The Other Columbus: Food and loathing in a pandemic
Driving through Southfield the other day I saw a “For Sale” sign on H. Johnson Restaurant and Dairy, a neighborhood restaurant that had been in operation nearly all my life. The closing of a chain restaurant is inconvenient, but the closure of a mom and pop operation is a cultural death.
The loss of a meal one loves is an intense and deep sadness. The dish need not even be of great quality to qualify. The burger chowed down twice a week at your favorite lunch spot with coworkers as you spit chunks of lunch at each other, railing about the boss, is a good burger. Even if it is a bad burger, the experience of it — the freeing walk to the spot, the way the aroma hits you before the air conditioning when you walk in the door, the hum of a temporary culinary tribe — that’s the stuff that makes a meal an experience. You can make a better burger at home if you set your mind to it. Some burgers can be beat with even less than your mind. Ultimately, it’s not about the burger so much as the experience: the fading wallpaper, the chipped table, the end of the bar where you can catch all the service staff scoop.
COVID-19 has ripped the dining experience from us, which in America is a huge deal, and in Ohio (always one of the country’s fattest states) borders on the sacrilegious. We may not have a signature cuisine, but we absolutely know how to eat. If you want to spread your culinary wings and your service is at least passable, you can make a go of it here. Columbus is full of laboratories that look like kitchens. The pandemic, however, has changed all of that.
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Lots of restaurants are struggling or closing, and for once it isn’t because Columbus is overrun with a trend gone cold or because we’ve got fickle stomachs. It is because we cannot get past the doors of the places we love (which may require an investigation of the notion of “love”). While you can still order a dish you like during the pandemic, it isn't the same, and everybody on both sides of the counter knows it. Service is a rushed formality now, wisely masked for our protection, but lacking the American value of comfort manifested in a smile or a loving side dish substitution.
And the food, ugh. Yes, you can have your favorite Wor Su Gai delivered, but you can almost see the chef’s tears dotting the plastic tray as you open it, knowing the flavor peak of the dish has long passed. The traditional comely dance of steam rising from the chicken has died in the car, its ghost an accumulation of condensation wetting your hands as you rip off the Tupperware-like lid. The buns of our burgers are all softer than they should be, the fries eternally cold-dead on arrival. And if you’re ordering pasta to go, you’re breaking several laws in some countries.
Such plasticware presentation was fine when you had finished a meal and needed to take the remainder home, but now everything looks like a leftover before you even get it to your mouth. Whatever environmental gains we have made in recent years has been set back by the amount of Styrofoam forming in the fossil record of our trashcans, our bins a lasagna of pizza boxes and white take-home trays.
The zenith of a freshly cooked meal in the wild is dead, and in many places will not return. I admit that it is easy to gnash one’s teeth over the quality of what is left behind, forgetting that gnashing one’s teeth over some meals is not a given. Some dishes we love will not weather the tempest of this plague. It’s almost enough to drive a self-respecting gourmand to a country that believed in the power of masks and the sacrifice of personal convenience enough to flatten their pandemic curves and are now back in the restaurant business. Another flaccid chicken wing could very well push me over the edge.