Curbside Pick-up Menu
Family dinner for 2
Half smoked chicken w/salsa verde
Roasted carrots with pistachio butter
Biscuits and honey butter
The phone rang and a voice answered. A voice answered, that was something. “Épicerie, how can I help you?”
The voice sounded like a woman’s, with an upbeat lilt, as if a crush of lively diners surrounded her, as if instead of empty tables and the glow of one lonely pendant, there was a line at the door. I gave her my order and listened as she explained how pickup would work. This unknown person was doing her job, one I guessed she was grateful to have. And maybe I was helping her by calling. But as she spoke, feather cracks cleaved inside me, and her instructions to text when we arrived, to wait in our car for the food, came to me like the level, reassuring words of a first responder. The pandemic had washed even the simplest moments in a cinematic deep focus; the panorama of the travesty all around against the zoom-in of the chickadees in my yard. It all had me feeling less sturdy than those little birds.
The voice of my rescuer sounded young, maybe the age of one of my kids, and I asked her name. Alex, she told me. Alex, I said, thank you. Thanks for doing this.
These days I am a kitchen octopus beast. My stove, sink, and fridge are like appendages I command at will. I slink and slide, corner to corner. I shiver and settle in a cloud of flour. This altered state is not entirely the making of the virus. My feet have forever found that heated heart of my house, apartment, or cabin. From a young age, I’ve formed this attachment, a revelation that came early, that in feeding my body, I could feed my soul. I also learned this secret; there’s more to life than trudging to its end.
It was my anniversary, though. March had turned to April, had turned to the date in May when on an afternoon fine and lucent as porcelain, my husband and I were married in New York City. When we ate and danced at the Rainbow Room. When my matron of honor snagged us a lunch at the Russian Tea Room, the gild and emerald of the walls like a temple to hold my unspoken prayers. The night of our wedding, the Empire State Building shined like a galaxy, one where my love and I might go, where all the stars were new and only bright.
Those, I know now, were the last days of our youth. Soon, we would trade catching moments to endlessly living forward, to better jobs, new houses, children. The virus, in a strange perversion, has given us something in that it’s dwindled the future to a smidgen, and the moment is again all we have.
So on our commemorative night, it was agreed I wouldn’t cook. Even though I live with my superpower, knowing that in the plain confines of my kitchen I could’ve made a meal worthy of our day, there are still times I just want to be fed.
Like walking into a Mexican night, the low-lit, low-ceilinged dining room of Ernie’s welcomed my mother and me, took us in. The tiny restaurant a beacon on a corner of our south central L.A. neighborhood. With a heft of the wood-planked doors, a heady mashup of hot oil, chilis, onions, and garlic would swamp our senses. Our familiar waitress would show us to our table, and we’d follow with a familiar content. We’d slip into the deep vinyl of the booth, and slip into our escape; my mother, from the primal pressure to feed her young; me from the questionable meals of babysitters, or even my mother’s fried chicken, which was simply and solidly delicious. But the blood black chili negro sauce that flooded those corn tortillas, stuffed and oozing with white tangy cheese, took me away. It was the only away either of us had from the sameness of our lives.
Now I look back in wonder at how much my mother cooked for her family. That a woman, single and spending her days serving other people food for tight tips, could find the energy to pull together ingredients, always humble, into a satisfying meal. Like the birds in my yard, like so many things that are lit, sharpened, and honed now, she comes into focus more than my young eyes could have ever visioned.
Though most of my friends’ mothers—fortunate mid-century stay-at-home women—were besotted with post World War II food conveniences, the magic of cake in a box, or the thrill of TV dinners and vegetables frozen, mixed, and awful, my mother cooked for me the food of her youth, spent growing up on a farm in Texas. It was a pot of fresh green beans, cooked to a pork-fat shiny tenderness, or a bowl of creamy pintos and a skillet of cracklin’ cornbread. It was her cobbler, famous, and anticipated when the peach tree in the back yard began to fruit. I ate it all in relish.
This food became a string of greatest hits she played for her children and grandchildren until she could no longer. Then it became the food of my dreams. I know now it made up for many things. It blurred the fact that the carpet in our two-bedroom bungalow was, in places, frayed. It fogged the sight of our lawn, untidy against our neighbors.’ It made amends for the lack of cupcakes I might take to share with the class or my Blue Bird troop. She never had time for that. But when Christmas came, from her tiny kitchen, she too whipped her appliances into submission and put forth elaborate feasts.
