Discover more from Snack Stack
The snack that comforts me
On microwave nachos, anxiety, and parenting during a pandemic
Hello, Snackers. Today’s snack story is an especially personal one because it’s that kind of week.
If you’re new here: this is the weekly free post for Snack Stack, a newsletter that explores the cultural history of snacks. Check out the archives here. If you enjoy this, please share it and subscribe. Thanks so much.
The Snack That Comforts Me
At some point in the mid-1990s, when I was thirteen or fourteen years old, I started making nachos for myself. I have no recollection of preparing more elaborate dishes before it—I could make toast and cereal, of course, and maybe boil water, but that was about it. The nachos were my after-school snack, something to enjoy when I had the house to myself for an hour and was not yet ready to start doing homework. I’d get out the block of orange store-brand cheddar that was always in the fridge, cut off a cube that would fit just inside our rotary grater, and shred the cheese on top of the mosaic of triangular tortilla chips I’d spread across a plate. I’d put the whole thing in the microwave for thirty seconds and then—because it was an old microwave with no turntable—rotate the plate 180 degrees for even cooking, before giving it another thirty seconds.
I ate the nachos while watching reruns of “Mama’s Family,” a sitcom that was a spin-off of sketches from “The Carol Burnett Show,” although I knew nothing about this background or the show’s stars. It was just what happened to be on during that time slot. We had only recently acquired a TV for the first time, so the idea of sitting down to watch a show, even hokey one from the 1980s, was still a novelty. The plots and antics were basic but amusing enough, just as my basic nachos were fulfilling enough. They both provided a minimal acceptable level of pleasure, landing only a few ticks above “adequate” but up there nonetheless, providing just enough joy and comfort to make me go, “Yeah, that hits the spot.”
As I grew older, I learned to make more complex meals and developed marginally more refined taste in television programming. I’ve also come to appreciate the superior results that come from baking nachos in the oven. But you know what? The microwaved version is still great. It’s fast, it’s easy, there are fewer dishes to wash. Even if they’re not the best of all possible nachos, they deliver the essential, beguiling textural contrasts of melted cheese and crispy chips and that always-tasty interplay of saltiness and creaminess. That’s more than enough, if only barely—it’s good-enough plus one.
Microwave nachos also offer a sense of reassurance, which I find myself needing now more than ever.
* * *
I had a panic attack on Monday. They’re uncommon for me, not even a yearly thing, although their close cousin, anxiety, is a constant presence, especially lately.
You know why. We’ve been living through a pandemic for two years now. Cases are skyrocketing again. Yesterday, Slate published a piece by Jaime Green titled “The Agony of Parents With Kids Under 5.” It spoke to me, especially this part:
There is a knife hanging over our heads, as there is for every parent of a kid under 5. The text alert will come, or the phone will ring with a call from school. An exposure. A symptom. Come get them. Come get them and stay home.
My older daughter, M, is six years old and got vaccinated the very first day she could, back in November. Her little sister, E, is four and still too young to get the jab. The other day, M made a doctor kit out of paper, drawing and then cutting out a syringe, alcohol wipe, and Band-Aid, so that she could give her sister a pretend shot. It’s as close as we’ll get for months. The Pfizer trials for under-fives were extended last month, and the Moderna trials were just extended a few days ago, which I only know because I read that Slate piece, and Green only knew because she also happened upon the information:
My colleague … pointed out that we only found this out at all because a co–principal investigator on the Moderna clinical trials told a local Wisconsin news outlet, and someone else noticed and tweeted about the extended timeline for the study. January was no more. Now it was April. The worst part might be that no one even thought to officially announce it.
Still, even without a vaccine, we’ve been quietly optimistic that E was in a protective bubble. We’ve limited our exposure as a family and her small child care center has been a paragon of preparedness and caution: the kids wear masks, the teachers are vaccinated, the communication with parents is excellent. But at the beginning of January, there was an outbreak at the center and it closed for a week. E hadn’t been there for a few days and wasn’t exposed, but it was a jarring start to the year, particularly coupled with several breakthrough cases of Omicron among vaccinated-and-boosted family and friends, and the general sense, based on every available data point from news and social media, that the virus was now truly everywhere and inescapable.
On Monday, the day when E was finally going back to child care, M’s school was cancelled for the day. Officially, it was because of the weather—it was cold here in Minneapolis (-5° in the morning), though not as cold last week (-18° on Friday), when school went on.
The other reason for cancellation: too many bus drivers were out, a fact that had nothing to do with the temperature. M’s school district sent an email noting “rising cases” in passing, as though this were just an expected part of life now, which I suppose it is. One of Minnesota’s top epidemiologists just warned of the approaching “viral blizzard,” with schools as a likely hotspot.
I helped M get settled in for her day of remote learning and I helped E get ready for child care, making sure she had her very best mask, the Wirecutter-recommended one with the extra-good filter. We went to the kitchen to pick out a water bottle and I insisted she take the one with the cherries on it instead of the one with cartoon dinosaurs. I’m not superstitious, but you need to find some sense of control in this world and sometimes it feels like that’s only possible in the smallest tasks, and here’s what I was thinking: Cherries are fun and the dinosaurs are dead. And then I had a panic attack.
* * *
Microwave nachos are pleasingly easy to make but there are multiple steps to be completed, a process that goes beyond tossing a slice of bread in the toaster or reheating some leftovers. You have to assemble the nachos yourself, getting the arrangement of chips and distribution of cheese just right. You can layer them tall, you can make a two-chip batch, or, if you’re feeling fancy, you can add some pickled peppers or pico de gallo or black beans or chicken or what-have-you. This DIY aspect is important because it allows you the satisfaction of having done something. You built that. You made it to your own specs, using the available materials to meet the current requirements of life.
