It felt like a blizzard was coming the second week of March. Some sage shoppers went to the grocery store to stock up; restaurants had customers, but the crowds seemed thinner; college students congregated at nightclubs before what was to be the longest snow day ever.
I was on the waitlist for dinner at Palizzi Social Club when news came through on March 14 that the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board would close its stores in the Philadelphia suburbs. You could tell much of South Philly had heard at the same time because the state store at 11th and Wharton filled with customers on a Saturday night. And the wait for dinner — often greater than an hour and a half — was a mere 45 minutes. A product, I imagined, of sketched-out diners declining to linger like they usually would.
That dinner, with my husband and my sister, was a last hurrah. We knew it. We shared one last piece of ricotta pie and toasted with espresso martinis.
What we couldn’t fathom that night was how long it would be before we sat inside a restaurant again (it hasn’t happened yet). We didn’t know how closely confined our lives would become, how much time we’d be spending in our respective homes and neighborhoods. We didn’t know that the date of our next family dinner would be a mystery, that the last hugs we traded with our parents would have to tide us over for months.
As that blizzard descended, and panic and an endless stream of news wooshed in, it upended the world around us on every level. Even as restrictions ease, it still looms over us.
“What happens to a food writer in a pandemic? Are you furloughed?” a long-distance friend texted me in late April.
There were plenty of stories to tell. Shortages abounded: yeast, dairy, meat, eggs, beans, not to mention paper products, bleach, and hand sanitizer (which distilleries started to brew in response). Pennsylvania’s liquor stores closed — prompting a run on booze — then selectively reopened. Local governments introduced new rules and regulations by the score as we moved through phases red, yellow, and nuanced green. Social distancing markers popped up all over our sidewalks.
Food and the business and culture around it remain as important as ever in Philadelphia, but the tenor of the community is changing.
Many chefs have directed their resources to feeding those in need, even as they grapple with hamstrung business. Workers are more openly questioning long-accepted practices, including toxic workplace cultures and stagnant wages. And the reinvigorated Black Lives Matter movement prompted restaurant owners (and us all) to examine their social consciences, and, in some cases, make changes.
It’s possible the pandemic forced us over a massive yet much-needed speed bump. That may sound like a contrived silver lining, especially when compared to the lost businesses, lost livelihoods, and most tragically, the lost lives.
But it’s true that it made us take a beat and think. It spurred the industry to show its ingenuity, grit, and compassion, on full display in this guide.
As a reporter, it’s my privilege and my pleasure to hear and tell these stories, to weave them together and try to make sense of them. But I’m also a consumer of Philadelphia’s food culture. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the longing to meet my family for dinner at a new spot, or go on a date night and sit at the bar, or slide into a booth at Oscar’s after work. I find myself dwelling on how it’ll feel when one day it’s possible again. I pine for it.
Increasingly, though, I think less of what the pandemic has taken away and more about what I’ve discovered as a result. The variegated selection in the bodegas around my pocket of South Philly. The change of produce at the farmers market, as seen in my kitchen rather than a restaurant menu. The way the light falling on our rowhouse differs from summer to fall, shifting what our window boxes will sustain.
When we emerge from this pandemic, we’ll all be different. Hopefully, we’ll be better.