Tuesday, April 14: Bigger than our stomachs

It’s Day 28 of “home confinement,” and I can’t stop thinking about food. Not to eat, right now. My taste in food is as awful as most of teenage America’s taste in music, so I’m pretty content with what I have. It probably comes from a lifetime of camping and discovering you forgot to bring such-and-such (“All we have is Walmart-brand trail-mix dregs? Delicious!”) You eat what’s in season, and what’s in season right now are Substitutions.

I’m just thinking about — dreading, really — the inevitable return to Scary Wegmans. Half-empty shelves, Plexiglas, cashiers who are afraid to work. By the end of this week, I will probably go back, because Instacart workers really are on strike, and even if you can schedule one, it does feel like crossing a picket line. I am personally happy with my emergency stash of supplies and could easily live on the junk that I have; but it’s hard to get older people to do without the things that they want and need (milk! they must have milk), and it’s hard to explain what the gig economy is to some of them. All they know is that “someone” will go get the groceries for them and bring it to their door.

I also can’t stop thinking about getting outside. This is mainly due to the stubborn hanging-back of spring, not so much due to the disruption of everyday life. I’d love to go to the Regional Market or to Hafner’s except that… everyone else will be dying to go there too, which means almost nobody will get to go there. Mostly when I go outside now it’s to re-deliver delivered groceries to relatives who are too afraid to interact with a delivery person. I wonder if I should get in my car and drive out to Elbridge for my favorite spring country drive in the hills — in the mystical land of no-coronavirus (I think they’re lying), and maybe see if there is a convenience store untouched by calamity.

Since I’m obviously not going to stop thinking about food for the time being, I wonder if the restaurant and food-supply-chain shakeup means that the future restaurant experience will no longer be about paying high prices for ridiculously piggish amounts on your plate. I realize that at high-end restaurants that’s not what you get; but at chain restaurants, the gargantuan portions would always turn me off. You were paying for food you’d never be able to eat. There must have been something ingrained in the wrongness of the way we eat (and serve) in this country — the same wrongness that has manifested in milk dumpings, armies of now-unemployed restaurant staff, “rape rooms” in the establishments of famous restaurateurs — that also resulted in those inedible giga-platters.

One small blessing of being Upstate is that, although individual businesses are suffering, it’s not like our cities had huge restaurant sectors. I think it is safe to say that a substantial percentage of restaurants in the big cities are never going to reopen. Did we maybe have too many of them? Should everything have really been such a big constant party?

But it’s also fair to look at the big-box grocery stores, too. Wegmans is so big and wonderful that even Brooklynites were lining up for hours to get a glimpse at this “department store of food.” Is this model of food delivery also up for a reappraisal? Should restaurants be able to pivot? Should we have more farmers’ markets and suburban bodegas exclusively supplied by local farmers?

Astonishingly, the neighborhood next door to me does have a suburban bodega (although it isn’t called that). Located smack in the middle of a quiet suburban street in Westvale is the Terry Road Market, which has operated for at least fifty years if not more. When I was a kid, I regarded the Terry Road Market with fascination. Not only could you buy food right on your street, but they were the only place where you could buy Wacky Packs. Why didn’t Fairmount Hills have something like this? In the era before the coming of Wegmans forty years ago this year, we had Loblaws, which technically you could walk to, but most people drove to. (And today I still wonder, why hasn’t Wegmans killed them yet? Our local Wegmans is just two or three blocks away.)

Some have speculated that people will want to cook more in their homes, but the main reason I don’t really cook much (and tend to live out of the microwave or a bag) is because my kitchen is small, old and terrible. (I’d really rather cook outdoors, it’s that bad.) It’s a home improvement that I have been putting off because of the dreadful complexity and expense, though I know I have to do it. And this reminds me of my pet peeve about the usual concerns about urban food deserts: a part of the reason why poorer people don’t cook is because their kitchens suck. Because their housing sucks. Bring them all the fresh affordable food you want, but if they have no place to prepare it… it’s a problem.

And so the food issue just keeps unpeeling like an onion. It is bigger than just the availability of food, and food experts knew this already, but suburbanites are just coming to understand. We aren’t on the privileged outside after all (or shouldn’t be): we’re just stuck in the middle between city and country, and right now, we are very much like cattle safely enclosed in our pens, wondering about feeding time. We can at least take the privilege we already have and try harder to be go-betweens among past and future.