Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Buy Nothing, and Korean Beef

A lot of us have been thinking about community this past year, and the importance of deep and authentic connections, beyond the transactional relationships we have more and more. I was struck by this post from the road less travelled about the ways that people lean on us from the communities we build, in the most unexpected moments.

A few weeks ago, my community started a Buy Nothing group on Facebook. Essentially, Buy Nothing groups are hyper-local gift economies where people can "gift" from abundance or loan things they have, "ask" for anything they might need, and offer "gratitude" for gifts in public ways. They believe that strong communities can lean on each other, and that the value of a gift is not just the thing itself but a human connection.

There was already a pretty active "free stuff" group in my township, where people posted all kinds of stuff. But it often felt like vultures circling, waiting for the kill. And by the time I was able to log on and see what was there, nothing was left; it was picked clean. On the giving side, I'd often leave things out for people who'd said "INTERESTED," only to have them go unclaimed for weeks. People seemed to feel no sense of responsibility and were super picky about said free items. It just left me feeling icky, even if it was sometimes a good place to get rid of stuff.

The new group had a fresh start, and some ground rules. We were encouraged to let things "simmer" so that people could have a chance at an item even if they weren't watching a page constantly. We were invited to offer gifts of time and service, rather than just stuff. It felt like a breath of fresh air.

I love decluttering, so I set to work posting things: clothing, shoes, toys, kitchenware, knick knacks. I made two Easter baskets ouf of some plastic baskets I had by adding some toys and lollipops. And I claimed stuff too: a new teakettle (which didn't require a potholder to pick it up), some new dishes (to replace the ones that have been breaking for years), some delicious biscotti, a Nespresso Vertuo coffee maker I'd been coveting (though now I have to figure out how to get cheap pods!). The other day someone arrived with a plate of Indian food as a thanks for the toy I gifted to her daughter. There's a tea round robin, circulating in an unwanted tin. A puzzle round robin is just starting.

But it's also been interesting to try to educate people about how the new group works, to remind them gently that this group is fundamentally about community. People are so stuck on the stuff. When someone says "interested" we remind them to tell us why. When posts start to speed up, we remind posters to simmer so that others have a chance. And some of us have been trying to model the kind of gifting we want to see start happening: gifting baked goods (to people who have to share with a neighbor), tutoring, offering plant cuttings, loaning out squirrel traps.

Buy Nothing is complicated; of course, it's limited by where people live, which, if you know anything about the long term effects of redlining, is racially and socioeconomically segregated. The folks who wrote the book about it do think a lot about social jusice, which gives me hope. It's the other side of the frustration I felt about so much during the pandemic. It's a small investment, I hope, in kindness.

Do you have a local Buy Nothing group?

Korean Beef
Among the "asks" on our Buy Nothing group was for easy recipes. This was, oddly enough posted by another member, and I connected with her because it's one that my daughter happened to find and like, too.

1/4 cup low sodium soy sauce*
2 teaspoons light brown sugar
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
cooking spray
1 pound 93% lean ground beef
1/4 cup chopped yellow onion
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 teaspoon fresh grated ginger
3 cups cooked brown rice
1 small sliced cucumber, skin on
2 tablespoons Gochujang, or more if desired*
1/2 tablespoon sesame seeds, plus more for topping
2 sliced scallions, white and green parts

Combine the soy sauce, 2 T water, brown sugar, sesame oil and red pepper flakes in a small bowl.
Heat a large deep nonstick skillet over high heat, spray with oil and add the ground beef. Cook, breaking the meat up with a wooden spoon until cooked through, about 5 minutes.

Add the onion, garlic and ginger and cook 1 minute.
Pour the sauce over the beef, cover and simmer on low heat 10 minutes.

To assemble the bowls, place 3/4 cup rice in each bowl, top with scant 2/3 cup beef, cucumbers, Gochujong, sesame seeds and scallions.

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Monday, March 22, 2021

Vaccines, and Beans (Gigantes Plaki): On Investing in Kindness

Disclaimer: I know this is going to be controversial. Bear with me.

My FB feed has been full, lately, of people getting vaccinated.

This is a really good thing, because vaccines in arms are good for everyone, except my feeds are also full of people who are older, or immunocompromised, or are in some way more vulnerable to COVID-19, and can't get an appointment, or don't know how. 

The underlying deeply uncomfortable truth--which I tested by posting to FB innocently asking if I might be missing something or should I be ignoring the message to wait my turn, and was rewarded by people PMing me both to encourage me to cut in line and sending me tips for getting that elusive appointment--is that some currently non-eligible people are getting vaccine appointments before people who are more vulnerable, know this, and don't care. As someone responded to my post, "it's like the Hunger Games."

Some of this has to do with a lack of faith in the government to be effective (which, to be honest, it is NOT;  the patchwork systems in place to connect people with vaccines are a mess in NJ, to say the least). Some of it is just "every man for himself." All of this has gotten me thinking a lot about what I've observed about human behavior during the pandemic, from the hoarding of toilet paper to the refusal to wear masks to protect others to vaccine "hunting." (And yes, that's really what it's called.)

