GRAZING: Ten ways COVID-19 has changed the foodie experience in Atlanta
During the pandemic, treat yourself to dinner and yourself
The coronavirus pandemic has wrought complete chaos in Atlanta’s restaurant and bar community. Anything definitive I might try to say about the scene would be completely changed by the time you read this. So, my purpose here is to look at some of the general effects of the pandemic from my own and a few others’ personal perspectives. Let’s start with the particularly amazing resilience of neighborhood restaurants, without which, could turn into heartbreaking loss.
I’ve lived in Grant Park for 25 years, and during the last six of those, I’ve walked the three blocks to Grant Central Pizza alone every Wednesday. The draw is the weekly special, chicken piccata with mashed potatoes, but I’ve also formed all the attachments that make neighborhood restaurants so compelling in that “Cheers” sort of way.
Well, sort of.
Personally, I hate people, but I enjoy watching them in the way children love watching the animals in the zoo down the road. I do, however, actually love Grant Central’s staff — particularly Jessy Forney, the young front-of-the-house manager for almost eight years. I started my weekly visits soon after my life turned to shit, and, in need of distraction, I bought a television for the first time in 35 years. One day, I heard Jessy going on about some TV program. At that moment she became my TV mentor, but, over the years, she also became someone whose mind I realized was wonderfully weird and far more brilliant than she realized herself. She also operates a pet-sitting business — that business is also down — and I’ve made it my goal to get her to become a therapist specializing in emotional support animals.
Grant Central, like most neighborhood restaurants, discontinued inside dining when the pandemic arrived. It is lucky in that, as a pizzeria, it already had a great takeout business, whereas many other small neighbor-hood restaurants have been severely crippled or killed by the pandemic. Jessy, who had to let most of the staff go, now works the makeshift take-out counter that allows people to come into the restaurant for pickup as long as they wear masks and keep their distance. Now and then, someone goes Karen, particularly with the younger staff members.
She, Jessy, misses her customers as much as we miss her. “It makes me teary-eyed thinking of it,” she wrote me. “I miss things like our ‘Friday Night Crew,’ where I would get to talk to all these amazing regulars about the past week. I have regulars who would come in almost daily after hours of the trauma-infused Atlanta traffic, and we would chat about all kinds of interesting things or nothing at all. There are a lot of smiles I miss.” She also mentioned our ritual of recounting TV plots and strange dreams we had on Tuesday nights.
Generally, she copes with the loss of income and uncertainty with the help of meditation. If there’s a silver lining around, she says the sudden increase in free time has led her down a new path of self-examination. Fine, girl, but don’t go all sane on us.
Takeout and patios have saved the restaurant industry. While Little Bear in Summerhill does not offer the latter, it does provide $55, multi-course takeout meals for two that are absolutely the city’s most compelling. It’s difficult to describe owner/chef Jarrett Stieber’s cuisine without sounding silly. But when I look at his food, I often recall a quote from playwright Luigi Pirandello that captioned a black light poster of a fish in a tree in my freshman dormitory room: “Life is full of infinite absurdities, which, strangely enough, do not even need to appear plausible, since they are true.” His food is culinary theater of the absurd so good it had the James Beard committee giving him a (metaphorical) standing ovation last year.
Speaking as someone with a useless PhD in psychology, I think Stieber’s absurdism is really, really good for mental health. The pandemic, the racial strife, and the jack-o-lantern’s bid for reelection have turned our collective skull into a cauldron of bubbling ugliness. Stieber’s cooking is the contrary. It’s a melding of seemingly disparate elements into a beautiful landscape that’s going to fill you with wonder — as in “Wonderland” — instead of disgust. One recent example that Stieber “absolutely loved” was a “butternut squash salad dressed with smoked fig, yung lemongrass, aji limon chili, dried cucumber seasoning, and holy basil.” He also mentioned — I’m editing — “a fun posset dessert, a medieval cream pudding thickened by citric acid … topped with what we referred to as a ‘terrarium-like mélange of nutty choco crunch mix — pretentious flowers, mountain mint, and benne seed.” Yeah, boy.
Stieber, whom I profiled in our May issue, opened Little Bear only two weeks before restaurants were closed by mandate. Since his work was already nationally renowned as a pop-up called Eat Me Speak Me, take-out business sold out quickly every week, but he told me things had faltered for two weeks when we communicated in mid-August. I blame it on the Dog Days. So. I urge you to lay off the DMT, put down your copy of Food of the Gods and investigate Little Bear on Instagram, @littlebearatl. (More about Stieber below.)
