Eric Flynn, owner of Excellence Realty in Portland and an avid home cook, has always had a well-stocked pantry. But when COVID hit, he squirreled away so much extra food he had to install extra shelving in a hallway to hold his pandemic stash.
Instead of picking up one box of dried pasta on a shopping trip, Flynn bought 10. (One friend who initially mocked him for it, thinking he was overreacting, later sent an apology along with a photo of one lonely box of pasta on a grocery store shelf.) Flynn bought extra dried beans, and rice in 10-pound bags from Portland’s Asian markets. Where normally he would throw one package of quinoa into his cart, now he threw in five.
“I easily tripled my pantry with things that I knew would keep a very long time, like grains, dried beans, that sort of thing,” he said. “I would say I bought five times what I would normally have.”
What’s happened to all the extra food that Mainers bought a year ago, when they were panic shopping? A lot of it is still sitting in pantries and freezers at home, as people slowly work their way through troves of frozen peas and canned carrots. Some home cooks are getting creative, combining ingredients in interesting and sometimes unusual ways. Others are scratching their heads. A quick Twitter survey turned up Mainers who have been googling canned salmon recipes, and hoping said survey would lead to “a bunch of brilliant ideas for canned tuna.”
“Let’s just say we haven’t had to buy more pasta for quite a while,” said Portland attorney Diane Kenty, who works as a mediator and court administrator, and teaches at the University of Maine School of Law. Over the past few months, Kenty and her wife, who live in Westbrook, have eaten pasta with red sauce (both meat and meatless), pasta with homemade pesto, and still more pasta with a lemony white wine sauce, and vegetables or fish.
Last winter, their stockpile of canned beans went into chili and minestrone, “which is kind of a two for one with pasta and beans,” Kenty said.
As a real estate agent, Flynn has seen the remnants of 2020 hoarding firsthand, in homes going up for sale. “It’s not horribly uncommon to walk into a basement now and go ‘Ah, that’s where the sanitary wipes and the toilet paper went, to this person’s house,’” he joked.
Pot, meet kettle. While Flynn claims his pantry is “almost normal now,” he also says he is eager for barbecue season to arrive so he can make a few batches of homemade barbecue sauce with the eight bags of dried chiles (some hot, some mild) that remain on the shelf. He’s made a big dent in the rice, but he’s still working his way through five pounds of black beans, which in normal times he buys two cans at a time.
“I think (the hoarding) was partially fed because you were wondering when what you were buying wasn’t going to be available any more,” Flynn said. “It’s like, well, they still have black beans, so I’ll just grab another two 1-pound bags because I don’t know if we’re not going to have beans in two weeks.”
His reservoir of lentils went into dishes like Mexican red lentil soup. And when Flynn found himself with five extra cans of pumpkin well after Thanksgiving had come and gone, he made gingered pumpkin turkey stew.
Not all pandemic plates sound so palatable. Brahn Smith, a comic artist and illustrator who lives in Searsport, stocked up on canned goods and rice last year, and is now using them up in “some weird combinations.”
“The weirdest one is canned zucchini and tomato sauce with mashed potatoes,” he said, adding that he layered the ingredients and baked them similar to a shepherd’s pie. He sometimes added meat. “It looks horrible and it sounds a little strange, but it tastes really good. It turns the potatoes pink, so it’s kind of weird.”
Smith is immunocompromised, so he made just three or four major shopping trips during the last year or so to avoid going out too much. He’d see a can of, say, chickpeas and think “Well, I guess I need five of these because I’m never going shopping again.”
“We did end up with a lot of canned asparagus and some bulk frozen salmon from Walmart,” Smith said. “That was kind of a treat. It was one of those things people weren’t stocking up on so much, so we were able to get a little bit more of that than some other things.”
He added wild rice, and called it dinner.
In the middle of January, Smith’s family enjoyed a pandemic version of Thanksgiving dinner that featured canned carrots, canned cranberry sauce and canned chicken. And they’ve discovered that condensed milk and a box of Trader Joe’s shelf-stable whipping cream, when combined with cherry jam and vanilla, makes a delicious ice cream.
Smith said there are still water chestnuts to use up (they were supposed to go into fried rice, but that never happened), and a lot of canned carrots, which he accidentally ordered too much of online by clicking the buy button too many times. And the chickpeas are still being turned into hummus – a lot of hummus. How long it will take to go through the cache of food depends on how creative they can get, Smith said. “There are some things you just really can’t combine,” he said. “They’re just kind of gross.”
Carrye Castleman-Ross can relate. In her pandemic stash, she said, “there are some sardines in mustard which I would have to be on my deathbed to eat. And I love canned fish. I could eat sardines on a saltine all day long.”
Castleman-Ross owns the Depot Street Tap House in Bridgton, right behind the Renys department store and The Magic Lantern movie theater and pub.
