right now.

“Haven’t you been watching the news? This coronavirus is serious business. No one has any immunity to it, and people can spread it for weeks without showing signs.”

He shrugged and kept loading the car. “I’ve been checking the CDC site. The numbers aren’t that bad.”

That’s when I told him they aren’t bad because we’re not testing nearly the number of people we should be. They aren’t bad because we have a Monster-in-Chief who cares more about the stock market and his re-election chances than he does about putting the brakes on one of the most serious pandemics we’ve had since the 1918 Influenza Pandemic. I try to explain the meaning of a novel illness and the serious impact it will have on the vulnerable members of our society–which includes at least one person from every household I know–including his. And mine.

 From his expression, I could see this information boggled his mind somewhat. I had to ask myself where had he been getting his updates? FOX News? The next words out of his mouth confirmed it. “But it’s no worse than the flu, right?”

No. Because the flu may not be as contagious. Because the flu, always serious for the elderly and the medically vulnerable, doesn’t have as high a mortality rate. Because COVID-19 is currently a pandemic capable of hospitalizing the population in numbers too high for the medical system to support. Because the flu, even new strains, is something your body has seen before, and maybe that helps you fight it off a little bit better. And when you get the flu and recover, it’s rare to have permanent physical damage. There are real concerns that this is not the case with the coronavirus. Survivors may have permanent lung damage.

This is not the flu.

Containment is no longer possible. We had months of warning from the events that unfolded in China but our government, currently led by a self-absorbed narcissist who DISBANDED the existing pandemic response team, has mounted a woefully inadequate, if not criminally liable, response to this global threat. The ONLY thing we can do is social distancing. And that means we STAY HOME. We don’t go out unless it is essential. We don’t go to movies or church or bars or birthday parties or weddings or funerals or have sleepovers with the kids. We don’t hold St. Patrick Day parades or hang out at the shopping mall. We don’t hug or shake hands or touch our faces. We wash our hands A LOT, with soap and water for at least 20 seconds in hot water.

Everyone has their own method for timing that. You can sing Happy Birthday. Gloria Gaynor posted a vid singing the chorus of “I Will Survive” on TikTok. I personally recite the opening sequence of Star Trek–bonus points if you do with Shatner’s timing. (I sub “person” for “man”, the same way they did for Next Gen) No elbow bumping for me, either. Vulcan salute, all the way.

 

 

My neighbor tossed another suitcase in the bag of his car. “Well, if we get exposed to anyone sick on this trip, we’ll self-isolate when we get home.”

If you get home, buddy. Have you seen the shitshow that are the airports these days? I can’t think of a WORSE way to limit the spread of a highly contagious disease than to cram thousands of people cheek by jowl into airports due to a poorly thought out (and completely useless) plan to suddenly close travel to certain areas, forcing everyone to flock to the airports in an attempt to return home before they are trapped somewhere.

Italy, and now Spain, are on country-wide lockdown. Based on the numbers of new cases, we’re in the same boat Italy was 1-2 weeks ago. The Italians have a better health care system than we do and they’re a smaller country. The mortality rate for new victims is staggering because they’ve run out of resources. Italian doctors are having to make wartime triage decisions as to who lives and who dies because they can’t treat all the critical cases.

Let me put it another way: I’ve been buying an extra item of the things I use most since February. Why? Because I saw this coming. So I’m stocked on dog food, cat litter, canned goods, dry goods, etc. I’ve been trying to tell people if we shopped like that–a little over time–we won’t overwhelm the store’s capacity to stock things. We won’t have scenes like this (from the last time I went to the grocery).

 
Much like if we practice social distancing NOW, we won’t overwhelm the US medical systems.
 
Because we run medicine as a for-profit industry in the US, our hospitals stay nearly full to capacity as it is now. If everyone gets sick at the same time (as we’ve seen particularly in Italy), hospitals will not be able to accommodate the critically ill. The hospitals will be like our grocery stores because everyone came in at once.
 
We’re not just talking about the lack of respirators or equipment for those suffering from Covid-19. We’re talking about a lack of doctors, support staff, heck, even GLOVES for your emergency. Not afraid of getting COVID-19? You’d better hope you don’t get in a car accident or need an emergency appendectomy. Because the staff, the space, and the resources won’t be there to help you when it’s your turn to need help.
 
This isn’t about preventing everyone from getting the virus. That ship has sailed. If we had a competent president instead of the Grifter-in-Charge, we might have been able to take containment measures, though in all fairness, given the number of people who don’t show any clinical signs for weeks, I doubt containment was ever possible in a country of this size. But having ICE arrest people as they take family to the airports doesn’t help. Neither does closing the borders to some countries but not all of them. Our president is more interested in pumping money into the stock market in the hopes of getting re-elected than he is trying to stem this pandemic. The irony is if he HAD chosen to protect the population first, the stock market would have been fine. He also has about as much common sense as a rock. Our president would punch a hole in a condom and believe it would still prevent pregnancy.
 
What’s important now is that we #flattenthecurve. That we prevent huge numbers of people getting sick all at the same time, which lessens the chances of survival for us ALL. Read the Washington Post article and take the appropriate precautions. And don’t be like patient 31 in South Korea, who refused to get tested on the recommendation of the doctor treating her, and instead went to a hotel buffet with a friend. When she got worse, COVID-19 was confirmed, but by that time, she’d exposed over one thousand people and South Korea lost the battle to contain COVID-19 in their country. The lesson we can take from this: Don’t be Patient-31. Stay home.
 
We could also have learned from S. Korea’s proactive management of illness in their country through aggressive testing. Experts in Italy admit they began testing too late, forcing the country to react to the crisis instead of preventing it. Oh, for competent leadership here in the US because we’re next. I type this even as I fear for my friends overseas, especially in the UK, which is also feeling the effects of Brexit and a similar lack of leadership at the highest levels.
 
I realize that it’s not possible for everyone to stay home. Workplaces are open, and we’re expected to do business as usual. Some bosses and employees, understandably worried about how to pay the bills still rolling in, may believe we’re over-reacting. Maybe we are. But better to over-react and save lives than look back even 1-2 weeks from now and wish we’d been more concerned. If we had an intelligent, proactive response from our government, I believe measures would be taken to lockdown the country now before we reach the crisis state that Italy is in. As it is, I believe we’ll be forced to take those measures anyway, only it will be too late to do the most good.
 
I saw this quote on Twitter today, before I decided it was best for my mental health of I got off social media for a while:
 
My neighbor is due back from his trip at the end of the week. I wonder if they showed Contagion as the in-flight movie.