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Robert St. John

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

Shut-In Shindigs

April 29, 2020

Critical times inspire creative methods.

In the early days of this shelter-in-place, my wife, 22-year old daughter, 18-year old son, a friend who is temporarily bunking in our garage apartment, and I were cooking typical stay-at home meals— chicken pot pie, steaks on the grill, burgers, sandwiches, and several different casseroles. The only one of our restaurants that was open at the time was our Italian concept, and we ordered from there once a week.

It was nice to have all four of us at the dinner table again. My daughter had been away at college for four years and recently returned home. My son left for his freshman year of college last August, so it was good to have him back home, too. It was the first time we had all been together during a non-holiday period in over four years.

After the first few weeks the dinner rotation started to get a little stale, so I suggested that every member of the family— including our house guest— take a night each to cook whatever they choose. The only rule was that the meal had to be 100% their inspiration and creation.

Our friend who is staying in our garage apartment for a few weeks took the first night and opted for pork chops. It was a nice home-cooked meal that reminded me of my childhood. My wife chose grilled salmon as her night’s center-of-the-plate feature. It was the first time she had ever cooked salmon and she knocked it out of the park.

I cooked the pot roast recipe from my second cookbook. It’s a great recipe for pot roast and makes its own gravy which we also poured over some of my Delta friend Mike Wagner’s rice. My daughter, who typically doesn’t cook much, prepared shrimp tacos for her turn, and they were my favorite of all of the night’s features.

My son, who cooks often, was scheduled to do the final night but fractured his cheekbone in three places horsing around in the backyard that afternoon. He and his mother spent that evening in the immediate care clinic and the imaging lab of the emergency room. He had an operation several days later and is now 100%.

The everyone-take-a-night dinners shifted course after the accident. My son was on soft foods for a few days, and we eventually moved into theme nights. The theme nights were a blast. Taco night was something we had done several times before, so it was first out of the chute.

Kabob night was my wife’s favorite and gave me a chance to fire up the Weber grill. Enchilada night wasn’t as big of a hit as the others, but was fun nonetheless.

Make your own pizza night seems to have been the most popular of all of the nights and was unanimously suggested to be immediately added to the weekly rotation, whether we were doing theme nights or not.

My son and I love chicken pot pie, but the girls aren’t fans. The same goes for quiche. We cook those two often and that is usually the only time the family eats different things for supper. We all love breakfast-for-supper nights and pancakes are the main feature at those dinners.

Music, which has always been a passion of mine, ends up being an important part of these dinners. My standard rule for a gathering or cocktail party is to put on Miles Davis’ album “Kind of Blue” and let it repeat all night (or at least until the dance music comes on later in the evening). Though Billie Holiday has been a big part of these shut-in dinners. If our shelter-in-place days had a soundtrack, it would be the Billie Holiday catalogue.

We went with a Mariachi playlist for taco night and Sinatra file on make-your-own pizza night. Sometimes we all play a board game after dinner, other times we watch a movie. But we are together.

All in all, these food-themed nights have made the situation that is going on in the outside world much more palatable. I do what I can to help my managers, employees, businesses, industry, neighbors, and fellow man during the day, and then spend the evenings with my family around the dinner table.

It’s no surprise to me that the kitchen and the dining table are the two places where we find joy and happiness these days. Sharing a meal is always what brings people together, whether it’s during a global pandemic or not. Food is the common bond.

It’s very biblical, food. The last supper, loaves and fishes, and manna from heaven. Whenever we sit down and share a meal together— whether as a family, or as a society— we are coming together and sharing our lives with one another. There couldn’t be a better time to do it.

Unfortunately, many are having to shelter-in-place by themselves. My mother is in an independent living facility and has to take her meals in her apartment and can’t leave (and that is how it should be). We take her food a few times a week and hand it to her outside the front door. My mother-in-law is alone in her apartment in north Louisiana.

Now is a good time to think about seniors, whether they are your relatives or just friends of the family. Find a safe way to take them food. Wear a mask, wear gloves, don’t stay and visit. But they’ll know you love them and are concerned about them. Then when all of this craziness is over invite them over for a food-themed night and share a meal together. I promise it will be the highlight of their week, and yours.


This week’s recipe: RSJ’s Pot Roast

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