Sunday, May 03, 2020

Executive Function Fatigue

On Friday evening I had my first meltdown of the quarantine. It wasn’t a big meltdown, and hey, I went through seven weeks of generalized dread spiked by seething rage at the psychopath in the White House and his many enablers and sheer WTF facepalms at the cosplaying fools at the “I Need A Haircut / Kill the Jews” rallies without having a single freakout, so yay me. And everyone was like, “chill, Michael, it’s not a big deal,” because it wasn’t, but I could feel a wire snap somewhere in my brain as I was trying and failing to make dinner.

So, dinner. When we locked down seven weeks ago, I took it upon myself to do most of the groceries and cooking, because Janet’s teaching and I’m not. Also, why not take the opportunity to widen my repertoire? Up until now I have been a competent maker of

-       Omelets
-       Toast
-       Breakfast sandwiches
-       Frozen dumplings (Jamie’s standard breakfast)
-       Sandwiches
-       Things on the grill, burgers, steaks, hot dogs, fish
-       Really good pasta sauces with lots of onions
-       Potatoes
-       Salads
-       That’s pretty much it

Back in February I invented a thing with meatless chorizo, onions, peppers, and rice in a salsa verde sauce, and then in Week One of the quarantine I actually looked up a recipe for shrimp and scallop scampi because we’d bought a bunch of shrimp and scallops from the local awesome seafood place, thankful that it was still open. That was a big hit, so I made it again when Nick, Rachel, and Finn joined us in Week Four. (Pro tip: you really need fresh basil.)

Planning the grocery shopping was a thing (as is true for many people), since in ordinary circumstances we just run to the local Weis three minutes away whenever we need something. We didn’t do any crazed paper-products hoarding, but back in February we did get a bunch of soups and canned goods and ramen noodles and rice and Gatorade, just in case. But in Week One we went to the store four times, yikes, and have been trying to get it down to once a week ever since, with only gradual success. And on Saturday we get a bunch of local meats and soups from the farmer’s market, ordering online the day before. The real challenge has been lettuce and bread, which disappear astonishingly quickly.

I found almost immediately that I can’t do the “cook once, eat twice” thing if I’m cooking for five people. Instead, I wind up with maybe one and a half dinners, which of course produces the what-to-do-with-leftovers problem. Thank goodness we have a second refrigerator in the basement, which I suppose will make some Very Online people very angry because Nancy Pelosi is wealthy. But by Week Seven, I was thinking I had found my calling: quartermaster and sommelier for a family of six. (Five, really—Nick and Rachel do all the baby foods.)

I wasn’t cooking every night—we want to keep India Pavilion in business, so we order two nights’ worth of food from them about every ten days. Janet made salmon burgers one night, and helped out with almost every other meal (sides, salad dressings, etc.). There was one pizza night, and Nick’s birthday dinner was takeout from one of the nicer local restaurants. But still, especially with the Indian food, there is the leftovers problem.

OK, so, for the meltdown. I had purchased about two pounds of beef cubes from a local farmer, and I knew I had three bags of egg noodles in the pantry, so I decided that now would be the time for me to make my first beef stroganoff. This required some things I didn’t have, like mushrooms and beef broth, so we made a grocery list of everything we could think of for this recipe and a couple more. Rachel added another list for a chicken thing she and Nick will make tonight (they have made dinner a couple of times so far). Working from two lists fried my brain a little, because Janet had written hers very thoughtfully in the order of my counterclockwise travels through Giant from produce to cereals to beverages to meats to dairy/yogurt/bread, and Rachel had written hers as a recipe, randomly. As a result, I almost forgot to get the chicken stock she needed. But I did not forget, after all!

And yet the yogurts did me in. Four different kinds of yogurt, and no one told me that Activia doesn’t have a plain yogurt. (I got vanilla, but only four little ones, because I was sure they were the wrong thing.) Janet had written “Greek plain” and Rachel had written “Fage,” and since I am a boy, I had no idea that Fage was a Greek yogurt too. I spent about ten-fifteen minutes scanning all the yogurts, trying to make sure all the time that I wasn’t being That Guy blocking more adept purchasers of yogurt from getting their favorite brands and flavors.

And then when I got home my groceries were criticized. Janet assured me I had gotten all the right yogurts, but wanted to know why I had not gotten Pacifico hot dog rolls, since those are the ones I like. “Uh, no,” I replied, “I think Pacifico are the best hamburger rolls, but I prefer potato rolls for hot dogs.”

“But you told me to get Pacifico last week and I was really proud of myself that I found it and really happy to find out they’re a local bakery.”

“Right, but that was burgers.” And I’m like, why is this a thing? Janet eats neither hot dogs nor burgers. Except for bison burgers, which leads me to….

“Why did you buy all this ground beef?”