Talk to any online sex-toy merchant and he’ll tell you business is booming, since everyone is regressing by necessity to the teenage joys of masturbation. Combine that with the fact that many people are, in Freud’s terms, sublimating the erotic through artistry — the artistry of cooking in the present context. In short, we are living in a perfect storm of food porn. Brian Cohn of PetLuv Cat Carrier fame demonstrates the full spectrum by serving a fab dinner to a maskless but safe lady friend. She is enjoying “Pork Volcánes al Pastor,” tacos whose recipe he found in the March issue of Bon Appetit. The pork is shaved super-thin and flavored with lime juice and three different chilies, topped with melted Oaxaca cheese, which adds to the “lava” that gives the dish its volcanic name. Brian, the most adamantly sheltered-at-home person I know, manages to order all his cooking ingredients online without difficulty. I asked him the most difficult part of cooking in the pandemic. “Cooking for one leaves a ton of leftovers.” What has he learned? “When working with hot peppers, do not touch your eyes or private parts.”
Racism matters not when you got white pride! Grow up! Let the POC taste the icing of the privilegeds’ cake!
Is it a surprise that the $660-billion restaurant and food service industry is as contaminated with racism as the rest of the U.S. economy? Almost surreally, Susan DeRose, the owner of OK Café, smacked Atlantans in the face with that reality during, of all things, a march down West Paces Ferry organized by Buckhead4BlackLives to oppose the police murder of George Floyd. DeRose hung a banner on the restaurant that chastised Black Lives Matter with an allusion to the myth of lazy black people: “Lives that matter are made with positive purpose.” It was a shockingly thoughtless action, since she has long been controversial for decorating a wall with a supposedly arty representation of the old Georgia flag, which appropriates the image of the Confederate battle flag. She removed the banner and flag and explained it all away while seriously laying claim to “white pride.” Her actions provoked a storm of promises to boycott the café and her two other restaurants, Bones and Blue Ridge Grill, but we’ll see. Americans have a habit of backsliding into institutionalized norms of prejudice. Going deeper, we need to acknowledge that racism enforces the economic classism required by increasingly unregulated capitalism. Atlanta, like many U.S. cities, has become a prime example of the privileged sweeping the already marginalized to the city’s edges. (Be gone! Do not sully our BeltLine!) Graciously, members of enlightened corporate royalty now reverse the edict of Marie Antoinette and urge their peers to eat cake made with soul. Atlanta Magazine, for example, provides its largely white readership with a daring list of black-owned restaurants to patronize. Bless their hearts, they mean well, and the dollars handed out by tourists in the heart of darkness will help entrepreneurs a bit, but in the bigger picture, it’s a truly trivial gesture. Ending the enablement of genocide, racism, and fascism require sacrifice by the privileged themselves — not just sharing a bit of the icing of their privilege.
For the antisocial like me, the pandemic at first seemed like paradise. There was no traffic and no need to concoct excuses not to go to parties. Not so for my friends writer Brad Lapin and professor Eric Varner. For them, it brought a screeching halt to the dinner parties they host unrelentingly at their dual homes in Atlanta and Rome. Now, they compensate by cooking two meals a day for themselves, usually testing out new recipes. Recently, they prepared a Sonora-style carne asada feast detailed in the New York Times. The married couple normally dines out frequently but has only done so once, with friends, during the pandemic. Brad said that the restaurant followed all the protocols but that it was nonetheless an anxiety-provoking experience. “This fear and loathing will probably prove the single most tenacious effect of the pandemic.” So they carry on at home (also eschewing takeout). How obsessive are they? I asked Brad to name some of their pandemic faves. “Earlier this summer, Eric produced an authentic version of fettucine Alfredo that both captured the essence of the decadent dish and reestablished its Italian bonafides.” Yeah, cool, man. Did I mention they cook all the food for their four Scottish terriers? And, oh, they host international Zoom cocktail parties, and I Zoom-lunch with Brad and Brian, mentioned above, on Fridays — something I’ve done in real life for years. I love you boys.
Unlike my friends mentioned above, the pandemic has not motivated me to hone fine dining skills in the harvest-gold kitchen full of cracked tile and broken appliances of this 125-year-old home. Long ago, I liked to cook and was pretty good at it, but writing about restaurants for 30 years eventually led me to call any day I didn’t have to eat out a “Freedom from Food Day.” So, I’m going to share a dirty secret. About six years ago, I fell in love with Trader Joe’s. The grocery chain vends a huge line of frozen meals that I would never imagine myself eating. I thought they would be like the TV dinners of yore that my mother would not allow us to eat. (Yet, weirdly, the only person in my family I ever saw eat one of those was my super-wealthy uncle Steve, who otherwise introduced me to fried grasshoppers, chocolate-covered ants, and my beloved pickled lamb tongues.) And then I discovered Trader Joe’s Indian meals. Let me put it this way. One day two of us bought Indian food at a well-known food truck. Our bill, seriously, was about $65. Later in the week we ate a similar-sized meal of Trader Joe’s Indian food that cost us less than $15 for four dishes and tasted much better. Over the years, I’ve explored more of their food, and I unapologetically eat so much now that I enjoy feeling like an antifoodie. Oh, there are drawbacks — like the consumption of more salt than is needed to preserve an obese ox. But I can’t resist. In our October issue, I will go into more detail. The larger point is that the pandemic really has taught many of us that our mothers lied when they said all frozen prepared food was crap. And, hell, the store’s ginger snaps are better than my mother’s too!
