“I can't find Miracle Whip,” I told my friend Alice, a wine and food critic, as we walked around the nearby park.
"You eat that crap?" She sneered under her mask.
“Yes, but nobody has it anymore,” I lamented.
It was a weird non-problem during a pandemic. But I was depressed and with cabin fever. For the first time ever, my red-headed Jewish mother in Michigan, a great host and cook, didn't want me visiting due to virus risks. My downtown Manhattan diner closed all spring, and my grocery had only Hellman's mayo. A control freak in a suddenly chaotic world, I craved the comfort of Mom's tuna with the tangier Miracle Whip.
Alice was feeling down, too. My surrogate big sister for 20 years, also a redhead, was a world traveler grounded and lonely since her older boyfriend shunned public transport. We became daily walking buddies, creating a quarantine bubble before it was a thing. I wanted exercise, fresh air, and a distraction from worrying about the world, my mom, my husband, and my mother-in-law, who was sick at a nursing home. Alice was combatting isolation in her tiny walkup and fretting over her 95-year-old mom, hours away.
"I’d order it online, but a non-essential may take weeks," I said. “I'd rather buy local to keep our stores and eateries in business." Yet the nearby shelves, with new brands and omissions, were Miracle Whip-less.
"I know where to try," Alice said, relishing the quest for my relish.
The market Alice mentioned was 13 blocks away, on a street where I never shopped, but what else were we doing? Theaters, museums, gyms, cafes, and bars were closed. The classes my husband and I taught at night went online. Happily, though, supermarkets, bodegas, and immigrant-run mom and pops were still open. As a workaholic with two jobs, I usually ate out and ordered in to save time. But now food shopping felt calming, a way to normalize. I got a rush spotting the white jar on the shelf. Eureka! I made tuna the way Mom did the minute I got home.
Hunting for food quickly became a hobby. My husband was in a high-risk group while recovering from surgery, so to keep him safe, I was in charge of getting supplies. One day Alice laughed at my mission: his Haribo ginger and lemon gummies, found at a mart a mile away. I knew, amid a global trauma, bizarre yens were silly and superficial. Yet finding his treats offered the illusion I was useful and gave me a plan. As a recovering addict who'd quit smoking and drinking, I needed the specific focus. My urban treasure hunt became my Prozac. Besides, doing 10 laps around the half-mile park loop with Alice was tedious. Walking up and down Manhattan in search of specific foods was more fun.
I had a spectacularly unsophisticated palate, said Alice, a sour-dougher joining the energetic bread bakers posting Instagram photos of her flour and wild yeast. As a wine and vegetarian connoisseur who knew where delicacies were hidden, she and I made an odd pair. But over the summer, she helped me locate my husband's cheddar sticks, meatballs, mac and cheese, hard shell tacos, and Bob's Red Mill White Popcorn. My mate found it miraculous that instead of ordering in prepared meals, I took to making him popcorn in a pot on the stove and whipping up omelets and Miracle Whip tuna melts.
“Does your domestic prowess end with the vaccine?” he joked.
Alice had loftier goals. At a wine shop 10 blocks away, she scored bottles of Barbacan Valtellina Rosso 2017. A non-drinker, I related more to her relief at finding buffalo milk mozzarella, tapenade, and marinated sun dried tomatoes at an open market on the other side of town. She only joined my penchant for mass-produce for her mother's yen: Stella D'oro fudge cookies and kosher chicken, to bring on her next visit.
"Isn't it dangerous to go to different stores?" my mom asked on one of our twice-daily phone chats.
Every city had different regulations. Based on our guidelines and my brother's advice (he's a doctor), Alice and I wore masks and gloves, kept six feet apart, and went in and out of shops quickly.
Some obsessive searches failed. CVS ran out of my latest longing, the Brach's Conversation Heart I’d eaten as a kid. Stores used to stock them year-round, but now CVS was the only place I'd had any luck—until even they ran out. Not giving up, I saw Amazon had a 10-box set for $26 with shipping. I justified the impulse splurge by deducting what I'd saved from months sans restaurants, movies, cabs, and event tickets. They must have been discounted in bulk since 25 sets of five little boxes came. I took five and donated the rest to the food bank bin in my lobby, picturing kids smiling at pink candy amid canned vegetables and soup.
By fall, as all the restaurants and stores came back to life, my mother-in-law recovered too. Feeling better, my husband rushed to see her, sharing an al fresco meal of her favorites—a BLT and black and white cookie—from a diner. I got my mother’s permission to make plane reservations to see her the end of September, and she promised, "I’ll have your tuna salad ready." And she did. (Why did hers always taste better?)
Unable to get what we’d wanted from an ailing world for seven months, I realized how cathartic it was to seek oddball treats. I treasured bonding with my old buddy, discovering hidden sights of my city and gathering my husband’s favorite foods—a little gesture symbolizing hope and love.