Let me set the scene for you. Lockdown has started. I am getting used to working from home. I realise that face masks are now more about fabric and fit than hyaluronic or salicylic acid. I venture to our nearest grocery store, prepared to buy only the basics that would last as long as possible, prolonging the need for the next trip into the apocalyptic den of my local Pick ‘n Pay.
I head to the pasta section and slide a package of dried spaghetti into my basket. It’s not the usual brand I buy, but it’ll do. I pick up some garlic, some onions – red and white, variety is the spice of life, you know – and then head for the canned vegetables for the canned tomatoes that form the basis of most of my Italian-inspired cooking. Chicken cacciatore? Canned tomatoes. Meatballs? Canned tomatoes. Melanzane? Canned tomatoes.
I round the corner and do a double-take. The shelves are empty. Barren. A tumbleweed could have blown by and it would have been thematically appropriate. There was nothing there. Not my three varieties of chopped tomatoes. Not my three varieties of whole tomatoes or two varieties of tomato puree. I even looked for those odd, niche canned tomatoes, where they chuck things like ‘Italian herbs’ or ‘garlic flavour’ into them. Nothing. No sachets of tomato paste. No passata containers.
It was a tomato wasteland.
That was the first time I felt genuine fear during this lockdown. I was fairly confident that I would be able to weather the virus if I were to catch it (please note the past tense of ‘was’ – I am several months older and therefore wiser now). I have a stable job that seemed to lessen the likelihood of retrenchment. But, for the first time in my immensely privileged life, I felt scared about being able to buy enough food for my family to eat that week.
Once I lifted my blinkered focus for the ingredients on my shopping list, I noticed other barren shelves. There were no baked beans. The rice section was borderline empty, with a few lonely packets of imported Arborio rice slumped on the bottom shelf. The only packages of meat left on the shelves had slight rips in the packaging. The chocolate section was bleak. I blinked back tears while I placed a slab of rum and raisin Cadbury into my basket (turns out this was the only one left for a reason). The only eggs left were the expensive organic free-range ones, laid by chickens with better retirement packages than I have.
I forlornly made my way back to the fresh produce, hoping to try and make a Napolitano sauce with fresh tomatoes – there is always a first time for everything, after all. There was nothing there. Rage seethed through me. The aisles were empty because of people who had swanned in, grabbed a trolley, laden it to the rooftops with more than their household could possibly consume in a month and checked out. I am sure that these same culprits are the ones who have built forts out of their boxy stacks of toilet paper.
Over time people breathed a little easier, frequented the shops a little bit more, bought a little less and made some effort towards the communal effort that navigating this pandemic needs to be.
Hankering a taste for tomato soup?
But not everyone.
Someone, somewhere, has a basement or pantry filled to bursting with canned tomatoes that they stockpiled during the lockdown. There is a not-insubstantial part of me that fervently hopes that one day the pyramid of cans will tumble down, crushing the tomato thief beneath it. And there they must wait for rescue until one of their kids gets bored of the toilet paper fort and wanders into the kitchen.
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