In the U.S., for better or worse, we invest in individuals; we reward competition, cunning, and greed. That's what gets people ahead. The first people in line get the most toilet paper. Honestly, it's been very tempting to game the system and schedule my appointment, even though I'm not eligible right now.

Where is the opportunity for us to cultivate and invest in kindness? In generosity? In gratitude? How do we build a culture that truly believes that there's enough for everyone, and where you don't have to be first? There are "angel" vaccination sites, people who are staying up until 4 a.m. to get vaccine appointments for people when they "drop," but even they are reporting that people are demanding appointments from them.

I used to bring this dish to our local community race and diversity potluck conversations, pre-pandemic. It doesn't cost much, it feeds a lot of people, and it's nutritious and easy to make. The cool thing about potlucks is that you almost always have more leftovers than you started with, even if people come without having brought anything. People like potlucks; you're bound to discover some tasty dish you didn't realize your neighbor had, and people like showing off their best recipes. What if we had approached this pandemic more like a potluck than a race? How much more toilet paper would there have been at the beginning, and how much more of everything would we all have right now?

Greek Gigantes

1 pound dry gigantes beans, soaked overnight
2 medium yellow onions, peeled and chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
2 (14.5-ounce) cans no-salt-added diced tomatoes
2 cups vegetarian chicken broth (or water)
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
fresh dill (optional)
Crusty bread, black pepper, and more olive oil for serving

Boil the beans for 10 minutes. (OK, I confess sometimes I skip even this step.)

Place all of the ingredients in the bowl of a large slow cooker. Cook for 4-6 hours on high, or 8-10 hours on low. Taste and add more salt as needed.
Serve with toasted crusty bread. Garnish with freshly ground black pepper and a drizzle of olive oil, and with a sprinkle, on each bowl, of fresh dill.

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Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Scars, and Green Minestrone

The sky was a flat grey during my early evening walk today, the sort of grey that precedes a snowstorm, interrupted--just overhead--by a row of dark grey and white streaks that reminded me, oddly, of scars.

One year ago today we began working remotely; I was two days out of surgery for my broken foot, and things were incredibly uncertain. Each day my family would track the spread of the virus on the Johns Hopkins site, wondering when we'd get to go back to "normal." If only we'd known. Then again, maybe it was better that we didn't know: the grey stretching out before us may have been too immense to fathom.

The last time I wrote in this space was also the morning before I concussed myself, walking at night through a particularly dark section of town, tripping on god only knows what, and hitting my head on a mailbox or a telephone pole or something that has left me, five months later, with a series of lasting symptoms: ringing in my ears, vision that is not quite right, sleeplessness, sinuses that don't seem to want to quit running. The palpitations and the dizziness are gone, but I find myself frustrated by what remains, and wonder how long it will take to heal. Some scars, like the one on my foot, are visible; others, like the one in my brain, are not.

The scars in the sky tonight made me think of the visible and invisible scars left by the pandemic, one year later. Unimaginable losses of life, of jobs. Anxiety. Depression. Lasting illness. But our scars make us who we are. They interrupt the flat expanse of grey with something else, reminders of something deeper, reminders that we are more than what we see on the surface.

I've made more soups than I can count this past year, some for us, some for others. I hope they have made the scars a little easier to bear.

Green Minestrone

2 t. olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, diced
3 celery stalks, diced
2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced
1 t. fresh thyme (1/2 t. dry)
1 bay leaf
6 c. vegetable or chicken broth
1 lb. waxy red potatoes (4 to 5 small potatoes), cut into bite-sized pieces
1/2 lb. green beans, trimmed and cut into bite-sized pieces
1 lb. small-shaped pasta, like shells or elbow macaroni
6 ounces greens, like spinach, kale, or chard, cut into ribbons
1 (15-ounce) can white beans, like Great Northern, drained and rinsed
Salt and pepper to taste
Grated Parmesan cheese, optional, to serve

In a large soup pot, warm the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, celery, and 1/4 t. of salt, and cook until the onion and celery are soft and translucent, 8 to 10 minutes. Stir in the garlic, thyme, and bay leaf, and cook until the garlic is fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Add the chicken broth, potatoes, and 1 t. of salt to the pan. Increase the heat to high and bring the soup to a boil. Lower heat to medium-low and simmer the soup for 5 minutes. Add the green beans and simmer for another 5 to 10 minuets, until both the potatoes and the green beans are tender.
While the soup is simmering, bring a pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta to al dente. Drain and set aside.

When the vegetables are tender, stir the greens and the white beans into the soup. Simmer until the greens are wilted and tender, 1 to 3 minutes. Taste and add additional salt and pepper if needed.

To serve, add a scoop of pasta to each bowl and ladle the soup over top. Sprinkle some Parmesan cheese over top, if using. Store pasta and soup leftovers separately; they will keep refrigerated for 1 week.

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