The Portland Palate
Survival & Simulation
Review & Photos By James Fereira
This month, I’m not actually going to write about food, which seems antithetical to the core idea of a food column. But for food reviewers, covering a restaurant when you can’t actually visit one presents an inherent dilemma. This is not necessarily a bad thing when considering waistline—and creativity.
I veer from the usual food-driven theme to talk about something else: survival. I use that word in the context of my belief that we’re (sadly) in this alien reality for the long haul. It turns out that Covid-19, like another virus that I survived 40 years ago (which killed scores of friends and acquaintances), forces me to choose my health and safety over privilege.
There’s too much to lose — I’ve been here before. I’ve already made the decision that I personally will not be stepping inside to sit-down at a restaurant in the foreseeable future. It is premature. Fortunately, we are coming into summer, so when I do go out, initially I’ll be dining al fresco only.
For the task at hand, I tell myself to write from the heart. “Trust yourself… the words will come,” I reassure myself. While the cartographer’s been furloughed, his canvas is bare and is open to possibility. “Just write.”
Upside-down in Portland, ME
I am finding this pandemic existence to be both challenging and heuristic to my psyche. The realizations come at random, as I navigate a revised owner’s manual in a new, unsettling world, one which could not have been predicted nor fully prepared for. Everything seems upside-down, out of sorts, or in some other way “just not right.”
Life feels like a simulation of itself: its casing holds all the required components, but upon closer inspection you notice that some of the items have been swapped-out. There are puzzle pieces missing, and some that simply don’t fit. It is as if the very DNA of life as we knew it has been altered. Even scarier, there is no clear end in sight, and the resulting final product is indiscernible.
Is this a 21st century adaptation of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” or a previously scrapped episode of the Twilight Zone? Or even a portent film, “post–Outbreak: The Sequel”? It might be.
For me, spending time outside feels dangerous. There’s huge irony in this because when growing up, the outdoors was by contrast, my absolute sanctuary. Shelter-in-place requires that I now retreat to the closest and safest outdoor venue I have: the back porch. It is semi-private up here. I witness the comings and goings of neighbors, hoping they won’t spot the Hitchcock-esque voyeur on the fourth floor trying to be inconspicuous – as if immersed in a suspense-filled scene from “Rear Window.”
Look a little closer…
Upon first observation, life on the ground seems normal enough— until one looks closer. Everything is moving more slowly. People seem kinder and are taking the time to stop and talk to each other, though with more physical distance and often a palpable sense of caution in their gaze.
Some are wearing cloth masks – eyes exaggerated because we can no longer see whole faces. I hadn’t known until recently how much I read lips when watching others speak. Mask culture has become a phenomenon unto itself and a subject matter a writer and pseudo-sociologist like me salivates over.
Even the grayback gulls appear to be more agreeable – and happily for me, less screechy. Maybe they’re just worn-out from another day’s scavenging and are settling down to rest for the night.
A Quiet Memorial Day Weekend
To walk deep downtown for the first time in ten weeks was, in a word, startling. It was the Sunday afternoon of Memorial Day Weekend. Friend Fran and I could not recall a time, not even in the dead of winter, when the Old Port looked like a ghost town… or “Ghost Port” as we now quip. With most businesses closed and a few restaurants offering delivery and take-out, Portland seems to be having a prolonged siesta.
Occasional pairs and small pods of people dotted the sidewalks. Gone was any impulse to lock elbows for fear of being knocked over by an oblivious tourist on a frenzied shopping spree. Parking spaces and lots were empty. The usual parade of horn-beeping, exhaust-emitting delivery trucks, and SUV’s with out-of-state plates was absent. Buskers, street vendors, and food carts were nowhere to be found. Typically teeming restaurant patios were devoid of patrons. It was hard to tell if there was anything happening at hotels, where inactivity seemed the predominant feature.
The air was free of the usual stench wafting from a wharf bait processing plant. The Holy Donut and Harbor Fish were closed, and all the lights were out at Gritty’s. But worst of all… no Five Guys! What?!
Something for the palate
We took a break and sat at a bench in Bell Buoy Park to enjoy an impromptu seafood chowder from Gilbert’s. We were delighted that they were open. The square was deserted, no crying children being consoled by overwhelmed parents pushing double-wide strollers. We could hear songbirds, and the subtle wake generated by a water taxi arriving from Peaks.
If you didn’t know better, one might have thought a plague or something had arrived in town, chasing-away visitor and local alike. Even the pigeons looked bored. It was a world suspended in time.
Weaving our way home to the West End, “Franned” and I found ourselves walking down the middle of usually trafficked streets… because we could. The Nickelodeon marquee was hollowed of film announcements. There were shuttered store fronts and few pedestrians. The city seemed to be a facsimile of itself, a shell of an economy forced into humility and submission by an invisible adversary.
We spoke post-walk of how horrified we were about our surroundings, while simultaneously being grateful for the calm and quiet: two qualities which under most circumstances would be incongruous.
Sharing a virtual hug, back into the relative safety of my apartment I went, feeling appreciative. I’d survived another precipitous stroll into the unknown. There’s no telling when I’ll be brave enough to leave again. Perhaps I’ll seclude myself until writing duty next calls, or I find my cupboards nearing empty, forcing me to choose between hunger or venturing out into uncertainty.
For the more adventurous: In Cumberland County, restaurant dining rooms can start re-opening as of June 1st. For an ever-growing list of them, visit the rigorous www.PortlandFoodMap.com for announcements and updates. It’s also likely that many of these will continue to offer curbside pickup, delivery, and take-out. That’s what I’ll be doing when I’m not cooking in.
Next month, the food returns with a look at Rosemont Market, Saeng Thai House, Gilbert’s Chowder House, and more!
James Fereira has a background in playing Pac Man, lip-syncing, and crisis counseling. In his spare time, he enjoys living alone and questioning authority. James can be reached at ThePortlandPalate@gmail.com.