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Contributed Photo / Dr. Rink Murray says he's found Hamburger Helper tastes a lot better than it did when he was a child, and it makes an easy meal for his family.

Is Hamburger Helper your new best helpmate? Is "Cooking for Dummies" back on the kitchen counter? Whatever the case, the coronavirus has changed the way America eats.

Restaurants have closed temporarily, and in many households, takeout and meal deliveries have become a way of life.

"I've just discovered that Hamburger Helper doesn't completely suck. Hunger is the best seasoning, so either I was really hungry or Hamburger Helper is just so much better than I remember as a kid," says Dr. Rink Murray, a reproductive endocrinologist in Chattanooga.

Like many who didn't cook much before the pandemic, Murray is now eating things he wouldn't have imagined just weeks ago.

"When this is over, I will, at least, be social distancing from my pots and pans," says Valerie Peron Smith, admitting she's cooking at home now, but not very well. "It may be a good option to donate them when this is over because I don't ever want to see them again."

Diane Moseley Crabtree, former Chattanoogan and now a resident of Franklin, Tennessee, is an empty nester who once ate out three to four nights a week. But times have changed, and so have her dining habits. Self-quarantining has her "going through absolute culture shock," she says. "Right now, my cookbooks are accumulating dust, but once I get acclimated to cooking again, who knows? I may get more adventurous."

Crabtree says she and her husband, David, are eating their three meals a day at home and trying to stick to healthful snacks.

"For two at-risk 62-year-olds, that isn't easy," she says. "We're surviving doing a lot of grilling, and when fresh veggies aren't available, I'm working my way through canned vegetables in the pantry.

"It's super simple, but with all the turmoil and uncertainty out there, it's all I have the emotional bandwidth for."

With gyms closed and recent rains preventing outdoor activities, many people say they are worrying about weight gain. There's even a new moniker for it, reminiscent of the dreaded Freshman 15 — the COVID 19 (pounds).

As a result, Chattanoogan Jamie Curtis says her eating habits have changed — for the better. "Since I can't go out to eat, I'm missing fried okra and onion rings, especially."

 

Cooking via social media

Private Facebook groups that have started since the advent of the coronavirus offer both new and seasoned cooks a chance to show their culinary progress. Former Chattanoogan Sally Tucker Stroud of St. Simons Island, Georgia, is a member of Cooking Away Your Fears.

"It's a way to support each other through these scary times," she says. "It gives us a chance to concentrate on something pleasant instead — cooking and eating dinner."

Members of the Facebook group post photos of their finished dishes as well as give tips they've found on food safety and other concerns during this time.

And though she enjoyed cooking before the virus, she says she's learned a thing or two by checking in with her Facebook friends.

"The group inspires me to try new recipes," she says. "I"m seeing how friends in California cook compared to my friends in the South!"

 

Across the globe

Texas native and now a resident of London, England, Grace Taylor Vogelzang is on mandatory lockdown, as is everyone in the city, at the order of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, she says. Going to the grocery story is her sole outing. The streets are barren; shelves at the store are nearly bare.

"It's bleak," she says. "There's nothing in the meat department, cheese, dairy, toilet paper, paper towels, frozen foods, veggies or fruits."

So she's resorting to finding recipes in her old cookbooks, such as one for Mexican Chipotle Chile Soup, a main-course soup that involves no cooking, just warming up. "Use a rotisserie chicken, and it's really just cut up, heat and eat," she says.

 

Mexican Chipotle Chile Soup

Requiring a minimum of culinary skill, this entree soup is ideal for the noncook who is self-quarantining.

6 1/4 cups chicken broth (homemade or store-bought)

2-3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1-2 canned or dried chipotle chilies, cut into very thin strips

1 avocado

Lime or lemon juice

3-5 scallions, thinly sliced

12 to 14 ounces cooked chicken breast meat, shredded or cut into thin strips

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

1 lime, cut into wedges

Handful of tortilla chips

Place broth in large pan with garlic and chilies, and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, cut the avocado in half, and remove pit and skin. Dice the flesh, and toss with lemon or lime juice to prevent discoloration.

Arrange scallions, chicken, avocado and cilantro in the base of four soup bowls or in one large serving bowl. Ladle the hot broth over top, and serve with wedges of lime and tortilla chips.

Email Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com.

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