The last time I sat down to eat anywhere other than my house was March 19th. It was in The Plough, the perfect neighbourhood pub which was a huge contributing factor in moving 60m away last November. Inside the mood was a sombre one: thirty or so people having lunch in a space usually occupied by several hundred, each practising a level of hygiene well above the norm; sanitising hands and cutlery and bottles of hot sauce in between slices of pizza and calzone. The Plough closed the following day, their spirit of community living on through the NHS rainbows which adorn the front windows, sent in by local families.
The elapsed time since then has been a blur of panic and confusion. Lockdown UK is a 24 hour assault of news and fear and graphs where everyone has an opinion and that opinion is lambasted across all forms of media without anyone really knowing what is going on, or any real proof to substantiate what is said. Where every picture of the outdoors comes with an immediate disclaimer that this is the one form of exercise for that day, self-policed in a world where everyone else’s movement is somehow more crucial than theirs to the planet’s survival. A crazy time that should be used for self-reflection, yet has become somehow about what we have or haven’t done to have contributed to this mess, splayed out across Facebook and Twitter for everyone to see.
It’s understandable to some extent. The majority of us have a lot of time on our hands to indulge in the voyeurism of the pile-up happening outside that heavily secured front door. In the last three weeks I’ve gone from petrified to scared to numb. From full time professional to full time house husband. My interactions with the outside world are few and far between; the make-shift gym in the spare room means that I have little reason to leave the house other than to buy food. And I miss it. I miss the bickering with my family. Miss seeing my friends and regretting the previous night’s actions the following day. Miss the faces of strangers, and the pubs, and the pub gardens, and the luxury of being able to sit in a restaurant eating nice food and drinking nice wine. I miss restaurants so very much.
I decided back at the start of quarantine that I would continue to pay for other people to cook me dinner as long as it was possible. The duty to support an industry that has been the backbone of this hobby is an important one for me. We started the Friday before the lockdown with a dinner from Harborne Kitchen that was a little out of the norm. I asked what I could do to help and they said I could purchase some ingredients to assemble at home. That night we sat down to liver parfait, then pork belly, finally washing down the apple tart with cocktails purchased from Couch the prior evening. It felt special, a little bit of our favourite places in the sanctuary of our own dining room/temporary office. It was Martin Luther King Jr. who said “only when it is dark enough can you see stars”, and I’m trying my hardest to follow that optimism, despite how bleak it looks outside.
Since then our dining table has hosted some of the stars of Birmingham: pizza from both Poli and Baked in Brick, and back to Baked in Brick for those bargain 10 quid Sunday roasts. I’ve answered the door to Dom from Caneat in nothing but a dressing gown before eating his obscene pork kimchi ragu pasta, waved at the guys from Baked as they dropped off cakes, and been accused of waiting in the window for my cheese and wine by Chris Connolly of Arch 13. Chris, it was my office, I promise. I’ve left cans of beer on the street for Rich from Fat Snags and then exchanged pictures later; him drinking Heineken in his garden, and me scorching the top of the cheesey spicy pasta he’s knocking out too cheaply. Forgive me, but you may have noticed that we’ve been throwing money primarily towards those we really like. Apart from Gabriel’s. That was just a really bad hangover.
The hard bits have been the least expected. I could have cried opening the door to Luca Laghi and not being able let him through to share a whisky as we did a few weeks before this started. I have so much admiration for that man, more so now that Laghi’s has now closed so that he can concentrate on his hospital work. The same for James Wong, a friend whose wedding I sabotaged long before this blog was ever considered. James will kill me for saying this but I’ve spoken to him enough over the phone to know the amount of burden he has placed on himself to help his community. We ordered to support that and he delivered it himself, dressed like a cheap backstreet surgeon with a grin that could be seen either side of his surgical mask. We’ve had excellent food from Royal Meal that turned up late because Cyd took a detour to pick me up a burger from OPM on the way. I asked if I could give Cyd the money for the burger and he told me to fuck off in his heavily accented voice. I took that as a no.
I keep telling myself that this will be quickly forgotten once the best times return. That the first lunch at Opheem is going to make it all flood back, and that by the time my mate comes for lunch at Harborne Kitchen the fear will be replaced with a newfound positivity. But right now that seems so far away. Earlier today I was asked to film a brief snippet for a friend who is keen to spread some positivity. I stuttered and stumbled my way through three awkward takes before delivering a mumbled message of stay home, stay safe and see you soon. It’s all you need to know. I’ll see you on the other side when the good times return.