i had to make a trip into the big city, a 2 and a half hour drive, in order to go to the dentist. Thanks to all the strange happenings of 2020 it had been nearly a year since i had been and it was time. It was a strange visit. There were all sorts of new measures in place to protect the dental hygienists from the germs in the patients mouths, including a giant rubber thing making a sucking noise that was supposed to be sandwiched between my teeth and cheek along with the water, the air thing, and whatever utensil she was using at the time. It was a very busy event, i’ll say that. Also, the hygenists were instructed to wear face shields and not get too close to the patients they were working on. It was a much rougher experience, the hygenists pulled as far away from the target as possible, picking at anything remotely near the gum line. But, i knew they were doing the best they could under the circumstances and i was grateful that they cleaned my teeth and i really did get a good clean when it was all said and done. It was the first time i had been to them without any dental insurance. They took 40 dollars off my bill and i was touched by the act of mercy as i paid out of pocket. I had recently seen a grocery manager reach into his pocket to cover the remaining 3 dollars on a food stamps order that a lady and her son couldn’t afford as an early christmas gift. I thought about how one small act of kindness spurned another and had a ripple affect throughout the community. Perhaps kindness was not dead.
My dental hygienist had mentioned that one of my favorite restaurants that i frequented back when i was in my teens and twenties had closed its doors for good. She said all the restaurants were doing so one by one. Even the one mom had always taken us to as kids was gone. I realized that the next time i returned to the big city, the restaurants i was waiting to go back to once the pandemic was over, would not likely still be in existence. With this thought in mind, i decided to visit my two favorite restaurants while i still could.
I drove to my favorite ethiopian restaurant first. It was located along the access road of a major highway in a tiny green shack. The parking lot was empty. There was one car present…which i would soon learn was the owner’s. I had never seen it where there wasn’t a game of circle the runway and beat the next car to the space as someone was pulling out…a time consuming attempt to get one of the ten existing parking spaces next to the shack. Now i had my choice of 9 of them and it was eerie. I walked up and opened the door. Inside, the usually half-stocked drink cooler was perfect and uniform, fully-stocked and missing nothing. The room was quiet. Coats and personal items were strewn about two tables and there sat three generations of the family i had always known as jovial and smiling, solemn faced and quiet. when i walked in they looked as if they’d seen a ghost. I think i startled them. The clean dishes, normally dwindling to 5 or 6 plates as the dish washer rushed to keep up, were stacked nearly to the ceiling in the back of the room. One of them rose from the table, stuffing the jackets down onto a chair and out of sight. The patriarch said, “Yes, how can we help you?”. I asked if i could have a to-go plate. He said yes and with that everyone rose to their feet and tied on aprons, returning to the kitchen. The man watched me as i read the menu, selecting my favorites and asking for the gluten free injera. He looked sad. Inside, my heart was breaking. I loved this restaurant. I loved this family, who had always been so kind and so happy, and seemed to enjoy working together in their little hole in the wall restaurant of turmeric and ginger goodness. It was the best kind of food. The kind of food that made you feel full, the kind of food you would be willing to walk ten miles to get, neon yellow long-stewed on low heat comfort food that was actually nutritious, with just the right amount of spice, to be eaten with fingers, pinched between fermented flat bread. It was the best. My mother being a chef, i knew i could probably get her to recreate some of it if they went under but nothing would recreate the environment and culture in that little green shack with astroturf and tables in the area screened in with plastic. Nothing would recreate the joy and love and family of three generations working together. Pictures of the grandchildren hung on the wall. They sold tea and lentils and jewelry from ethiopia in the corner near the register, and the little linoleum tiles on the floor seemed to make the space. I wanted to say something, but nothing i could say would make this any better. It seemed i was the first customer they had seen in a while. I wondered if the fact that ethiopian cuisine was typically eaten with one’s hands was helping to keep customers away during a pandemic. I wondered if people knew they had forks ready upon request. I quickly emptied all of my dimes, nickles, and pennies into their tip jar. It wasn’t much, but, it was all i had to give. Thankfully, they were all in the kitchen by then and i avoided a moment if awkward apology that i didn’t have a full dollar to contribute. Most businesses had gone to plastic only and i hadn’t had dollars in my wallet for a while. I thanked them for the meal as they handed me my treasure in a black to-go bag with a set of plastic silverware. I returned to the car with a heavy heart. I knew they wouldn’t be here next time i came…not if this was a typical day of business. My heart broke for them and for all the people coming up who would never know the amazingness of their food. I hoped i was wrong.