“I had often laughed pre-pandemic that somebody should do a Morgan Spurlock Supersize Me-style experiment and just eat food from Renys for a month, which I thought would be so clever,” she said. “It would be a cute little Maine-centric documentary. Minus the fresh produce and dairy, you could really eat some good food from Renys. So when (the pandemic) happened, I told my crew ‘I’m going to go to Renys and I’m going to stock up on all my survival provisions.’ And I did.”
She bought shelf-stable, heat-and-eat Indian meals; lots of 7-bean soup; a bunch of “random and weird” grains; tinned seafood; cans of Bar Harbor brand lobster bisque; “and whole wheat pasta because by the time I got there all of the what I consider decent pasta was already gone.”
Castleman-Ross placed what she calls her “pandemic bag” of Renys food on her dining room table, and spent three days selectively eating the good stuff first – the Lindt chocolate truffles, the bags of honey-roasted peanuts. Then she realized things weren’t as dire as she’d feared – hallelujah, Hannaford was still open – and the bag went mostly untouched for months. She did eat most of the Indian food, and she tried the canned mackerel with some local mustard greens, but it was, she says, “a completely disgusting clash of two very intense flavors.”
The pseudo-survivalist tucked what was left of her pandemic stash – including the whole wheat pasta, a couple of cans of spaghetti sauce, and the least appealing of the Indian meals – into her pantry and hasn’t looked at it since. But it will stay there indefinitely, just in case.
“Unless there’s another global apocalypse,” she said, “the bag is going to sit in my pantry longer than I will be here.”
The last time we checked in with Portland resident Beth Richardson, in late March 2020, she had an unopened 10-pound bag of flour in her pantry, yeast in her refrigerator, another 16-ounce brick of yeast in her freezer, and 20 pounds of wheat berries she had shipped from an organic farm in South Dakota so she could grind her own whole wheat flour. For bakers, it was a time of shortages and grocery store shelves empty of flour and yeast. But Richardson was prepared for this pandemic. The woman who once religiously followed a very low carb diet spent the spring, summer and fall of 2020 baking and baking, then baking some more.
“I ground up the wheat and baked like a crazy person,” she said, “and sent my kids bread in the mail to New York and Washington, D.C.,” along with cookies and lots of loaves of banana bread.
By the end of the year, Richardson had gained 15 pounds. So she stopped eating her own creations, but didn’t want to stop baking – especially after a friend sent her special sourdough starter that had originated in eastern Europe. She dove into making sourdough bread, and started delivering it to her neighbors, out of the blue. “One of my neighbors called me the bread fairy,” Richardson said. “I would just knock on on peoples’ door and say ‘Hi, would you like a loaf of bread?’ I found all the gluten-intolerant people in my neighborhood.” (Some gluten-sensitive people who have trouble digesting bread made with commercial yeast are able to eat sourdough bread.)
It took Richardson an entire year to go through the 20 pounds of wheat berries. She has one more 2-pound package of yeast, bought nine months ago, that she hasn’t yet opened.
Baking supplies were just a portion of Richardson’s pandemic stash. She bought a lot of dried beans, “way more than I could ever eat. I still have a five-gallon glass jar filled with bags of beans.”
Like Smith, she’s made a lot of hummus with the chickpeas, adding colorful pepper strips she bought frozen at Whole Foods. She makes broccoli soup once in a while with the frozen broccoli she bought at the same time, even though no one in her family likes broccoli. Mostly, she still has a lot of beans.
“I went into survival mode” last year, Richardson said. “I was, like, beans, dried beans, that’s the way to go. If all hell breaks loose, I have chickens, my husband’s a beekeeper, and we have beans, right?”
Right. We all still have beans.
Simple Black Bean Soup
Recipe from Eric Flynn @flynncancook. Flynn uses chipotle chili powder when he makes the soup. If the cook uses vegetable stock and selects the right garnishes, the soup can be vegan. “The soup freezes exceptionally well ungarnished for up to three months. Just thaw, warm, and garnish and you are good to go,” Flynn said.
2 cups dried black beans
5 cups vegetable or chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon kosher salt
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 jalapeno, thinly minced
3 tablespoons cooking oil
1 (14-oz.) can diced tomatoes
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 cups water or stock, to thin
2 tablespoons lime juice or red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
Garnish Suggestions: Sour cream, chopped fresh cilantro or parsley, avocado, diced radish or onion, shredded cheese, salsa
Clean and rinse the black beans. Be sure to remove any stones or broken beans. Place in a large pot and add the stock, red pepper flakes and salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a slow simmer and cover.
Sauté the garlic, onion, red pepper, jalapeno in the oil. Set aside until beans have cooked for 90 minutes. At that point, add the aromatics to the beans along with tomatoes, chili powder and cumin. Stir and cook, covered, for another 30-45 minutes stirring occasionally.
Remove 2 cups of cooked mixture and blend smooth in a food processor or blender then return the puree to the pot. Thin the soup with water to a consistency you like. Add the lime juice or vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Stir and cook for 5- 10 minutes more. Garnish and serve.