Sometimes you desperately need that feeling of accomplishment, no matter how small, as a check against teenage ennui or adult angst. It gives you a little ping in your brain—not a huge, triumphant one, but a ping nonetheless—signaling that you have completed a multi-step process and may now savor the results. This, too, is an example of a minimal acceptable level of pleasure.
Our days are spent trying to parent and work and reply to emails and maintain friendships and pay bills and just, like, keep it together despite the weight of the world and the way it has been infinitely increased by an RNA virus roughly 100 nanometers in size and carried on the wind of unmasked mouths and indoor ventilation. After our kids are asleep, my wife and I will often watch a show on Netflix. Lately there’s been a lot of comedy. We watch episodes of “Schitt’s Creek” for the second, third, fourth time; we watch stand-up specials and usually stick with them even if we’re not laughing much. If there’s ice cream in the house, we’ll have that, but more often we’re going for nachos and their crunchy, salty, gooey, greasy pleasures. For a while, we had some homemade pickled jalapeños to add, but those are long gone, so it’s back to the cheese and chips and maybe a shake of the hot sauce our friends sent to us for Christmas.
We use shredded cheese from the store. It's not hard to grate our own and it tastes better, but also that adds another step and more dishes and have I mentioned we have no energy. So we indulge in the economy-size bag of shredded cheddar. This is what amounts to luxury these days. We still get that little ping of triumph, a task completed successfully and swiftly. That feeling is so elusive in these times and we need to claim it where we can, prying it from the wall of frustration that surrounds our days. I can make more elaborate dishes, or at least I know I can, but my pandemic brain fog always seems to lead to the messing-up of a small but essential element. Microwave nachos are one thing I have never messed up.
Microwave nachos require enough prep work that if you’re sharing, the person who’s not preparing them has time to do a quick task: put in a load of laundry, run to the bathroom, check the internet to see if there’s any critical news from the school district/state government/CDC that we haven’t heard yet but is being effectively disseminated on Twitter by, say, someone from the cast of “Night Court.”
Then the nachos are done and the other task and its attendant commiserating eventually wind down and it’s back to streaming grade-B comedy. It’s always easy to make more microwave nachos, to get another ping and another dose of good-enough plus one, to let the next episode auto-play.
* * *
Microwave nachos are a minor miracle, a product of so much innovation and technology, to say nothing of the supply chain that gets the requisite components—the food, the oven, the electrical grid that powers it—to us in the first place.
Nachos started as a dish improvised by a man named Ignacio—“Nacho”—Anaya in a hotel restaurant in Piedras Negras, Mexico in 1940; some customers arrived after the kitchen had closed, so he looked around to see what he could put together, and wound up created an instant classic. Microwave ovens were first sold in 1947 but didn’t reach a mass market until the debut of the Amana’s “Radrarange” model twenty years later. Packaged shredded cheese arrived right in the middle of that timeline, in 1958, initially developed by Sargento. As far as I can tell, the first published mention of using a microwave to make nachos was a 1976 story by Barbara Richardson in the Longview, Texas News-Journal. “The Carol Burnett Show” had already been on the air for two years. Each of these developments, in an additive process, eventually led to a teenager in Minneapolis eating a particular snack while watching a particular show in the early years of the Clinton presidency.
Vaccines are, of course, even more amazing and required even more steps and even more effort. The fact that anyone of any age had access to this lifesaving medicine is proof that we live in a time of immense riches and technological might. I’m grateful to be alive now and not centuries ago, just as I’m grateful for (and acutely aware of) the fact that my family has it better than so many people right now. Vaccine inequity remains a tremendous problem around the world; so does the disproportionate impact of climate change; so does access to basic nourishment; it’s a long list. Within my own close circle of loved ones, just in the last week, there were multiple cases of Covid (including a young child), a family that had to evacuate the house due to the wildfires in Colorado, and a teacher who had to take a leave of absence because the stresses of the job were destroying her health. Even among the privileged, I know I’m lucky. I’m doing all right, in the grand scheme. But only because our societal baseline for “all right” is so low.
Some 5.5 million people around the world have died of this thing, five point five million and counting, and how do you even wrap your mind around that? How do you mourn, how do you cope, how do you keep it at bay and avoid becoming part of that horrifying statistic yourself? What can you do beyond picking out the luckiest water bottle and searching high and low for more tiny pink KN95 masks to gently but firmly affix to your kids’ faces, hoping this shield will protect these most precious of lives, praying that these small, magnificent bundles of joy and possibility will make it through to next week, next month, next year, or whenever we reach that After Time when this awful thing is over?
What can you do beyond trying your best and then having a plate of microwave nachos?
* * *
M, my older daughter, is a fairly picky eater, but about a month ago, she said she was going to try one new food every week. The other day, I asked if she wanted to try microwave nachos and she said yes. She loved them. I’m excited to share more plates with her and teach her how to make the ideal batch, with multiple layers and extra cheese in the middle, which can get overcooked quickly if you’re not careful.
I try to take joy in these small moments and see them as hope for a brighter future. I try to be optimistic. Some days I can and some days I can’t.
Update: Ten minutes (!!) after this posted, we got a message that our youngest had been a close contact for multiple days with someone who has just tested positive. Three hours later, Minneapolis Public Schools announced it was moving to distance learning for two weeks, starting Friday due to rising cases. I had two batches of microwave nachos last night. Please send more chips.