Last week I saw an unstamped flyer in my mail slot. I don’t know about yours, but in my neighborhood that usually signals either lurking Jehovah’s Witnesses or some random realtor letting us know she has a client looking for a house just like ours and would we be interested in selling at this time? (Carol, did you see a For Sale sign in our yard? No? Then kindly fuck right off. Sometimes things are what they seem). But this time, last week in mid-March of this hellscape we’re calling 2020, the flyer was printed by some neighbors offering assistance and solidarity during a global pandemic. They gave contact info, a Facebook group they’d created just for our street, and a bulleted list of actions that could be accomplished for anyone sick or immunocompromised. It was very caring and hopeful, and I bet your apartment buildings or neighborhoods or churches are also responding in kind. Crises tend to bring humanity together. We not only “look for the helpers” as Fred Rogers would want us to, we also seek to become the helpers if we are able. But. I firmly believe we must stay cognizant and aware of what is actually helpful right now.
About ten-ish years ago, I was walking down a street in midtown Manhattan in the middle of the afternoon. I happened upon a young man who was kneeling on the sidewalk beside an elderly gentleman lying down. The elderly man was short of breath and there was a pool of blood by his head. Alarmed, I rushed to offer assistance. I offered to call 9-1-1, or could I maybe get them some water or anything? The young man thanked me, but said the best thing I could do was keep walking. He said the paramedics were on their way, they’d instructed him to keep the injured man talking and immobile, and it was best if there weren’t any extra bodies crowding the space where paramedics would need to be. It made sense. I wished them good luck and continued walking on my way.
To this day, I think about that incident a lot. It’s especially been on my mind the past week as we face down a global pandemic with unprecedented levels of corruption and incompetence from our federal government. That day in the city, it felt so weird to just walk away. Weird and yes, kind of wrong. But logically I knew the young man was correct. Not helping was the most helpful thing I could do.
Not helping someone goes against our instincts. Our species has evolved to be communal and inherently caretaking. And that especially rears its head in a time of crisis and uncertainty. There’s also no denying the dopamine hit or the ego stroke that comes with helping someone. We’re human, we are wired this way, and it’s easy to see the collective evolutionary advantages there. But an insistence on giving help where it isn’t needed isn’t helpful, it’s just burdensome. This is probably a message no one wants to hear right now, one which will garner me zero popularity points, but that’s okay. It needs to be said anyway. This is a difficult, distressing time, and we must keep our wits about us.
Offer to help. Mean it. But also listen. If someone says they don’t need help or that someone else is already helping them, believe them. Stay organized within your community and your family. Communicate and listen. Step up when needed but also step back when necessary.
Counterintuitive as it may be, sometimes the most helpful thing is to not help. Dark times like these leave no space for egos or unchecked lizard brain impulses. Heroics is not the name of the game here. We’re all in the shit together, and we need to stay together.
Originally I’d been lamenting that this recipe wasn’t too friendly for quarantine cooking, but then I noticed that ground veal and olives are two of the few items not being hoarded in my grocery store, so I don’t know, maybe it’s perfect for right now? I do know it’s comforting and delicious and tastes much fancier than it is. Stay safe out there.
Veal and Olive Ragu with Pappardelle
- 2 tbs olive oil
- 1 tbs unsalted butter
- 1 ½ lbs ground veal
- 1 onion, chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 tbs tomato paste
- 2 sprigs fresh rosemary, leaves stripped and finely chopped
- 1 cup pitted large green olives, coarsely chopped
- ½ cup dry white wine
- 1 cup beef broth
- ⅓ cup finely chopped fresh parsley
- ½ cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese, plus more for passing at the table
- Kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper, to taste
- 1 lb pappardelle (preferably fresh)
- In a large, deep skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the butter to melt, then add the veal in several large chunks. Leave it alone for a couple minutes to brown it on one side, then use a wooden spoon to chunk it up. Cook, stirring and chunking up the veal, until no traces of pink remain. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another 30 seconds. Stir in the tomato paste and rosemary and cook about 2 minutes, until fully combined. Now add the olives, stir to combine for about a minute, then add the white wine to deglaze. Use your spoon to scrape up the bottom browned bits from the bottom of the pan (flavor!), until the wine mostly evaporates. Now add the beef stock and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook, stirring frequently, until the ragu is nice and thick. Stir in the parsley and taste for seasoning. You will probably need a little salt, but the olives do a surprisingly good job of seasoning the ragu. Add black pepper if desired, then keep warm while you cook the pasta.
- Bring a stockpot of water to a boil, then salt generously. Cook the pasta according to package directions. I use fresh pasta for this dish which only takes 3-5 minutes, but if you’re using dried, of course the cook time is a bit longer. Feel free to start the water boiling before you cook the ragu if you’re using dried pasta.
- Once the pasta is cooked to al dente, add it directly to the ragu. Add the ½ cup cheese and toss everything together. Serve immediately with extra cheese.