An Unexpected Gift of Ginger
Like serotonin for your soul, ginger root during the pandemic can be a balm for anxiety—among its many other benefits. Mary Novaria spins a yarn about how the superfood brought her relief.
Before the first COVID-19 death in the United States, and before I learned of my neighbors’ inclination for hoarding toilet paper, I got my first taste of coronavirus deprivation in the produce aisle.
It was the end of February, two weeks before the World Health Organization proclaimed the virus a pandemic. What would soon become an international nightmare and a horrifying domestic health crisis was weeks away. I was annoyed because there was no fresh ginger root at my local grocer.
As the needs became so great for masks, gowns, ventilators, testing kits, vaccines, and more, my disappointment in a lack of ginger, in hindsight, seems trivial and selfish—definitely not a necessity, but a spoiled bougie desire.
We didn’t yet know what the coming weeks would bring, and we couldn’t fathom that, in early August, we’d have than 160,000 U.S. deaths.
The coronavirus originated nearly 7,000 miles from my home in Colorado. As it turns out, that’s how far fresh ginger had been traveling to get to my local grocery store.
“Our ginger comes from China,” the aproned young man in the produce section told me.
“Ooooohhhh,” I said. It took a beat for me to make the connection. Although I was well aware of what was happening in China, the United States was still weeks away from daily briefings and a national obsession with the pandemic.
“We’re not getting any shipments because of the virus,” he said.
The produce guy then showed me to some minced ginger in a jar. I eyeballed it dubiously and wondered if I could adapt it into my two favorite ginger-infused concoctions: Vanilla Chai Smoothie and Three Cup Chicken, the traditional Taiwanese dish I had recently discovered in The New York Times Cooking section.
Weeks later, my grocer was out of garlic, and I had to buy that in a jar too. The jarred ginger worked well with the chicken, although I missed the texture of the crunchy, sliced ginger discs. The jar’s ingredients included soybean and olive oil, which was not a great fit with my smoothie’s vanilla and chai flavors.
I gave my friends a heads up on my Facebook page, a public service announcement of sorts for cooks and ginger lovers.
“Only the start of things that will be scarce,” replied a friend in Atlanta.
She wasn’t kidding. By the time we were quarantined, the grocery store looked apocalyptic. Besides an inability to find any toilet paper, paper towels, and hand sanitizer, I was greeted by huge empty potato bins, bare onion shelves, and a completely pillaged baking aisle.
It was clear people were calming their nerves, filling time, and upping their culinary games during this period of shelter-in-place—and it was having an impact on the food supply chain.
Ginger became the least of my problems. As we evolved into self-isolation, my anxiety about friends, family, and the world in general ramped up. One of our kids, who works two restaurant jobs, suddenly found herself out of work. Two more were quarantined in their condo, avoiding the petri dishes of Chicago’s public transit and office buildings. I wasn’t sleeping.
Even before the pandemic had reached deadly proportions, I reached out on Facebook to ask friends how they were doing. Nearly everyone was worried and sad. Most were physically healthy, although several would go on to test positive for COVID-19 and battle fevers and coughs for weeks.
Many were especially concerned about aging parents. Nearly everyone doubted our healthcare system’s capacity to handle the load. With apprehension and uncertainty the order of the day, my own anxiety was buzzing irrationally over that which I could not control. Like many, my husband and I canceled travel plans, and we still have no idea when we’ll see our adult children again.
One of those angsty days, my husband and I took a walk through our hilly neighborhood. It was cleansing to breathe in the cool, crisp mountain air—a respite from handwringing and handwashing, if only for an hour.
When we stopped at the mailbox, inside was an unexpected package from a school friend in Chicago: a Ziploc filled with organic ginger root from her local co-op. It was so thoughtful—the kind of lovely gesture that sustains us during the most troubling times. I tore into the package, inhaled its unmistakable, pungent earthiness, and exhaled out a big sigh of relief. Turns out ginger is also a balm for anxiety.
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