My mother did not pay for or encourage me to dance, swim, or play piano. She didn’t look at me and obsess over potential. It might’ve been because that was her childhood in the Depression-era, when success was measured by simply having food on the table. Staying alive. My grandfather slaughtered the pigs, and my grandmother grew the vegetables and cooked it all into dishes my mother would recount with the dreamy look of a person sharing a favorite scene from an adored movie. My mother, like me, hadn’t known she was poor.
She did for me as her father and mother had done for her, with regularity and without fanfare. She provided what I needed to live, but also showed me the sensory manifestation of what truly sustains us in life. Unconsciously, I’m sure, she taught me the difference between the mundane and the sublime. My love of food has made me wonder if our existence is not foretold in some ways. Because mine is tightly woven with people who shared or nurtured the idea that food is not simply to support life, but to elevate it. In isolation, as my points of pleasure have faded, I’ve felt like never before the riches of this gift.
My father, who left our home almost before the time of my memory, did not know what to do with the pain of a broken marriage and the reality of me to show for it. He would look at me, not the boy he’d wanted so badly, and failing to interest me in tennis or deep sea fishing, go into his cramped apartment kitchen and cook. Recipe in hand, so unlike my mother, he’d prepare elaborate dishes, of veal pizzaiola or spaghetti and meatballs, or high piles of pancakes and fluffs of french toast. Later, when I was older, he would begin our meals with fancy cocktails and end with elaborate or boozy desserts, like his Kahlua parfait.
He and I were mismatched in so many ways. Really in all ways except this one. When he could think of nothing to entertain me, when Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm had been done, he would put me on the back of his motorcycle and take me downtown to the Italian deli where we’d find ingredients for lunch or dinner, where we actually saw our surname stamped on a wheel of cheese. Sometimes, we would also go out, but with him it was an Italian restaurant, fancy, where the silver-haired owner in a suit came to the table. My dad knew him by name. I would order a Shirley Temple, and for dessert, we each had a rainbow slice of Spumoni. It was a different way of taking a meal, with the white table cloths and lit candles. With the waiter in a black jacket placing the grand white plate before me with a flourish. There was a reverence to it, so unlike the homeyness of Ernie’s, yet still with the same glorious sense of release. I plucked my maraschino cherry from my drink, popped it in my mouth, and soaked it all in.
After I had my own kitchen, my father sent his Corona-typed recipes for Ricotta Cheesecake, or Beef Braciole and wished me happy cooking. Later, when his cooking days had ended, I flew to him and baked for him the rum babas he loved so much. How do you do this, Gina? I was never any good with yeast. This exchange was our way of acknowledging that, despite our differences and frustrations with each other, we knew there was love, and we would take it the only way it came.
Now, as I chop, and bang, and feel the walls closing in around me, I remember in my bones how I’ve been saved by a meal.
After I left my mother’s house, I moved to the beach and grew my long hair longer. I baked bread and didn’t eat meat. I shopped at a co-op, and then as now, my life revolved around food. There’s a faded picture of me at the old frame cottage I rented where I tore up the backyard and planted a vegetable garden. At nineteen, I hauled kelp from the shoreline blocks away and dug it into the earth, growing corn, beans, cucumbers, potatoes, and tomatoes. And by the looks of the vines and stocks I’m surrounded by in the photograph, I was doing a damn good job of it.
When you love food, you never forget the firsts. It was 1975 and a bite of poached salmon with hollandaise that brought a rush and a crush and threw me into a pile of Bon Appetit magazines and spending my last dimes on expensive ingredients. At home, I’d cook for friends to create this pleasure on my own.
After I married and moved to Texas, I found myself in the only Whole Foods Market on earth. I made my way through narrow aisles of bulk-food bins, bushels of vegetables, and rows of essential oils and Dr. Bronner’s soap. This was home. Austin was full of almost hippies, even in 1983. That was why I knew I could live there. Until I quit my job after my second child was born, I shopped at Whole Foods weekly, hitting the downbeat, singing with Bob Marley coming over the speakers. When for budget’s sake I had to switch to an actual supermarket, my blood pressure would rise the moment I’d walk in, overwhelmed and lost among rows of so many things besides food.
My last venture to the grocery after our city shut down was to Whole Foods, not the original that closed many years ago, but to the second location in Austin. It’s not one of their megastores, and not even my favorite market these days. Because being who I am, I have a list of them, and before the virus, I shopped like a French woman, going to the store several times a week for fresh ingredients. There were also the field trips, I called them, to the Mexican market, the Middle-Eastern and Asian stores. I would wander the aisles in a euphoria, in no hurry.
