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The CulinaryWoman Newsletter, 2/7/21
Why I went out to eat
I was trying to figure out the last time I went inside to eat at a restaurant. I’m almost sure it was during the summer. Even for my birthday in August, we sat outside on an open patio, and the business lunches I’ve had since then were all outside.
But last week, I decided to go to Zingerman’s Roadhouse in Ann Arbor and eat inside. I’m surprised, too.
Since the pandemic hit Michigan in full force, I’ve faithfully followed all the COVID-19 protocols.
I wear a mask, I have a small bubble, I only go out once or twice a week, I haven’t traveled further than 100 miles from home, and there is no way you could get me to fly, take Amtrak or Via Rail right now (that is, if Canada’s borders were open). I’ve read every scary study telling us the virus is worse than we ever dreamed.
So, how do I justify my decision to walk into the door of a restaurant and sit at the counter?
The odds made sense
On Feb. 1, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer lifted a pause on activities that she had instituted in November. At the time, cases were soaring. She re-instituted the pause in December, as cases were slowly dropping.
In January, Ann Arbor was jolted when the British variant, B.1.1.7. arrived here, via a University of Michigan athlete who had traveled to the U.K. over the holidays. Her infection quickly spread to 17 other people, and the state decided to shut down Michigan athletics for several weeks. Washtenaw County subsequently issued its second stay home order for all U-M students, on and off campus.
But by this month, cases across the state and in Washtenaw County were dropping. They’re now at the lowest level since early October. Statewide, our positivity rate fell below 5 percent, and it stood at 3.3 percent county wide. The dreaded U.K. variant doesn’t seem to be spreading in the community.
Meanwhile, I took part in a free N95 mask give away last Saturday from the Washtenaw Department of Health. The line stretched three blocks long, but it moved quickly, and now I have a set of better-protecting masks.
I missed my friends
The past few weeks, the Roadhouse has been posting photos on Instagram of members of its staff. This week, it featured Sharon Kramer, one of my favorite servers, who has worked there for 14 years.
When I saw Sharon’s photo, on top of the photos of other people at the Roadhouse, I realized how much I missed everybody.
I’ve been eating at the Roadhouse since it opened in 2003, but I really became a regular in 2015, when my mother was at Arbor Hospice, a couple of miles away.
Before she went to the hospice residence, our routine was to go to Nick’s House of Pancakes every Sunday afternoon.
With her at hospice, I didn’t have a place to go on Sunday afternoons after I visited (back then, Nick’s closed at 3 pm). So, I started going to the Roadhouse by myself, and sitting at the front counter facing the kitchen.
After she died, I kept going there, sometimes with friends, but always on Thursdays after our weekly sessions of the Ann Arbor Early Risers Ladies Bowling League. (Our team hasn’t bowled in a year, sadly.)
I learned so much about how restaurants are run by simply sitting at the counter and observing everyone. You’ll read some of that detail when my Zingerman’s book comes out next year.
The Roadhouse is populated by so many nice people - that’s Maria, a veteran cook, in the pre-Covid photo above.
The day after Sharon’s photo appeared, I woke up, and just instinctively decided to go.
The last time I was there, the front counter was closed. So, I figured I could sit at a back booth, away from everybody, and if I kept my mask on when I wasn’t eating and when I was talking to people, I would be fine.
Even more protections
To my delight, I was able to sit at the counter once more. The Roadhouse has erected a large plexiglass shield across the counter, leaving a quarter of the seats available, per the state’s limits.
There was a temperature check at the front desk, hand sanitizer, and all the other steps that we’ve gotten used to seeing.
I settled into my chair, and immediately felt at home. It wasn’t exactly like the old days, but it was close enough, with lots of people coming over to say hello and update me on how things were going.
The macaroni and cheese tasted just like it always did and Bob Brunelli, the bartender, who has been there since the beginning, mixed me up a limeade, even though it isn’t currently on the menu.
One of the staff stopped by and said, “We were betting when you would be back. I was guessing a week.”
The past year has been rugged for Zingerman’s, as you’ll read in my book, but the pivot to innovation by an almost 40-year-old company has been pretty remarkable.
Ari Weinzweig, Zingerman’s co-founder, has written a pamphlet called Working Through Hard Times: Life and Leadership Learnings from 2020, if you’d like to hear about the pandemic from an owner’s perspective.
Still some progress to make
The Roadhouse is probably going to be the only place where I go inside to eat for a while. I’m hedging my bets to keep myself and my loved ones safe.
I look after my godmother, Maxine Clapper, who turned 93 on Friday, but hasn’t been able to get a vaccine. Apparently, the waiting list here in Washtenaw County has 80,000 people, and patients over 65 are being chosen at random, not in order by age. (Gov. Whitmer, if you’re reading this newsletter, I’ll make a case for treating the oldest in Group 1B first.)
But, if all of us pick one favorite place and dine there, when we feel safe to do so, it’s bound to help the industry. And meanwhile, keep getting carryout. It keeps the lights on and keeps people working.
Our Friend Alma Is A Facebook Live Star!
Alma Martin Gill of the Washington Post was the very first person I profiled here at CulinaryWoman. Now, along with being a standout home cook, Alma has become a star of Facebook Live.
Every Tuesday night, she hosts Ask Alma, a question and answer show that is associated with the Black Newspaper Publishers Association.
Alma and a panel of guests provide lively answers to reader questions about everything in life. And I mean lively: you’ll laugh, and shake your head and wonder why people don’t have more sense.
You can send Alma your questions at alwaysaskalma at gmail dot com. Tune in to see if she answers them.
House Floats In New Orleans
Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans? That song has never said more to me than it does this year.
It’s been two years since I’ve been able to ride in a Mardi Gras parade. And 18 months since I’ve been able to visit.
The parades are canceled this year, due to the pandemic, but the city is not giving up on Mardi Gras. All across the city, individual houses are being decorated to resemble parade floats.
Some are under the auspices of the Krewe of House Floats, which has organized more than 2,000 house floats across the city. Others are ad hoc decorations by people wanting to get in on the celebration.
By far, the universal favorite is this house float, which shows beloved chef Leah Chase stirring a massive pot of gumbo. Food and drink themed floats are scattered throughout the field. I wish I could see it in person, but hopefully, house floats will continue in the future, even when parades return.
Amazon’s Next Moves
In 2013, my former New York Times colleague Brad Stone published The Everything Store, an inside look at the founding of Amazon, and the strategy of Jeff Bezos to move beyond books.
I liked it so much that I assigned it to my students at Arizona State University, and Brad was kind enough to join my class for a Skype session.
Now, Brad is about to publish a sequel, called Amazon Unbound. His book will be out May 11, and his timing could not be better. Bezos announced last week that he’s stepping aside as Amazon CEO and will become its executive chairman.
If you wonder why I’d recommend a book about Amazon on this newsletter, think of everything it’s meant to the food world.
Our food producer friends like Soom Foods sell their goods on Amazon. We authors depend on it for sales (I certainly have for my books). Restaurants sell gift certificates on it.
While I hope you’ll buy from independents as often as you can, there’s no mistaking the role that Amazon plays in our world. So, it’s good to know what lies ahead for this giant of sales.
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Stay safe, wear a mask, and see you next Sunday!