By Larry Levine –

It was like being handed a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Feb. 23, 2021, the nurse at Kaiser Permanente Medical Clinic signed the card attesting that I had received the second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. I floated up to the top floor of the parking garage, feeling free after 11 months of near total sequestration. We had cancelled our 50th wedding anniversary party schedule for March 14, 2020, and for the next 11 months we had gone nowhere.

Grocery shopping was limited to one hour a week, masks required, senior citizen hour from 7 to 8 a.m. I opted for Tuesday mornings so the shelves could be restocked from the weekend. My freezer, previously used only for home meade stocks and broths, now had enough meat to require an inventory. Ground beef for chili, meat loaf, and polpetti. Ground lamb for shepherds’ pie. Short ribs. Lamb shanks. Lamb chops. Pork chops. Spareribs. Chicken thighs – bone in and boneless. Chuck roast that I carved for beef stew or pot roast. Italian sausages. Chorizo. Ham shanks.

I cooked dinner at home 340 consecutive nights. No restaurants. No take-out. No delivery. The string was broken when I got a stomach bug and didn’t feel like cooking one night. The next night I was back at it.

Fish and sea food were limited to once a week, Tuesday shopping days, because I don’t like keeping fish in the fridge over night or freezing it.

And now, Feb. 23, 2021, I held in my hand the card to freedom.

Well, sort of. We knew better than to believe the pandemic was over. Even with restaurant access restored to a semblance of normalcy, we wouldn’t go. It wasn’t like the time of the polio vaccine in the 1950s. Back then everyone lined up willingly to get their shots. Now, large numbers of people were refusing to get vaccinated and many were resisting mask mandates. Little did we suspect that two years later we still would be wearing masks when in the market or out in crowded places.

What we did do with our new freedom was something neither of us ever had done before. We rented a vacation house for two weeks at Morro Bay, a few hours north of where we live in Los Angeles.

THE DEAL WE MADE WITH OURSELVES: nothing would change other than the view from our windows. Instead of looking at our back yard or the street in front of our home, we would look at the activity on the busy bay. I would cook breakfast, lunch and dinner. No restaurants. No crowds. I found Spencer’s Market at the other end of town, fell in love with it, and loaded up the fridge and freezer.

The house was wonderful. Two stories and equipped with a resident osprey (Ozzie the osprey) that perched most days atop a power pole only 15 feet from the upstairs balcony. A sea otter (Otto the otter) frolicked and fed in the waters of the marina below our windows. Kayakers and paddle boarders glided by, some clearly experienced, some obviously just learning. The anchored yachts would change directions with the tidal flow.

Ozzie showed up our first afternoon in the house as we were preparing for a drive up the coast to see the elephant seals near San Simeon. The huge bird landed on the wooden pole, a large salmon in its talons. I snapped 250 photos of it devouring that salmon in the next three hours. The elephant seals would have to wait for the next day.

Paradise amid the pandemic? Not quite. All was well with the house, except for the cookware. The knives were dull and the bottoms of the frying pans were rounded to the point where I had to prop things under the handles to set them flat on the stove top. The gas burners were erratic in lighting.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was the first lesson in vacation house rental: if there’s going to be a problem it will be in the kitchen.

Two months after Morro Bay, we rented a house overlooking Lake Arrowhead. This was where I became the world’s oldest rookie grill master. The inside of the oven was so greasy and caked with grime that I ruled it off limits immediately. The fry pans weren’t much better. But I had learned my lesson in Morro Bay. I brought a pot and a pan with us, along with a couple of sharp knives. My previous cooking on a gas grill had been limited. In May 2021 I grilled chicken, rib eye steak, hot dogs, spare ribs, and lamb riblets, and did them all to perfection.

We arrived at a vacation rental at Lake Sammamish in Washington State in July and found no stove or oven, just a portable induction cook top that rendered my pots and pans useless. I learned to cook entire meals on those two induction surfaces.

It was the same at subsequent rentals at Lake Tahoe (twice), Cayucos (near Morro Bay), and as guests at a Carmel house rented by Jennifer’s cousin. A mattress might be too soft at one place. There might be an insane number of steps down from the parking area to the actual house somewhere else. A lightbulb might need replacing. Maybe a field mouse would make an appearance in the living room. But the universal issues we faced at every one of the seven vacation homes we rented over 22 months were in the kitchen. Always the kitchen.

I learned to work around these challenges by packing the car with what I would need to cook my way through a couple of weeks. Here, in no particular order, are some notes about things we learned to bring along when renting a vacation house. We’re still doing it to avoid hotels for any stay longer than just a few days.

