“No More Eulogies”- What’s Left of a Food Capital

Some people complain about doing anything with a mask on. For these folks, the idea of exercise while wearing one is dangerous, stupid, or just unthinkable.

The biggest annoyances regarding masks for me are 1. Having to hear these people whine about it, and 2. My glasses fogging up when I go on my runs around Mount Tabor.

As such, I didn’t really notice the first couple times I was hustling down Belmont and saw glassware lined up for sale in the window of The Cheese Shop. The third time, though, put a rock in my gut and stuck with me for the remaining three miles of the run.

Glassware for sale at a restaurant means “The End is Nigh”, and another food industry eulogy will need to be written.

I would like to say I was a regular at the Cheese Shop, but that would be a lie. I live close-by, and Emily and I would stop in from time to time, but not as often as we would have liked. A summer afternoon on the sidewalk, nibbling on fine cheese and charcuterie while sipping wine or beer is the exact kind of thing “foodies” like my wife and I dream of. It feels stereotypically European, yeah- but most of all, it was just… “chill.” Refined. The kind of thing done by the kind of successful young people we dreamed of being growing up.

When we could do it, it was a good experience- but good experiences cost money, and the paychecks of a baker and a piano teacher on the West Coast meant that other needs take priority over fine cheeses. Insert the classic line of “cooks not being able to afford the food we make” here.

Flipping through a recent article by Michael Russell (restaurant critic for The Oregonian) this morning read like a casualty list. Big names gone, famous locations shuttered. Some of the original cast involved in making Portland an American food capital fleeing a city and industry that can’t support them anymore.

As a food lover, this is unfortunate. As someone in the industry, it’s apocalyptic- and as a food writer, the only words that describe it are “tragedy”- and “avoidable.”

Every day, I read dispatches from cooks and chefs across America bemoaning our current state of affairs (I was tempted to write “these unprecedented times,” but I think I may have then thrown my iPad into traffic just on principle.)

Cooks are as diverse politically as we are in other spectrums, so bitter grumblings about COVID restrictions are evenly mixed with anti-mask tirades, recriminations of “totalitarian” governors, rantings at intransigent and impotent government, and- most tellingly- stories of entitled customers.

Even as our news feeds were flooded earlier this year with protests and people screaming for restaurants to re-open, recent studies have found that not only has tipping decreased across the country, but incidents of wait staff being harassed are on the rise. It’s not enough, apparently, for cooks and wait staff to place our health and wellbeing at risk. We must also evidently bear the brunt of angry customer’s “soapbox moments” and spitefully flouting even the minimal requirements that let us stay open the way they wanted.

As a food lover- in fact, as a human being- this kind of behavior is disgusting. I can’t help but reflect on the helpless resentment that most service industry and retail workers are familiar with feeling. The fact that this is somehow the better alternative to yet another business shuttering forever fills me with a rage and frustration that is difficult to convey in just a few sentences.

It is little wonder how many creative and talented restaurant workers have chosen to seek out new careers. Losing a job where one is faced with physical and emotional abuse from those who feel entitled to your presence and service might almost be a blessing- and the culinary industry is all the poorer for the loss of talent.

Tempering, or perhaps further roiling, this malignant stew in my guts is one other emotion. The one that struck me the hardest from Russell’s column- grief.

There is much to grieve in America right now. Every day, we lose nearly as many people to COVID as we lost on the September 11th attacks. In the face of those numbers, lamenting the closure of a few restaurants seems trite and comical; and yet grief is still the correct response to an important loss, regardless of its context.

As much as I said about “entitlement” earlier, let me share something that, while I might not feel entitled to, I certainly think I expected and hoped for:

I expected to someday try and write about the restaurants that so drastically changed America’s culinary landscape. I expected to someday sample the intense individualism plated up at Beast, or the whimsical adventurousness offered at The Hairy Lobster. I was lucky that I got try Toro Bravo and Imperial before the pandemic, and that makes their closure even more frustrating for me as someone who loves to eat and write about fine food.

From a writing standpoint, the loss of these restaurants feels like a chapter of the history of food in this area that I will just barely never get to experience for myself. I can only rely on the pictures, testimonies, and saved menus to learn how they changed the landscape of the city and fit into the story of our industry. “If you’d only been here a few months earlier…”

Occasionally, my wife asks about when I’ll go back to writing restaurant reviews on here. I almost always have fun with them- nerding out about food in a narrative that (hopefully) encourages others to come find the place have their own “story of a night out.” When I last counted, half of the places I reviewed on here have closed thanks to COVID. Again, the grief hits- and I can’t help but hope for when my food writing career will consist of more than writing eulogies.

With an effective and supportive government, we could have still had a healthy and vibrant restaurant industry after the pandemic passes. With a populace whose actual patriotism outstripped its political tribalism, we could have avoided some (if not most) of these 296,000+ deaths.

We didn’t have that government, though- and we don’t seem to have that populace in the numbers we need (though plenty seem happy to be able to scream at and cough on baristas). I am trying to be optimistic and cheerful- there is certainly some good things happening on this planet. For now, I’m going to do my part to keep others safe. I am going to frequent my cities restaurants as often as my bank account will bear, with dignity and class.

I am hoping I won’t have to write any more industry eulogies… but failing that, I hope I’ll at least get to see what’s worth writing about before it goes.

Stay Classy,

One thought on ““No More Eulogies”- What’s Left of a Food Capital

  1. Yeah, I believe that eulogies are needed for a ton of industries, but the silver lining is that many more new ones will emerge from this changing of our world. Thanks for this post, and for wearing a mask!

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