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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Our Current Coronavirus Reality

March 25, 2020

There is a routine I have followed for the last 20-plus years I have written this weekly column. On Monday mornings I get to my office early and start fleshing out a thought or an idea for a column. Within a few hours, I put the finishing touches on it, add a recipe, an associated image, and then email it to my newspaper editors.

In the early days of the column, it took hours to craft a 750-1,000 column. I was new to writing a column— or writing anything for that matter, save high school and college composition papers— and I wasn’t even writing in my own voice for the first several years. Eventually, the process grew easier, the words flowed, my editors started saving a little red ink, I found my voice, and I became a more efficient writer. These days I can easily pump out 1,000 words in an hour or two.

Efficiency may have found its way into the process, but the practice and procedure has always the same. Unless I am traveling and writing from the road, I write early in the morning on Mondays. But even if I am on the road, the column is still written early on Monday morning when my head is clear. I have trouble writing at night when my thoughts are competing with life and I am brain dead.

Eighteen months ago, we opened our breakfast restaurant, and I started writing the opening paragraphs of the column there at my usual seat at the counter and then fleshing it out later in my office.

Today, I am writing from a table in my breakfast room. The office is closed. Most of the restaurants have closed. The ones that are open are day-to-day. The world changed in a week. Seriously, a week. Nothing is as it was.

I am working tirelessly through every resource I have to take care of the 300 team members who work for the New South Restaurant Group. That is my primary goal. We are a family. I have worked with some of them for over three decades. Many I have worked with for over two decades, and even the ones who have just recently joined the team are just as important to my management team and me, because everyone has families to feed, parents, siblings, or children to take care of, and responsibilities outside of work.

As of this writing, Washington has not decided on the bill that will give our team members the aid and relief they deserve. I am hopeful that by the time this column goes to print that aid and relief will have been decided on, and the wheels to deliver that aid will be rolling downhill fast.

I won’t dwell on the problem here. We all know what’s going on. There’s no need to re-hash what everyone has seen, over and over and over, on the 24-hour news cycle for the past week. I have been trying to live in the solution and not focus on the problem. Instead, I would like to cover a few of the positive things that have happened since the pandemic hit our nation.

My family is spending way more time together. What a great sentence to be able to pen. I could actually come up with a creative closing paragraph and stop writing at this point. That, more than anything has been the silver lining in this unprecedented crisis. My wife, 22-year old daughter, and 18-year old son— who are both now doing college from home— have spent more time on our front porch than we ever have, even more than when they were toddlers.

The front porch has been our saving grace. If one didn’t know what was going on in the world it would seem like the perfect slice of Americana. People are out and walking through the neighborhood. They stop and chat from a social distancing-approved range. The weather has been San-Diego perfect the entire week, and we are together as a family. We have always spent a lot of time together, but this crisis has brought us even closer.

It reminds me of my childhood when I would spend the weekend with my grandmother. People would come to visit her, and they would sit and talk for hours. No television, no stereo, no newspapers, just a couple of friends “visiting” over a glass of sweet tea and maybe an occasional sip of sherry. We have somehow gotten far removed from that practice. Our attention spans have grown shorter, our electronic conveniences have taken more precedence, and the pace of our lives— even down here in the Deep South— has become more frenetic. Not so, today.

I have eaten more peanut butter and jelly sandwiches than I have in decades. I love peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, yet it always takes something like this, or a hurricane, to get me eating them again. To quote the late, great New Orleans restaurant matron, Ella Brennan, “You know why kids love peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? Because peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are good.” Amen, sister. Maybe I’ll make a pact with myself to eat at least one peanut butter and jelly sandwich a week for the next year or so. That would also be a nice thing that comes out of this mess.

I’ve been cooking with my son. He always asks if we can cook something together. I have told him that the answer to that question will always be, “yes.” He is already a good cook and has a bright future ahead. In a matter of years, he will easily pass my kitchen skills and food knowledge level, and that will be a very proud moment for me.

People seem to be more kind. Extra Table, a feeding charity I am involved with, has been receiving tons of donations from compassionate Mississippians, and we are ramping up our efforts to help supply mission pantries and soup kitchens throughout the state during this trying time. Our neighbors are out of work and are in need now, more than ever. People are stepping up to the plate to volunteer, and people are giving.

The compassion and love for our common man has been heartwarming. I am seeing selfless actions and good deeds all over the internet.

No matter what is going on in the small square footage I occupy on this planet, there is always the reality that people are sick, and some are dying. I have been blessed that— so far— no one I know has gotten the virus. I hope no one you know has gotten it, and I hope it stays that way as the curve flattens.

In the meantime, I’ll be on the front porch eating my pbj with the ones I love most.


This week’s recipe: Freezer Sandwiches

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