KNIVES – The knives that come with the house will be dull. You’ll need a good knife for carving a chicken or roast. I take a kitchen knife for vegies and fruit, and a carbon steel knife for meat. As for table knives, that hasn’t been an issue.

ORANGE JUICE SQUEEZER – Not one of the places we’ve rented had a juicer and we like to start every day with juice right from an orange.

ROASTING PAN – Some of the ones we’ve seen I wouldn’t want to touch, let alone use for cooking.

WINE OPENER – Essential. Unless you  buy screw-top wine bottles.

WINE – Don’t plan to find good wines in the local stores. You might. Or you might not.

TOILET PAPER – You probably will run out if your stay is more than a week. Most rentals won’t reload supplies such as this. Or paper towels. Or dish washer soaps. What’s there when you arrive is all they will furnish.

COFFEE BEANS & GRINDER – If you like to grind your own beans.

COFFEE FILTERS – Just in case. They don’t take up much room.

KITCHEN TOWELS – The one or two that come with the house will be wet a surprising amount of the time.

DISH RAGS, SCRUBBERS, STEEL WOOL – There may not be much supplied with the house and there are certain things that won’t go in the dish washer.

RUBBER GLOVES – For washing those things you don’t put in the dishwasher.

KITCHEN TONGS – If you’re a serious cook. There’ll be tongs for the outdoor gas grill, but probably not kitchen tongs.

MEASURING CUPS & SPOONS – Most places have incomplete sets.

A 3-QUART POT (PREFERABLY NON-STICK) – I use it for our oatmeal each morning. Bring a cover for other uses. Many of the pots provided won’t have covers.

10-INCH FRYING PAN (with cover) – You won’t be sorry you packed this. The ones provided most likely will be corroded, discolored, or have bottoms that no longer are flat.

POTATO PEELER – Unless you don’t plan to cook potatoes.

CEREAL AND SOUP BOWLS – Plates should be fine if you don’t insist on matched sets, but the bowls may be shallow and under-sized.

TIN FOIL, PLASTIC WRAP & FREEZER BAGS – Almost a guarantee some of these will be missing or in short supply. The last people in the house probably took them with them when they left. You could take a chance and buy them after you get there if necessary.

KITCHEN TIMER – The only one available probably will be the oven timer.

MEAT THERMOMETER – Or trust the feel-it method used by chefs and good cooks. Remember, the oven temperatures may not be calibrated and the heat sealing gasket may not have been replaced in ages.

NUTCRACKER – Handy to have in case your run into a lobster or Dungeness crab, in which case you may also want to bring some shell fish forks. Also good for opening screw top bottles of water.

SCISSORS –The ones in the knife rack will be dull.

CAN OPENER – These places are overseen by management companies that send employees to clean and inspect the houses between uses. They probably won’t be paying much attention to details and if the last people to stay in the house helped themselves to the can opener you’ll thank me.

The game here is to not have to eat every (or any) meals in restaurants. So, before you go do some research. Look online for food markets near where you will be staying and chat with the rental agent about what’s good.

We’ve found it handy to bring our first night’s dinner with us. Frozen home made soup or stew in a cooler works well. It’s just heat and eat. After the drive, you’re not going to want to go out shopping.

Same is true for breakfast the first morning. You’ll want to eat before heading for the market. For us that means we bring the bag of oranges we got at the farmers’ market, a package of oatmeal and a container of soy milk, a banana for me and some yogurt and peanut butter for Jennifer.

ALSO, don’t forget the coffee. There won’t be any in the house. I bring along a container of my whole bean coffee and Jennifer packs the instant decaf she likes. As for the coffee maker, one place we stayed only had one of those pod machines (Keurig). We bought a four-cup drip coffee setup. Now, before we go anywhere, we ask the rental agent what kind of coffee maker there is in the house.

If you’re going to want some specialty items like mustards you better bring them with you. You’ll probably find some vegetable oil in the pantry. But who knows how long it’s been there. If there is any olive oil, it won’t be high quality, so bring some. Same for any vinegars you might want for salad dressings.

AND DON’T FORGET THE DRIED HERBS AND SPICES. EVEN SALT AND PEPPER. There might be some of the latter two, but anything else will be either skimpy or absent. Plan ahead. Think of what you may want to cook. Bring whatever utensils and ingredients you will need and don’t forget the recipes.

That’s pretty much it. I suppose we will continue to discover new things if we continue to rent. This works well for a happy stay if you’re driving to your vacation rental and have room in the car. But if you’re flying to the destination, you’re going to have to figure it out for yourself. We did.

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