PUBLISHER'S NOTE: The COVID pandemic started out as a whisper (mysterious field clinics going up in China) then hit with a bang that seemed to stop time (morgue trucks stacked up outside hospitals in Manhattan). It became the biggest story in the world, and we covered it every step of the way.
We had just published our Best of the Inland Northwest issue — a celebration of everything we love about our home here. The next week, our cover showed an empty Main Avenue in downtown Spokane at midday — "A Quiet Place" we titled it. We were deemed essential by the governor and our team here rose to the challenge. People were hungry for everything they could learn, and we delivered every week. We never missed an issue.
Eventually, vaccines came along, masks went away, and we could ponder what it all meant. On Jan. 7, 2021, our then-Editor Jacob Fries pulled together a cover package titled "We Survived, Now What?" As he described it, "We asked some of our favorite local writers, novelists and poets to provide a little inspiration, a little hope, a little fun or fantasy as we close the book on what's been a truly craptastic year."
One of the pieces was by local novelist Chelsea Martin, who wrote an occasional column for us in 2017-19. Reprinted here, it's not only a reminder of the power of humor in dealing with tragic and challenging times, but it's also a literal shopping list of the absurdities of the year we might all like to forget but never will: 2020.
2020 was such an exciting year for the home pantry. Between the stay-at-home orders, the lack of indoor dining options, reduced occupancy at grocery stores, random food shortages and constant chatter about the threat of civil war, many of us found it favorable to keep our pantries stocked with the basics along with a few delicious things to take our minds off the state of the cold, cruel world. This all added up to a highly competitive environment for pantry foods. What pantry foods stood out? What pantry foods added value to our increasingly sad lives? What pantry foods stood up to the challenge of the year 2020?
LEADERSHIP AWARD: CANNED VEGETABLES
While canned vegetable sales were absolutely through the roof this year, very few cans were actually opened, and even fewer were eaten. We guess people just didn't feel like succumbing to the depressing notion of eating soggy canned green beans. Not on top of everything else we had to go through this year. We decided to give Canned Vegetables the Leadership Award, because like so many of our elected leaders in this astonishing country, they are committed to taking up space and pretending to be good for you while accomplishing literally f—-ing nothing.
INNOVATION AWARD: INSTANT COFFEE
In the dark days of early quarantine, we needed something new and fun and easy and made using things we didn't need to go to the store for, and also not so new as to challenge us at all. Something with the same flavors we were used to experiencing on a daily basis, but maybe with a slightly different texture and/or color. Enter Dalgona coffee, something food bloggers universally agreed was world-altering, and then promptly forgot about after they wrote about it in their blog.
MOST VERSATILE: CHEESE CRACKERS
This classic yet youthful pantry item offered a shred of fun and a glimmer of hope and crunch amidst bland rows of sauces and flours and unmarked cans, whose labels came off in the sink from trying to wash the COVID off. This year, we ate cheese crackers as a snack as well as full meals. We ate them in the car, the bath and on the kitchen floor. We ate them with our toddlers, our dogs, and for Thanksgiving Dinner alone in our apartments.
IMPACT AWARD: SUGAR
This year, we put sugar in everything. Coffee. Muffins. Bread. Pasta sauce. Chili. Quesadillas. French fries. Pad Thai. Minestrone. Whatever. Whenever. However much you want. Restaurants do it all the time. Ever wonder why restaurant salad is so much better than homemade salad? It's got f—-ing sugar in it. This was the year we collectively dropped the pretenses and poured sugar into our sandwiches. Voila! Sandwiches with sugar in them. Consider this your night on the town.
BEST NEW PANTRY ITEM: HOMEMADE FERMENTED STUFF
Suddenly everyone is an expert on fermentation. Oh, so you planted a victory garden but have no idea what to do with all your radishes, cucumbers and carrots? Well, pickle them, put the jars in the farthest corner of your pantry, and don't think about them anymore!
INDIE FAVORITE: CANNED FISH
Few like it, fewer love it, and absolutely no one agrees on what to do with it. But that didn't stop canned fish from developing a cult following this year. Food writers around the country put canned fish on their must-have quarantine pantry item lists, insisting we try putting it on toast or stirring it into pasta or sprinkling it over salad. If these sound like good ideas, we're happy for you! We just don't necessarily get it.
COMFORT FAVORITE: ALCOHOL
With bars largely closed, 2020 was the year of the casual bartender. It was so exciting at first — we had gimlets at 3 pm and manhattans in our coffee mugs and blended margaritas over Zoom parties with our friends! And while that excitement didn't last, nor did our jobs, nor did our interest in Zoom, nor did our ability to maintain friendships, the sweet release of using alcohol as a crutch to get through literally every single day of this bitchass year did not subside. Half a glass of rum and fill the rest up with room temp water? That's a Tuesday. Two shots of gin, a few drops of tonic water from a bottle you pulled out of the recycling bin, and a sprinkle of whole wheat flour? That's a Wednesday. And so on.
HALL OF FAME: SPAGHETTI
Good ol' spaghetti. A classic pantry item, and winner of one of our prestigious pantry awards year after year for good reason. Spaghetti didn't falter this year, but it also didn't offer anything new or surprising, so we honor it for its legacy and lasting power, and hope it has many more years ahead.
PANTRY STAPLE OF THE YEAR: FLOUR
Our biggest Pantry Award goes to flour! Flour is a pantry favorite every year, but it truly outdid itself in 2020. It seemed like everyone was making their own bread, trying their hand at homemade croissants, making pizza dough, sprinkling it into cocktails, and adding a little to raw eggs before scrambling, just to see what would happen. And what happened was this: Flour proved itself to be the most versatile, compelling, and dare we say hopeful pantry item of 2020. ♦
Chelsea Martin is the Spokane-based author of six books, including Tell Me I'm an Artist. Her website is cacadolce.com.