On Tuesday morning, I stuffed a couple biscuits with hunks of the chuck roast I smoked on Sunday, wrapped them in a tinfoil pouch, and carried them to my 93-year-old father. He lives two miles away from my wife, Blair, and son, Jess, and me in an assisted living apartment here in Oxford, Mississippi. After we talked about what he’s reading (the latest Grisham) and what I planned to cook that night (vegetable soup and cornbread), we said our goodbyes with more candor and tenderness than usual.
I told him that I owe to him the best of what I’ve become. And I owe to him the best of what I’ve passed on to our son. And I told him that I wouldn’t be coming back to see him for a long time. We didn’t talk about mortality. We didn’t have to. It hung there, a newly vivid presence in our lives, unsettling and unavoidable like the virus that now ravages our nation. Walking out the door, I heard the distant whine of a siren, growing louder. And the chirp of birds, flitting through the limbs of a dogwood tree.
On the way back home, my phone dinged with text alerts. Once I settled at the desk in the little writing shed I keep behind our house, a trickle of emails became a river. Outside my window, a construction crew in a four-door pickup rolled by, bound for a neighbor’s home. Five minutes later, a cement mixer backed down the same stretch of narrow street, beeping that damn beep that work trucks now make. The sight of those trucks comforted me. Someone was getting paid to make something. Instead of fretting and pacing the backyard like me, someone was working.
Turns out my chef and restaurant friends across the South were at work, too. When I turned to the emails and texts, I learned that, after receiving orders from governors and mayors to close dining rooms, or following the lead of advisors, or looking to the inevitable in a moment when the inevitable looms large and ugly, they were laying off employees. As Tuesday became Wednesday, texts and emails kept coming. Under duress, in an effort to set their former employees up for unemployment benefits, my friends were being forced to cut loose bussers and dishwashers and line cooks and waiters. They made these decisions with surety. They made these decisions as tears rolled down their faces.
I heard from friends in Houston and Atlanta and Raleigh. And in Charleston, New Orleans, and Oxford. Donald Link of Link Restaurant Group, who made his name at Herbsaint and built a six-restaurant empire in New Orleans, let go 400 out of 550 employees. Via text he said that was “the worst thing I have ever had to do, and I had to rebuild after Katrina.” Steve Palmer, managing partner of the Indigo Road Hospitality Group in Charleston, let go 950. “It was a dark, dark, dark, day,” said Palmer, who recently published a book, Say Grace, about his fight for sobriety and his work to help other restaurant professionals get sober. “I haven’t been through a day like this since I’ve been sober.” He paused. “I believe there will be a restaurant industry on the other side of this. I don’t know what it looks like. But I hope to be there to serve others.”
Each time I heard from someone new, I came in from the shed to the house to read the news to Blair. After three readings, she looked up, after looking down for a long time, and said, “These sound like frontline reports from a war.”
By Wednesday afternoon, my chef and restaurateur friends began to organize campaigns to gain federal and state intervention to save their industry. And, like Edward Lee in Louisville, who set an early example, they began to convert their restaurant kitchens into relief kitchens to feed former employees and their families. In other words, they began to serve new sorts of guests. And they began to serve those guests with the same care that they had once served people like me and you.
On Thursday afternoon, I drove to High Cotton, my favorite local liquor store, with two disinfectant wipes tucked in my shirt like a pocket square. From my friend Aaron Herrington, who wore blue surgical gloves at the counter and broadcast a wide smile, I bought gin for Blair, bourbon and rye for me. Back home, I stirred a boulevardier, a classic drink, which, if you don’t already know it, translates as a negroni made with brown liquor instead of clear liquor. (My father, who recently gave up Scotch for bourbon, can’t quite pronounce the name, but he delights in trying to say it.)
As I stirred, my phone dinged one text alert. And then another. Before I could read any of them, my father dialed. He wanted to know how my day had gone, where I had been, and who I had seen. His tone was bright. He laughed when I dog-cussed a politician. He wanted me to know that he had just turned off the news and poured himself a drink. A drink that sounded a lot like the one I was then stirring. We had said what we had to say. We had looked each other in the eye. And we had chosen to focus on the horizon. Together, we would stroll the boulevards, even if we didn’t get to leave our homes.