Cooking in times of plague and paucity

In the first weekend my city recommended isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, I reorganized my pantry. I unearthed a variety of flours from forgotten projects–almond, coconut, buckwheat–and some other shelf-stable ingredients I’d bought and only used once, like molasses. What do you make with molasses? I texted my baking friends. Gingersnaps, suggested one. Barbecue sauce, suggested another. But I couldn’t settle on anything, so I kept looking… and learned about something called a hermit bar.

We had a good laugh at that; technically, every bar we make right now is a hermit bar.

Here is a Bon Appetit recipe for hermit bars, although this version doesn’t use molasses. Like wedding cakes of yore, hermit bars are built to last: spices, dried fruit, and a crisp bake give these desserts a long shelf life–which perhaps is the source of the name. If you were going to be away from society in the age before refrigeration, a tin of hermits could satisfy your craving for sweetness for a good while.

By now, in Philadelphia, my friends and I have been away from society for weeks. But we are lucky: we have refrigerated butter and eggs and milk, and the potential to replenish our supplies by infrequent, careful, and patient grocery shopping. (I was able to buy yeast this week, for example, but not oats.) Under the circumstances, the raisin-studded molasses-sweetened hermits are not going to do it for me.

If you leave the raisins out, are they more or less hermitic? I texted. Recluse bars? Hibernation bars?

What kind of hermit would you be if you used dried currants instead? one wrote back.

I don’t have any dried fruit on hand at the moment, unfortunately. I thought again of the New England hermits who must have craved sweetness too–I don’t, usually, but in this period of uncertainty and anxiety I’ve been making cookies and bars ones a week or more. I asked my friends what sweets they were craving most in isolation. Fresh fruit, they said. Lush creamy sweets like marshmallows, mousses, and puddings. Complicated baking projects for the fun as well as the taste: danishes, frosted layer cakes. I’ve been wanting simpler sweets: cookies, blondies and brownies, ice cream.

While we were on the subject of pandemic baking, I began thinking about spiced wine. The first time I read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, I was sniffling with a head cold, and couldn’t help noticing that the characters were forever offering one another spiced wine in the midst of an outbreak of sweating sickness. Eventually, the power of suggestion moved me to get up and mull a pot of spiced wine to enjoy all by myself. With lemons and oranges and the same sort of spices you’d find in a hermit bar, I found the hot wine comforting and soothing for a sore throat. In Cromwell’s time, it was thought healthful. Balanced, if you subscribed to the theory of four humours: adding sugar and spices evened out the natural dryness of wine. More than a century later, during the last major outbreak of bubonic plague in England, hot spiced drinks or possets formed a base for plague remedies.

A preventative from the same period: plague water, or alcohol infused with a great many herbs. Cooking in the Archives shares a recipe from a 1667 manuscript; Atlas Obscura takes a deep dive into a modern attempt to distill plague water.

At The Recipes Project, another drink that’s good for what ails you: coffee. According to 18th-century botanist Richard Bradley, carefully prepared coffee twice a day could lift the spirits and relieve patients of ailments from headaches to coughs to “moist and cold constitutions” (humorism again). I can’t argue with this; I ran out of coffee for a few days and drank black tea instead, but without it I was too tired to get my heart pumping with indoor exercise, and without enough exercise I had trouble sleeping. Then I became a parody of this parody.

We may know now that disease isn’t spread by miasmas or imbalanced humors, but after many long days of staying indoors to avoid an enemy we cannot see except in the toll it takes on our loved ones, we’ve all turned to home remedies of sorts. (Given the number of sourdough loaves on my social media feeds, I see that anxiety baking is a common one.) May you find the sweetness and balm that gets you through this, wherever you are and whatever you need.



3 responses to “Cooking in times of plague and paucity

  1. Pingback: What I’m cooking: Eff It Edition | Scenes of Eating·

  2. Pingback: Reading Roundup: May 2020 | Scribal Tattoo·

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