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Robert St. John

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

Goodbye 2020

December 30, 2020

Around this time of year newspapers are filled with end-of-the-year wrap-up stories about what has happened over the past 12 months. This year there seems to be no lack of articles chronicling how bad 2020 was. The preceding 10 months were certainly among the worst— on many levels— in all of my 60 years. But today’s column won’t dwell on the negative aspects of those months and how bad 2020 was. No. Because there have been silver linings this year. I would like to focus on those.

Lately, I have been catching myself thinking back to last April when we were told that all we needed was two weeks to slow the curve and the entire country locked down in their homes in the hopes that this would all be gone by Easter. It’s funny, but— sitting here today, writing this column— I have nothing but good memories of those days. I am sure that I spent a good bit of time worried about whether my businesses would survive. But what I remember most is spending time with my family.

My daughter left home for college over five years ago but was back home studying locally. My son was in the middle of the second semester of his freshman year. We never really thought we would have them both back home together for any length of time. Despite what was going on in the outside world we grew closer as a family during that period. For that I am grateful.

During that period, we started having theme night dinners. They were fun. My family is a food family. We talk about what we’re going to have for lunch while we’re eating breakfast and what we’re going to have for dinner while we’re eating lunch. Sometimes, at dinner, we talk about meeting up for breakfast the next day.

During those theme nights, we went all out. The most memorable theme night last spring was a Mexican-themed food night. It’s not that the food we shared that evening was more memorable than any other average everyday meal. I think we had tacos and quesadillas. It was that the atmosphere, the music, and most especially the company, were all perfect.

Forty years in the restaurant industry have taught me that there’s a lot that goes into creating a memorable meal. It’s the entire dining experience— food, service, atmosphere, music, energy. When all of those components come together at once, the potential for a memorable meal is in place. When one is sharing that meal with the ones he or she loves, that’s when lasting memories are created.

I don’t think we choose what we remember. It’s the unique, far-from-normal— good and bad— moments we remember most.

Even though we are 60 miles inland, Hurricane Katrina wiped out our town. In the area between the Gulf Coast and Hattiesburg, 40% of the forest land was lost. In my town businesses and homes were destroyed. Though if you ask my son about that period, he will tell you, “That’s when we all got to sleep on sleeping bags in the den.

Over 51 years ago, Hurricane Camille blew through town causing similar damage. I was eight-years-old at the time. My memories are of camping out in the backyard, cooking on a Sterno stove, and sitting in my mom’s car waiting in line to get dry ice.

So far, the memories I have of this past year are mostly positive. But the jury is still out.

This year has been brutal. It’s the worst time in the history of the restaurant business to be in the restaurant business. New challenges pop up daily. But what is one to do? Sit around and gripe about the situation, or get proactive and try to do something about it? I hope I will always choose the latter.

I have had to close two restaurants and a bar this past year. But we have great things coming in the new year. I consider myself fortunate in that aspect, as many aren’t able to come back. I have friends at home and across the country who are in much worse shape. I pray that they will find a way to survive and come out on the other end of this stronger and better.

My deepest wish is that all independent restaurants and businesses find some way to survive this year and that— going forward in 2021—the general public realizes how important it is to support locally owned businesses. Now, more than ever, it is imperative that we all support locally owned businesses. They are what make our communities unique and non-homogenous. Independent businesses tell the story of a place and of its people. They are what give character to a society.

In conclusion, I won’t be sad to see 2020 go, and I’m not naïve enough to think that all is going to be well at 12:01 a.m. on January 1st. But I believe progress is being made to get us back to some sense of normalcy and I truly believe that the second half of 2021 is going to be monumental. Hang on, y’all. We’ll get there together.


This week’s recipe: Calamari Salad

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