Now I was vexed. “Because Nick told me to,” I replied incredulously, my voice going up an octave, “and you were in the room when he did.”

“Lower your voice! The baby is sleeping.”

“No he’s not,” I said, nonsensically, because in fact he was sleeping. “I just got what Nick asked for.”

“But you told him we had plenty of ground beef. I heard you.”

“Then you missed the rest of the conversation. I told him we had three pounds of bison downstairs, and he said no, he wanted ground beef. So I’m making bison burgers tomorrow night and he’s making something with his beef next week. Yeesh.”

OK, that was the preamble. Then came the dinner. Thirty minutes prep, the recipe said. (I had asked Janet to choose between two recipes, and she threw out one of them because it called for ground beef in a stroganoff, and was therefore not real.) About an hour into my prep, with all my onions and garlic and mushrooms and Worcestershire sauce and wine and stuff all set to go, I couldn’t find any beef broth. Everybody else was huddled around the kitchen counter Zooming with friends, so I had to interrupt the Zoom to ask where the beef broth was.

This is not the kind of question a competent quartermaster should be asking.

“We don’t have any beef broth,” Janet said. “It was on your list. Did you not get any?”

“It was not on my list,” I shot back. I went over those two lists very very carefully.

“It certainly was on the list. Maybe it was on Rachel’s list. I know I saw it,” Janet replied.

“It was not on Rachel’s list either. She asked for chicken stock.”

“I’m pretty sure she said beef broth.” So now here I was, fishing through the garbage for the two lists, which of course I had thrown away earlier in the afternoon. Aha! Found them. And guess what? No beef broth.

“Oh, wait, I know what happened,” Janet said. “Luna ate the first list and I had to recreate it from memory, and I didn’t remember beef broth.”

Yes, you read that right. The dog literally ate my homework.

Confusion ensued. I asked Nick to run to the store for beef broth; while he did that, everyone else in the kitchen, except Finn, and everyone on the Zoom assured me that chicken broth would be just fine. But then our friends said, wait, are you making this right now? For tonight?

“Well, yes,” I said. “That’s the idea.”

Oh no, they said. For a stroganoff you should make everything the day before.

Well, holy flying mother of Moloch on a pogo stick, did the recipe say anything of the kind? No. It said this was a thirty-minute prep, very easy to make.

I smacked the counter in exasperation, we wound down the Zoom call (“Michael’s fried, we gotta go”), we waited for Nick to return, and Janet kindly decided to take over the dinner. There was one more residual criticism of my groceries, in the form of “why did you get beef cubes when the recipe calls for flank steak,” and I replied, “because the recipe says ‘I recommend flank steak for this recipe, but any stir-fry-friendly cut will do’ and I had beef cubes in the freezer, and I bought beef cubes because I am trying out different things from this farm” and everyone agreed that my beef cubes would have been better for a stew, but everything worked out. I demoted myself to salad prep, Janet saved the stroganoff, and Nick took charge of breads and butters.

“You just need to learn to improvise,” Janet said. Which is true. Janet is a far more versatile and accomplished cook than I am, and when it comes to following recipes, I am about as spontaneous as a Japanese tea ceremony. I need to walk through everything ploddingly, and don’t know where or how to go off script.

I was now very annoyed with myself. Regardless of whether beef broth was on the list, I should have double-checked my own goddamn recipe before leaving for the store. For that matter, I should have looked at more recipes; I only read four, eliminating Paula Deen and Betty Crocker before Janet eliminated the one with ground beef.

This is when everyone said chill, Michael, it’s not a big deal. But I was like, look, I had one job to do, and it’s not like I was trying to make a very fancy dinner. I thought it was like one step up from tuna noodle casserole, with actual mushrooms instead of cream of mushroom soup.

And then I read that Twitter feed about executive function fatigue, and I went OMG YES THAT’S WHAT I HAVE. I have spent seven weeks joking that 60 percent of my waking thoughts are “what am I going to make for dinners this week” and “how do we cut down on cold cuts but still have them for lunch sometimes” and “how can we limit our trips to supermarkets” and “under these circumstances food waste is not only wrong but an actual mortal sin so I have to keep track of everything.” But really, that’s the way it feels. And though the burgers last night were simplicity itself, I am always struck at the contrast between the no-brainerdom of burgers (though I do like to spice them with cumin or sriracha sauce) and the bewildering array of accessories they require around here (hot ketchup for Janet, ketchup and Nathan’s mustard for Jamie, Dijon for me because Obama, plus pickles, tomatoes, jalapeno slices, and usually that one last avocado before it goes bad, oh and Janet prefers her bun toasted and we don’t and Nick and Rachel take two slices of American cheese and I take one and Jamie takes one of nondairy cheese).

I have the night off while Nick and Rachel make their chicken thing, and for that I am grateful. And also for them, and for Finn!


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