When Carl turned 50 back in early March, I was super-proud of myself, because for once I'd thought of the perfect gift. (He is notoriously difficult to buy presents for, because he doesn't ask for much.) I decided to gift him with 50 dates to eat at 50 restaurants, with the promise that we could try to get to all of them together. I spent hours online, picking 50 well-reviewed restaurants within an hour of The Brogue, nearly all of which neither of us has ever visited. Many are fine-dining restaurants, with promises of gobs of charcuterie platters and scallops and duck and boeuf. Many represent ethnic foods which we love: Thai, Indian, Italian, authentic Mexican. I copied part of the online menu of each restaurant into a document to print. I printed 50 "menus," put each in a menu sleeve, and wrapped up the stack of 50 promises. I also randomly chose one of the restaurants and made a dinner reservation for the following week.
Carl loved the gift. COVID-19 hit. We haven't yet gotten to a single one of these restaurants.
During earlier phases of Pennsylvania's response to COVID-19, the restaurants were shuttered, other than for curbside take-out. With the exception of 4 restaurants which still remain closed at this time, the restaurants on our list have re-opened to in-person dining, though in many instances hours and seating are limited for the time being.
Since March, all of our lives have changed. We are beyond grateful that our wineries and vineyards weren't forced to close; we were deemed an "essential" business by the state of Pennsylvania and have stayed open, though our indoor spaces are still closed to customers. We are committed to everyone's safety--including Carl's, whose health is essential to the business, which employs dozens of people.
Here in our home, each of us has developed new skills during the pandemic. Our sons learned the ins and outs of home renovation, as they redid the downstairs, complete with a new wall, carpeting, and home theater. Our younger son has been fixing our cars and just built a working computer from the parts of broken-down trash computers. And I? I spend hours many days turning our kitchen into a home restaurant.
When the pandemic hit, I took really seriously the role of food provider for the four of us. I spent a lot of time planning how we'd get food, and part of me turned "prepper" as I stayed up late with insomnia, ordering things like powdered eggs and whey protein. (I still don't know what that is, but I have a big canister of it.) Planning for how we'd get food was my way of trying to control at least one small part of our lives.
I also realized that my cooking was the only cooking we were likely to taste for a while. The guys are all capable cooks, and in the past we have shared cooking duties. (Carl, in fact, did all of the home cooking during the years when I taught at a Waldorf school.) But I chose to step into the full-time role willingly, grateful for the task and challenge and opportunity to plan all of our foods, all of our daily family suppers. Many days, when my brain gets foggy, I've just headed to the kitchen, pulled out the flour, and started to bake something. Bread. Muffins. Naan. Flatbread. Soft pretzels. Homemade goldfish crackers (my older son's favorite snack).
I keep records of my expanding food repertoire and spend my extra time watching cooking competitions online. Food is big in my life, in all of our lives. I keep a never-ending candy bowl supplied with an array of candy surprises for our younger son, who loves to snack and graze. That's how he would be eating if he were out in the world again and going to WaWa with his friends. I'm happy to provide it for him here.
One of the most enjoyable cooking challenges I have given myself through these months is to imagine, "What if we all went out to a restaurant? What would each of us order?" Then I find a way to try and replicate that restaurant experience for us here. It takes advance grocery planning and the kitchen usually ends up looking like a tornado whisked through, but my buffet lines of food here on our kitchen island make me so incredibly happy. One day, it was a German restaurant , a throwback to the years Carl spent living in Germany: Bratwurst, Spätzle, Rotkohl, Kartoffelpuffer (not super-successful, but popular nonetheless), Himbeer-Kuchen. Other days, I go full-on Indian, making all of my vegetarian favorites for the buffet: Saag Paneer, Dal Tadka, Garlic Naan, Raita, Chickpea Vindaloo. (OK--now I'm hungry.) I turned Dylan's 18th birthday supper into a full-on Seafood Boil. One night was Fondue Nite. Lots of nights are Pizza Shop Nites.
Last night for supper, I worked to recreate a specific restaurant dish which my older son and I had when we were in Biloxi, Mississippi (back in the Age of Travel). While neither of us eat much seafood, he ordered Voodoo Shrimp at the Half Shell Oyster House. It was the best shrimp either of us had ever had. I remember thinking how much the rest of the family would enjoy tasting it, so I did my best to bring it to life here in The Brogue. On the menu: cheesy polenta, a tomato creole sauce, my own cajun seasoning blend, spicy cheesy mini muffins, and my best approximation of Voodoo Shrimp. While we weren't actually transported to the Gulf Coast, I have to say I did feel good about bringing that specific food memory back to life and sharing it with everyone.
Someday we'll get to 50 great restaurants, and we're happy to support regional food providers. But no matter what lies ahead, I think I'll keep the home restaurant going, too, getting deep joy and comfort by sharing good tastes with the people that I love.