I put the to-go bag in the car and set out to my next destination. It was more of a community than a restaurant. There was a school, a dance studio, a store, a playground, a restaurant, and a sort of jungle area full of old trees, vines, hammocks, strings of lights, and wind chimes. I remembered, when i was a child growing up in the city, the lot next door to it was an RV park. All the traveling gypsy/hippie type folk would come to eat there. Dogs would lie sleeping, leashed at their owners’ feet under the table. Babies clothed only in diapers would sit in wooden high chairs eating with their families, bracelets or necklaces of beads adorning them. The children were sun tanned with tangled curly hair and bright eyes. People shared tables with strangers and everyone sat in any open chair available. People served themselves hibiscus tea, soup, and this wonderful dressing-soaked salad that a person could live on alone happily. Then a waiter would come and place a meal in front of you. Everyone got the same meal. There was always a grain, a bean, pickled vegetables of some sort, cooked vegetables with some kind of nut sauce, sometimes avocado, and every table had a shaker of seaweed flakes, toasted sesame seeds, and soy sauce. When i was a kid, they made and sold bread as well. They had shelves of warm plastic baggies full of condensation from freshly baked beautiful goodness. Their glass dessert case was a vegan kid’s dream. They had puddings and parfaits, cookies and pies. They usually had soy candles for sale too. Returning as an adult in 2020, it was a bit different. The RV park was long ago moved and a high-rise of expensive condos now provided eternal shade where there was once blinding sun streaming through the windows. Great efforts were made to keep the children and dogs quiet so that the condo occupants would not complain whereas the hippies that inhabited the RV park when i was a kid never cared about the free and careless shrieks and squeals of kids playing tag on the playground. It had a more subdued and calm feeling about it, but it was very much still an oasis of nature in the middle of a city of glass and concrete. It had stood the test of time and bent rather than broken, changing as needed through the decades but remaining ever true to its roots. Because of 2020 the tea, salad, and soup was moved into the kitchen and served by waiters instead of self-serve in order to reduce risk of germ transmission. The tables were no longer shared by strangers and the place was not packed to the brim with people. It was one party per table and each table was at least 6 feet from the next. The sesame seeds, nori, and soy sauce were gone from the tables. But, other than that, the place looked the same as i remembered it from childhood. The meal was beautiful. The salad was soaked in the nut-cheese dressing and it was creamy, tangy, and salty; the perfect amount of wilted. I could have eaten that salad all night. The soup was a hearty ginger, coconut cream, sweet potato soup with chunks of yellow japanese sweet potato in it that tasted just like granular cubes of creamy sugar. There were pickled beets, which i loved! Short-grain brown rice with a toasted nut topping, refried black beans and nut cheese on a rolled tortilla (i had to leave the tortilla cuz im allergic to wheat and corn but you better believe i scraped off every smidgeon of beans and “cheeze” sauce and ate it before leaving the tortilla)…there was cooked greens with a kind of creamy mustard sauce on top. The greatest thing about these plates is all the sauces taste good on everything. I mixed each bite. I got a little bit of rice, scooped it through the beans, and dipped it in the guacamole and cheeze sauce on the way to my mouth. Everything is good on everything. I even dipped the greens in mustard sauce in the black beans and that was equally good! I don’t know if those vegetables were steamed or sauteed but they had a topping of toasted nuts and seeds that was so crunchy and wonderful and they really took the cake, texture and flavor-wise. I was in culinary heaven.
