Since mid-March, Unalaskans have been hunkering down and socially isolating due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During that time—and even now as the State of Alaska reopens—many people have been avoiding crowds and public spaces such as bars, restaurants, and supermarkets—and spending more time in their own kitchens.
Over the past couple months, I have been putting together an Unalaska quarantine kitchen cookbook—sitting down with a few locals to hear about what kind of experiments, recipes, and memories they've been cooking up during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last week, Carlos Tayag shared his recipes for successful parenting and getting fancy with noodles. And in part four, I discuss shifts in time and the infallible instant pot with former Unalaska High School English teacher Shawna Rudio.
Like many Unalaskans, as the coronavirus pandemic separated the community and shut down schools, gyms, and non-essential businesses, Shawna Rudio felt a major shift in the pace of her daily routines.
"I feel this weird reversion from this hectic hurry up, got to hit this deadline, got to do this, almost frantic feeling when you're on a real schedule where you've got to meet daily deadlines, to this more real time, kind of living in the moment," said Rudio.
Before moving off island in late May, Rudio was teaching mainly high school English. She'd been a teacher with the Unalaska City School District for many years, but when I spoke with her in April, she was working through her first week of home-based education—evaluating her students' needs in this unprecedented time, developing distance-based lesson plans, and simply trying to get in contact with all of her students.
"You're taking that energy that you normally would use being in the classroom, interacting with the kids—you're dispersing it in kind of different ways," explained Rudio. "And so that I would say is a huge transition."
You could literally see that shifting energy in the room and throughout the school, for that matter. In place of jaunty spring-semester students, homework packets piled up on tables and in hallways. Student desks were left empty and neglected. Teachers could be seen wandering the halls, looking as if they were lost or in search of a much-needed dose of social interaction.
I had to drag a chair from across the room to sit near Rudio, who was seated behind her desk and several rows of boxes. In place of the usual grid or circle of desks occupying the room, student tables were shoved into a corner, homework packets and novels covered tables and chairs, and a disordered collection of strange chotchkies lay on shelves near the door, as if we were in a quirky, sea-side thrift store rather than a high school English classroom.
Rudio swept her hand in front of an assortment of knick-knacks and novelties, "Maybe you need some Fluker's bearded dragon food," she suggested.
Many teachers were cleaning or moving classrooms—preparing for rooms with fewer or possibly no students—so the disorder and boxes were a normal sight in the school at the time. But Rudio was preparing for a life change amidst the chaos, as she was grudgingly leaving the island, which had become her home.
"That's when the limbo started right there," Rudio said. "A lot of people said, 'It's going to get better, it's going to get better.' Maybe, but at that point, I'm like, it's too hard. It's too difficult to get in and out of here, and I need to be able to move a little bit, and not rely on the damn airlines."
Airline service on and off the island became sparse earlier this spring. And amid the shift in mobility and interaction caused by the coronavirus, Rudio said the stagnation became unbearable.
"Suddenly I have this time, but I don't have that mental energy to actually focus on something," she said.
When I asked Rudio how she was avoiding the lethargy, passing the time, and what was motivating her to get off the couch and face the strangeness of these coronavirus-marked times, she—like many people on this island might respond—said she loves going on walks, borrowing a friend's dog, and just heading up a hill.
But when I asked if she'd been doing any cooking or spending extra time in the kitchen, Rudio's eyes lit up and she nearly jumped out of her swivel chair.
"Oh my god," exclaimed Rudio. "Instant Pot is always exciting because—for me—somebody who really didn't cook, it blows my mind how in the morning—I love Scottish oatmeal that takes like 40 minutes to cook—I can just pop that in there."
The instant pot was mentioned over 30 times in our conversation. Going into the interview, I had planned to focus on discussing her transition as an English teacher into home-based education. But once I mentioned cooking and the recently famous, instantaneous slow-cooker, there was no redirecting our conversation.
"I love my Instant Pot keto butter chicken," said Rudio. "I've had people tell me, 'That's restaurant food.' It makes me feel like a superstar, you know? It's like that show, Nailed It. I feel like I make an instant pot meal and I'm like, yeah, nailed it.”
Sadly, I never got the opportunity to try Rudio's famous butter chicken before she left the island, but she did leave me the recipe. And next time I feel my couch beckoning me when I know I ought to be productive, or if the overwhelming change in time and daily routines during this pandemic sends me spiraling, I know I've got a delicious recipe for creative action an instant away.