Takeout and food-delivery operations are saving many restaurants, but answer this question, please: “What is the big drawback to takeout food?” It’s the packaging itself, of course. I’m not going to name names, but I’ve picked up simple food at favorite restaurants, taken it home, unwrapped it, and found myself confronted by a revoltingly steamy mess. It’s not like this is an entirely new phenomenon. Carrying a properly cooked Neapolitan pizza home in a closed, unventilated cardboard box typically is stupid. Eat it in the car or on the curb. Open the top first if you take it home, or, failing that, throw it in a damn blender. The weird thing is that fast-food operations clearly know a lot more about takeout packaging than many high-quality restaurants, and it’s not as if there isn’t a ton of available guidance about this. A notable local exception to the problem is the above-mentioned Little Bear. Owner Jarrett Stieber told me that his approach to cooking itself helps: “We conceptualize dishes to not just be things we think sound good but things we think sound good AND will transport well.” By that he means the food maintains flavor integrity and its gorgeous appearance. While many restaurants are packing up all their regular menu items, Stieber says that’s often unthinkable. When the restaurant was open for inside dining, for example, “we always had tartare on the menu, but we can’t be sure people will take it straight home and not let the meat warm up or sit so long the acid starts pickling it.” Perhaps Stieber can begin teaching the art of food transport. In the meantime, a really large number of foodies will continue to avoid takeout.
Gov. Brian Kemp, one of the few elected officials as dumb and heartless as President Don Don, has, at this writing, reversed his ban of city health-protection mandates in an incomprehensibly garbled way that allows restaurants and other private businesses to ignore the mandates, because … well … because he doesn’t mind killing off restaurant employees if it earns him votes from the adult toddlers who believe COVID-19 is a hoax so nefarious that it hypnotizes their relatives into dying from propaganda poisoning. Fortunately, some restaurants are taking a strong stand against the mask-o-phobic. West Egg Café, for example, posted the following on Instagram:
“We asked nicely, then we begged. Masks are now required for all guests at West Egg, whenever you are not seated at your table. Period. Living in society (which includes doing things like going out to eat at restaurants) sometimes means relinquishing some of your individual liberties for the common good. Public health crises are one of those times. You do not have the ‘right’ not to wear a mask in public when exercising that ‘right’ exposes the community to communicable disease. We do have the right to exclude you from the West Egg community on the basis of refusal to wear a mask. Why’d you have to go and make us do that, though?”
Meanwhile, restaurants continue to close temporarily and permanently. A surprising number of newbies are on the way, though. As Jarrett Stieber told me, most will likely highlight well-engineered takeout and seating options, as well as smaller staffs, that make them more economically viable.
The absolute devastation of the lives of restaurant and bar employees is reflective of everything my socialist mind detests about the lie of the American dream. I won’t repeat my rant from above about the economics of racism, except to note that the groovy foodie magazine, Bon Appetit, has been exposed for inequitable payment to employees based on race. A bunch of employees have quit. They were lucky to have options. In the real world of restaurant work, where people live paycheck-to-paycheck, you can’t walk out without someplace to go. Restaurant employees who were laid off at first qualified for over $900 a week in unemployment compensation. But that was all a mess. Say you were laid off and then called back to work part-time or were only laid off part-time to begin with. Such convolutions affected what you qualified for, and now Republicans want to slash subsidies to guarantee nobody gets too comfortable driving their Cadillac without a job. Of course, if you were lucky enough to have rare employer-paid health insurance, you’ve lost that too. In any other developed country, millions of people would not be dumped into misery and, predictably, blamed for their own situation. It’s maddening that it’s necessary, but people have organized nonprofits to provide help. Chief among them in Atlanta is The Giving Kitchen. The organization, which has extended its services statewide, is grounded in a tale of love, death, and heartbreak, which you may read on their website. It provides a rare remedy to the suffering caused by the greater pandemic of lovelessness in America. Check out their story online (thegivingkitchen.org and @givingkitchen on Twitter and IG). Donate. Bigly. And ask for help.
I have mixed feelings about hope. As American psychologist James Hillman pointed out, hope was inside Pandora’s box of evils. She snapped the lid shut before it escaped with the other evils. So, in the ancient Greeks’ thinking, hope was an evil because it frequently caused the pain of disappointed expectations and had nothing to do with actually producing happy endings. I once asked Hillman what we were left with if we couldn’t be hopeful and he talked about reflection on the beauty of what is present. Such reflection can arise with the art of cooking and dining, whether alone or with one another. You can argue that the beauty of my Trader Joe’s microwaved palak paneer fades miserably beside my friend’s exquisite fettucine Alfredo, but comparison is ultimately immaterial. Eat what pleases you, drink, help others, and be merry — but wear your damn mask, because in this plague you really may die tomorrow. —CL—
Grant Central Pizza, 451 Cherokee Ave. S.E., 404-523-8900.
Little Bear, 71-A Georgia Ave. S.E., Ste. A. 404-500-5396. @littlebearatl