On top of this experience…their signature hibiscus tea that hadn’t changed a bit since my childhood. It was ice cold, smooth, a deep maroon color, and slightly minty. There was nothing in the world like it. I sat there and drank a refreshing glass of it, which i had saved for last. The room was lit by battery powered candles and the tables were the same wooden ones from my childhood. The same cement floor. The same little store near the cash register. The same glass case of pies and parfaits. I sat and looked around. I told the waitress, who looked about 18, that she had something special here. She said, “oh” and laughed. She couldn’t know what i was talking about. She hadn’t been alive long enough to know what i was talking about, but i spotted a bearded man sitting at a table by the window nodding in agreement with my comment. He knew.
As i stepped outside i was overwhelmed with emotion as i saw a man sitting cross legged, playing a lotus drum and blowing into a long wooden tube as a woman danced before him, twirling round and round, her hands bent sharply at the wrists. I was immediately transported back to the days of the sunlight on the playground, the rv’s and shiny metal caravans with their christmas lights and lawn chairs and potted plants next door…the babies running wild with long hair and bracelets, clad only in diapers and barefoot, children playing tag or returning from swimming in the creek…everyone barefoot and sun-tanned and happy. There was always music and dogs and wind chimes. There was always someone playing guitar, someone singing, someone dancing, just for the sake of artistic expression. I sat on the bench and cried. I tried not to, but lost in the memory of something beautiful, wild, free, and sunny…i couldn’t help it. I sat on the bench and hoped my mask hid my face while i listened to the man play his lotus drum and watched the woman dance. Soon a mini-aussie was watching too. The dancing woman ran to the aussie and hugged it, calling its name. They had clearly met before. The dog was happy to see her. It wagged its majestic tail furiously and licked her hands as she tried to pet it. She scooped the dog into her arms and returned to the lotus drum to dance. She rocked and bounced the dog during her dancing. The little dog was thrilled and seemed to be bobbing its head to her bounces. Soon it began trying to lick her face as she twirled the dog around. It tried to use its legs as a launching device as it hung in her arms, trying to get close enough to lick her chin. She began laughing. Then the man playing the lotus drum howled like a wolf. So did the dancing woman. The dog began barking and wagging its tail furiously against the dancer’s hip. I began to laugh. I was grinning so wide behind the mask, but i didn’t think anyone could see. As i walked past the man playing the lotus drum to get to my car he said “Thank you for your smile”. I nodded my head and smiled again. I wished i could have told him thank you for the music, told the dancer thank you for her performance, but i was so wrapped in my emotions it was all i could do to get to the car before i busted into tears once more. In 2020 community was dead…everywhere but there, in that little oasis. it was still well and alive…albeit spaced 6 feet apart and with more waiters and less self-serve…community lived on in that jungle from my childhood, with or without the barefoot babies from the RVs. I hoped that restaurant would be the one exception that survived.
I had a long drive home and though i had intended to eat the ethiopian cuisine the following day, by the time i was done unloading the car in the dark and finishing the chores by moonlight i was hungry again. I opened the to-go container and began salivating as i smelled the sour aroma of those delicious flat breads.
I had picked all my favorites…the restaurant lets you choose one main dish and three sides to eat with your flat breads. I chose the cabbage, carrot, and green bean dish for my main, as i always did. It was buttery and greasy and flavorful and totally vegan. The turmeric would also help my arthritis. There were cubed potatoes in a gingery tomato sauce, spicy mashed eggplant in a tomato base, and stewed yellow lentils. It was the best! My favorite part was and had always been eating the flat bread the food had been placed on…for the flat bread on the bottom was always soft and soaked in the flavors of whatever had been placed on it. It was delicious. I washed my hands well and ate it with my hands. A fork just didn’t seem right. I pinched the food between pieces of flat bread and savored every bite. So, was eating out the frugal option during my trip to the city? No. Did i need two dinners? Probably not. But, now, if this ends up being my last chance to savor my favorite flavors, at least i have these photos and this memory of them to hold onto. I had to taste them one last time in case (knock on wood that they don’t) they join the ever mounting list of restaurants that have closed up shop in 2020.