My essay on parenting during the early days of the pandemic was published by the San Diego Union-Tribune. Recipe follows the article.
The other day I went to the grocery store for the first time in weeks. I dashed up and down the aisles in a COVIDian supermarket sweep. One of the managers, whom I’ve exchanged pleasantries with in happier times, darted past me. I recognized him by his slight build and arthritic stoop. At a healthy distance, we turned to greet each other.
I’m normally “the twin mom” or “the mom of three redheads,” so I was surprised he still recognized me, shopping alone. “Isn’t it funny how we can all still recognize each other, even with half our faces hidden?” I said. “It’s the eyes,” he replied. In this pandemic, it seems it is neither my 6-foot height nor my British accent that distinguish me, but my small brown eyes swiveling above a homemade mask. I scanned the condiments, looking for the olive oil.
By the time I’d found the kind I wanted, someone was blocking my path at the end of the aisle. She was staring at mustard. This was only my second time out, and I didn’t know the new supermarket etiquette. Should I wait? How long is reasonable to allow someone to make their choice, uninterrupted? I felt the wind of someone else passing behind me, closer than I’d like. I froze. A stranglehold of anxiety landed on my already-tense shoulders.
The person passed the mustard woman. It seemed that breezing past someone was a new social norm. I scolded myself for my hypervigilance against the backdrop of front-line workers restocking shelves and checking out customers’ groceries for hours a day. I must adapt, I thought, intentionally relaxing my shoulders. This is the new normal. Then I noticed the grocery store wasn’t playing music anymore.
My neighborhood store was no longer encouraging people to linger. We are all adapting. That night, after tucking the children in bed, I made tortilla española — a potato omelet from Spain, where I grew up. I pushed sliced potatoes and onions sprinkled with salt and paprika around a pan bubbling with the olive oil I’d bought earlier. The tingling smell of caramelized onions mixing with floury potato discs always soothes me.
Tortilla is a comfort food from my childhood, served warm on a slice of crusty bread in a tapas bar, or cold alongside a crisp salad for an al fresco lunch at home. Tortilla connects me to my family scattered across Spain and beyond. It is usually a dish for homesickness or a simple supper, but that night I made it as a treat for my 5-year-old.
While the potatoes and onions sweated, I cracked eggs into a mixing bowl. I washed my hands, noticing the cracked skin between my fingers. While I beat the eggs, I mused that the thing I find hardest about living under lockdown is being so far from my family in Europe, wondering when — or even if — I will ever see them again.
I allowed myself to be distracted by the thought of my eldest daughter’s face lighting up when I tell her there’s tortilla for supper. She’s typically a sunny kid, but lately there has been surliness. I worry about her. She hasn’t played with anyone her own age in almost three months. I wonder how this will affect her and her generation in the long term. Her younger twin siblings are oblivious to the new order of things.
At 18 months old, they’re getting to the age where they have each other to play with. When the twins were born, their big sister was four. The common response to the age gap was how easy it would be for her to adapt. “Old enough to understand, old enough to help.” “That’s kind of true,” I always countered. “But she is also old enough to remember life before.”
Similarly, with the coronavirus, she is old enough to understand we have to stay at home because there’s “a sneaky bug” making lots of people sick, but also old enough to remember life before this pandemic took its grip on our lives.
The next night, I watched my kid take a first bite of the tortilla that connects us to our European family. We gazed at each other: me, admiring the fullness of her young unmasked face; she, wriggling in her chair at the kitchen table. She took another mouthful and began talking. “Mom, when I used to be at school …” And I understood that she knows that her life, too, has been cloven into Before and After.
San Diego Union-Tribune • May 21, 2020
Recipe for Tortilla Española
Like I said above, this is a simple supper or a lovely lunch. But it’s also a great dish for a potluck: it’s vegetarian, travels well, the ingredients are cheap, and it complements many other dishes.
2 large potatoes (Yukon Gold is my favourite)
1 large yellow onion
A generous pouring of olive oil
Salt, pepper, paprika to season
- Slice onions into thin strips
- Quarter potatoes lengthwise, then slice into thin quarter-discs
- Heat up the olive oil in a 9″ frying pan, add potatoes and onions.
- Season to your taste.
- Sweat potatoes and onions for 20-25 minutes on a low heat. You want the onions to be translucent, and the potatoes to be soft, while retaining their shape.
- When cooked, remove from the heat and let it cool down for a few minutes.
- Beat eggs in a large mixing bowl. Season to your taste.
- Tip the onion-potato mixture into the eggs (not the other way around!) to ensure everything is coated. If you can, use a slotted spoon to leave as much of the flavorful oil in the pan as possible.
- Return everything to the pan. Cook on a low heat until the edges of the tortilla begin to turn white. Low and slow is key. Don’t be in a rush for the next step!
- When the tortilla looks firm enough to flip (cooked edges, partially cooked middle), remove it from the heat. Put a large plate over the pan and flip. This is the most nerve-wracking part of the operation!
- Slide the inverted tortilla back into the pan, tucking the splayed sides back into position.
- Cook for another few minutes. You can test the middle by inserting a knife. It should come out with a faint streak of yellow. If the knife comes out clean and steaming, you’ve probably overcooked it.
Eat hot on a baguette; cold or warm with a crisp salad or side of lentils; as a pairing with gambas al pil-pil; or, if you really want to mix it up à la sunburned-Brit-on-holiday-in-Spain, with a dash of HP Sauce. ¡Buen provecho!