My 2020 dining diary opens in Paris.
Just after the New Year, I left on a solo trip to the City of Light. I had spontaneously booked it after my mom died a few months earlier. I needed time to be alone with my thoughts. I longed to walk in the footsteps of a mother-daughter vacation there 25 years earlier. And, I had to eat.
I was 12 when we'd spent a long weekend in Paris. There was this plate of profiteroles I'd shared with her all those years ago, well before busy adulthood and 1,000 miles got between us. I could still picture the old wooden beams in the restaurant, the green and white tablecloths topped with butcher paper, the silvery gravy boat of warm chocolate sauce that I got to pour over the little puffs of pastry, melting the ice cream inside into a puddle beneath them. And my mom's smile from seeing my delight. I don't think I'd had profiteroles again, and my memory of them — with her — was unvarnished. They were why I flew alone across an ocean in January.
But I hadn't left work behind.
I'd heard that the great pastry chef John Kraus, owner of Minneapolis' Patisserie 46 and St. Paul's Rose Street Patisserie, was going to be in Paris for the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie, known as the Bakery World Cup. The prestigious competition is like the Olympics of croissants, and Kraus' protégé was a contestant.
The Coupe was too good a reporting opportunity to pass up. So, after an overnight flight, I rode to an expo center on the edge of Paris, took out my notebook and camera, and got to work.
A few days later, Kraus and I walked through the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood and toured his favorite bakeries, sampling more than a dozen pastries.
He had this existential way of talking about food. Each bite was a portal to feelings and memories a world away. He learned too late, he told me, that family meals he grew up eating dutifully, maybe resentfully, were in fact fleeting chances to connect, had he only allowed it.
"It starts to make sense," he said. "One hour sitting at the table with my dad could have been a story. Now it's a story that I'll regret I didn't get."
One of the last pastries we shared that day was the most perfect little profiterole.
We couldn't have known, of course, that everything was about to change. On the way home, I landed in New Jersey for a layover, and saw signs in customs asking about travel to Wuhan, China.
Over the next two months, I had back-to-back reservations at restaurants debuting new menus or opening their doors for the first time. Paradoxically, the clearer it became that socializing in public spaces could be a health risk, the more urgent it felt to go out.
I did things then that horrify me now. Digging into shareable platters at Tullibee, sitting in a communal booth in Travail's basement bar, and sipping an acquaintance's cocktail at Yumi were some of the pandemic no-nos we wouldn't dream of today.
By Friday, March 13, it was obvious the fun was about to end. I had cleaned out my desk at the office; working from home would commence the following Monday. Some restaurants had preemptively closed to get a handle on the situation, to figure things out.
All week, my spouse and I had waffled on whether to cancel the babysitter Friday night, and we probably should have. But with the hunch that this could be the last time we might sit in a restaurant for a while, we went to the North Loop. First, for my favorite daiquiri at Marvel Bar, the celebrated cocktail lounge beneath the Bachelor Farmer. Then, dinner at Snack Bar, chef Isaac Becker's newish Italian small plates spot. "Eat pizza, feel better," I wrote on Instagram that night, below a picture of a slice of pepperoni.
Both places appeared to function normally, despite an undercurrent of danger that rippled every time we chatted with a server, handed over the debit card or touched a door handle. Both places are now closed.
Marvel Bar was swept up in the loss of the Bachelor Farmer in April, the first of the city's high-profile restaurants to fall like dominoes. Snack Bar and its sister restaurants Bar La Grassa, Burch and 112 Eatery shuttered for the first shutdown and simply never came back, stuck in will-they-or-won't-they limbo.
As my personal grief gave way to this new, global grief we all struggle to navigate, I kept thinking of those last pre-pandemic meals. I can almost taste the dark rum cocktail the color of straw, sour and sweet, nutty and buttery, with flecks of orange dust smudged on the rim from Cheetos, Marvel Bar's only food. I can feel the chew of the ropes of pici, a Tuscan-style pasta that Snack Bar swirled with creamy ricotta and sprinkled with crushed pistachios. And I let my mind wander to visions of Paris, where I went looking for memories of my mom and shared heavenly pastries with Kraus on a sidewalk bench.
Like the vanilla ice cream inside a profiterole that's been melted by a stream of ganache, and like those once-in-a-lifetime moments at the table with loved ones whose seats are now empty, 2020's last meals can never be had again. And they won't be forgotten.
Sharyn Jackson • @SharynJackson