It was still dark when I lined up, appropriately spaced, at Whole Foods on that last outing. I was there for the senior shopping hour, the idea of which took some getting used to. I’d never classified myself in that way, and worked hard to deny whatever age tried to claim from me. But I was soon feeling better than when the woman basically carding everyone at the door asked if I was indeed sixty years old.
There is something about my generation in that we think we’re invincible, that the latest cream or supplement will somehow keep us alive forever. That whatever age we are is the best age. For those of us who’ve been able to deflect reminders of death, the virus has sobered us up, slammed our mouths with all our youthful proclamations shut. In the dusky shadows of that morning, I was simply grateful to look forever 59. I was also happy to see the store’s precautions, the spacing, the limited numbers allowed in. For some time Whole Foods markets have not resembled the outpost of all things organic and whole of 1983, especially since the Amazon purchase and the homogenized atmosphere with those strange little blue signs with white arrows everywhere.
But it was still sad to take in its pandemic version. Bins and racks empty, all the abundance and mind-reeling choice that’s become the hallmark of Whole Foods gone. I made these mental notes quickly, though, because shopping felt urgent and critical. Like a buffalo hunt. I also knew that no matter what I’d find on the shelves, I’d make something good out of it. Again, I felt better than. Better than people who relied on someone else to mix and meld flavors and textures into the thing they needed to live. Better than those who knew little more of food than Whole Foods’ frozen Cheese Tortellini, or Amy’s Cheese Enchiladas, which weren’t terrible, but not to be had.
It’s been months now and I haven’t been back to my stores, trying to stay safe, but also afraid of what I might find. I can’t bring myself to see the objects of my affection so changed. I want to keep some vision from before. So I order my groceries for delivery and tip big, hoping to ease the guilt I feel for not meeting the moment face-on.
One of last meals I had out before reality set in was at a Mexican restaurant, a place nothing like Ernie’s, but a teaming Tex-Mex establishment with several locations in Austin. It’s a favorite of my mother-in-law, and since it was our regular Sunday lunch with her, we went. I was already nervous. The mayor had called off South-by-Southwest. But in the confusing messaging that has become a hallmark of this disaster, we were encouraged to go out and support our local bars and restaurants! Like everyone around us munching on chips and salsa, we had no idea. It was just another day, like many, that gives no hint of what is to come.
When the the town finally shuttered, I shut down too, more than happy to stay in and cook my own food. I didn’t want anyone else touching my food. That’s when my metamorphosis became complete. When I became the kitchen, and the kitchen became me. At first, I embraced it and pulled out my Tartine cookbook that had been on my shelf for years. I dug into pasta and perfected my pizza. But after a few weeks, I felt the strain. I had the urge, same as my mother and I so many years ago, to take a little trip.
The day of our anniversary, I was lost in the upside down. I woke up that morning, and for a wisp of a moment, forgot there was a pandemic. It’s the opposite of waking from a bad dream. Because for a while, it’s been in the dream where the coffee brews blithely and I look forward to a night out with my husband. We all wake now to a terrible truth. But there was also a voice in my head reminding me that the very thing that’s locked down our attempts to celebrate even a Friday night brings the same imperative to do it. The pandemic also revealed, like some spirit of anniversaries past, how my marriage had made it through. It was as if the virus had led me to the top of a terrible mountain, where I could look back and see the long way my husband and I had come together. So to mark our journey, we decided to order a curbside dinner.
Because I cook so much, because I care about what goes in my body, going back to my hippy days, but also considering our expiring planet and my own expiration, when I eat out, I want to know how my meal is prepared. I’d preferably like to see it made. I like to see inside kitchens and watch the chefs and line cooks. I remember a meal in Sonoma where we were so close to the cooks I could talk to them as they worked. It was a chilly autumn night and I’d ordered a wine drenched ragu with polenta and cabbage. I took a bite of the cabbage and, surprised by the sweet and mellow of it, asked the chef how he made it. He looked at me a little perplexed, “I just braised it with a little garlic?” And he, in that kitchen, could have been my mother.
