Ann said a couple of weeks ago, “You know, this time last year we were on the Island.” I thought of eating lobster rolls by the water in Summerside, under no illusions about the meaning of “market price” on a creased and sticky laminated menu. And wasn’t the crab and lobster club at the local pub in nearby Kensington a sandwich worth flying across Canada for?
This summer has been very different. Ann and I booked four months in Porchtown, an exclusive resort conveniently located a single step outside the front door of the Crooked 9. Drinks are cheap and you can smoke as if the end of your life depends on it. I’ve been lagering a lot of time there, enjoying the street life serenade – especially when it rains.
There’s a monstrous, obese house across the street, erected before sub-dividing standard lots and throwing up a pair of skinnies became all the ugly rage. It’s painted a bluey-grey, a colour I associate with an east coast cottage, an Atlantic Ocean shade. The place is all right to look at except for one niggling thing. There’s an octagonal alarm company warning sign resting on the sill of one of the front windows and more often than not it’s tipped on the wrong edge. Sometimes I’m tempted to break in just to set the sign straight. Give it a nudge more than a good talking to. So I stare at that sign frequently and while I’m doing that I see other things going on.
Our neighbours receive more callers than our local drug dealer. They’ve all been summoned via a delivery app. I’m pretty certain Amazon Prime delivered their three children. I know their Skip the Dishes guy by sight. If it wasn’t for him, they’d starve. And he would too; I’ve read some alarming statistics about gig delivery drivers grazing on their customers’ meals. Last winter a waitress in a pub Stats Guy and I favoured for our Tuesday Night Beer Club outings told us that management quickly figured out that an app to-go meal was way different than standard take-out: carrier bags required more staples than a fresh surgical slit.
Last winter, cast my memory back there, Lord. In February Ann and I read about a weird viral outbreak in some remote Chinese city in some remote Chinese province. I thought, “That’s nice, something like ebola or zika on the other side of the world. Who cares? Anyway, I’ll take pastrami and salami over wet market bush meat any old time.” And then the tempo of the news changed, the stories were increasingly urgent. Ann and I compared it to watching a storm gather in the western sky. Thunderheads billow and bubble up. Sunlight takes on a harsh metallic hue. The twilit sky reels a seasick green.
When things became really weird we turned pro because we had to. The most mundane tasks beyond the confines of the Crooked 9 have become missions. Some days neither Ann nor I feel particularly motivated to embark on a grocery store adventure. Some days we’re not particularly inspired by what’s on hand in the fridge and the pantry. And some days the prospect of just eating because needs must looms like a tiresome chore.
Our shabby commercial hub is a 20-minute walk away, across the light rail tracks, past the elementary school and the fire hall. The old IGA grocery store is some sort of rainbows and unicorns daycare facility. There’s a mom-and-pop convenience which sells dust and penny candy beside it. The hair salon became a nail salon because they grow faster. The creepy, nosy pharmacist whose voice carried from his elevated perch at the back of his space pulled up stakes. The bank has been sub-divided into medical offices.
The saving grace along the avenue has been an Indian restaurant called Coriander. Ann and I have been sweating its survival. Opening an eatery at the best of times is risky enough. Before Coriander could even establish its presence in the neighbourhood, the City tore up the street, a months-long reclamation project. About the time Coriander had finally managed to acquire its liquor license covid-19 hit.
Ann and I have phoned ahead for pick-up three or four times these past six months. We don’t mind the hassle of collection because we know an independent food delivery service isn’t skimming Coriander’s revenue and our Tandoori chicken. But we can’t eat Indian food every day although I suppose Indians do and don’t give it much thought.
Around the corner from Coriander is Campus Pizza, a local institution. The current and third owner drove delivery for the second owner who in turn had cooked for the founder. Not exactly a family-run operation, but pretty darn close. Campus, like Coriander, has faced its own challenges. The street was a trench for an entire summer of course, but then a pipe burst after the new asphalt was steamrollered, flooding the space and forcing an extended closure. Once Campus reopened Ann and I bided our time because, gee, there had to be something in that water; best wait and see if our neighbours get poisoned.
Part of the attraction of Campus Pizza is that there’s just the one shop; there always has been and there always will be. It has meaning on the south side in the university district. Ann and I don’t order the ‘House Special’ from a multinational logo. No polyester uniforms in this corner joint. As well, the toasted subs, especially the meatball and the Italian, are exquisite sandwiches. Campus donairs are decent enough although the crucial sweet sauce seems to exist more as a descriptive menu detail rather than an actual condiment. Sweet sauce is essentially evaporated milk and garlic and it pairs nicely with the spicy meat, essentially congealed abattoir floor sweepings roasted on a spit.
The logical albeit impractical deliverance from my donair dilemma would be to layover in Halifax en route to Charlottetown and graze downtown on the fast food slope between the citadel and the harbour. Not this year. Thanks to Ann I’ve stumbled upon a made in Alberta solution a little east of us on the other side of the Canadian National Railway freight tracks. Burger Baron is a local operation with few links left in its chain. The industrial park drive-thru is always open. Ann enjoys the Baron’s mushroom and Swiss cheese burger and the onion rings. Lately I’ve been augmenting my donair order with a side of hamburger or hot dog. It’s possible that this pandemic will not end well for my waistline.
Some things stick with a person throughout their lifetime, like a hearty stew or heartburn. Ann and I were both raised to appreciate that food prepared outside the household kitchen is a treat. And treats by their very nature are infrequent indulgences. While we can’t imagine donning masks to be seated on site inside a restaurant neither can we imagine daily Skip the Dishes deliveries. So maybe covid-19 hasn’t affected our dining habits all that much.
Summer is winding down. We have missed taking our holiday and eating food prepared in different establishments a long way from many places. “Then again,” Ann reflected recently, “we’ve really utilized our patio this season – when it wasn’t raining – which is surprising, all things considered.” We have safely hosted small parties of relatives and friends. The socially distanced pleasure has been such that I even enjoy cleaning up afterward. Though I have missed my Tuesday evening chicken wing summits with Stats Guy, a bachelor, we’ve been able to feed him proper cooking a couple of times.
Yesterday morning Ann said, “We’re getting into soup season.” Last night’s supper was homemade chicken noodle soup mildly accented with a dash of smoked paprika. There’s no app for a bowl of that.