Taking after my father, I love fancy food. I fall in a swoon when I put something in my mouth and can’t identify the methods of preparation or ingredients. One lucky night in Paris my daughter and I had such a meal at a trinket box of a restaurant. The website invited you to a culinary journey, a set five-course tasting menu paired with wine, the chef in essence saying, This is what I like. I hope you like it too. It gets quiet when you fall in communion with the chef and the food, and you receive the blessing of something beyond ingredients or skill.
In Austin, as the city has grown, and the cafes and bistros have mostly been replaced by deafening, colossal caverns, I’ve sought out the opposite. There are only a handful to where, when I want to be amazed or I just want someone else to feed me, I will go. A few years ago, I found Épicerie, close to home. The place was actually someone’s home in another incarnation. Maybe seating 35 people, 50 counting the outdoor patio, it’s a hold out. Walking up from the parking, you see through a picture window to the kitchen where a small team of white clad workers moves with purpose. Inside, cheeses and meats displayed like jewelry in a case surround the tables, jars of jams and condiments line the walls. My husband and I would regularly order a bottle of wine, and for him, the fried oysters, for me, maybe the warm duck salad. And while we waited, we could hear each other talk.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Épicerie has been one of the few places to stay open for curbside service, of prepared food and groceries. The name is actually French for the word grocery. I so loved this idea of picking up needed items from my favorite little restaurant. It reminded me of when my mother would send me to Marsh’s Market on the corner. Not a convenience store, but a small grocery. I’d buy the eggs or Wonder Bread she needed, and maybe grab an Abba Zabba candy bar for myself.
There was also a trust at my little grocery-restaurant, because they’d stayed open. No one had gotten sick. So when our anniversary came, even with more elevated places to choose from by then, we chose Épicerie.
Among the things that should be talked about when this nightmare is over, is the inequality that exists in all its flashing outposts, one of them being the Vegas style, barefaced unabashedness of restaurants. Most of them have melded into a massive money monolith, a cookie monster eating everything in its path. Places to get a meal, take a break, or go on a small journey, if only like going home, have morphed into factories of food and liquor, where the corporate groups feed their wealth off the backs of low-paid workers. I don’t know the balance sheet. I am just a lover of food. But I know the kitchens that give this joy I’m talking about are falling away, fading to something else.
Tunde Way, a Nigerian writer, cook, and activist, in an Instagram video recently, speaking to the pandemic and its devastations, suggested we Let It Die, meaning the restaurant industry in its current structure. Tunde is unimpressed with precious when it comes to this personal and emotional expression of what we need to exist, especially when it comes at unsustainable costs to those who provide it.
Though much has happened beyond my imagining, I can’t imagine restaurants will die. Like my mother, I’ve worked in them. I’ve collected tips, poured drinks, cleaned tables, stepped to the flat top when the cook walked out, and led fluttering diners to the meal of their life. It teaches you much. Most of all you learn what it means to fill this intimate need for strangers.
The devastation of this industry is real. But there has always been a table, a bit of space cleared, where needs, basic and unfathomable, are fed. It’s about survival, but it’s also the whisper of pleasure, of home, of what we know and long to find. The essence that drives us to revere something as elemental as eating. Now, as restaurants try to open, open and close back up, it’s obvious that these keepers of our flame will be some of those that suffer most. But it should come as no surprise to anyone that, when given the first chance, people are running out, maybe even risking their lives, to eat at one.
In our dining room the candles were lit, and through the window in the twilight we could see neighbors walking by on the street. A few bites into our meal, I grew silent, just as I had that night in Paris. I’d eaten smoked chicken many times before, had smoked chicken myself almost as many. Same with the glazed carrots. As in Paris, though, there was something in the dishes I couldn’t put my finger on. How the melange of the salsa verde was a new flavor on the wheel, how the pistachio butter bathed the carrots in a cloak of novel nuttiness. It was like in Paris where it felt as if the chef was telling me something. I pictured those many hands in the kitchen of my grocery-restaurant and imagined them saying to me, We know everything feels out of control right now. We feel it too. But some things go on. You need food, and we need to make it. We will both feel better. We must care for each other. We need to care. We tried to make it special. Because things are bleak and heartbreaking. But not everything.
Cover photograph by Zacharias Mitzelos.
Gina Harlow is a writer living in Austin Texas, and who longs for many places. She has co-authored a food column for Hearst King Features and her essays have appeared in Austin American Statesman, Narratively, Brave Voices Magazine, The Hunger, Medium and elsewhere. She is currently working on a memoir, the story of her time with a young wild horse. Links to her work can be found at her website, www.ginaharlowwrites.com.