Most years, when I sit down around this time to reflect on what I was grateful for in the world of food, there are clear highlights. In 2020, I am thankful for every bit of it — every takeout meal, every business that managed to stay open, every pivot made by the Boston area’s resilient hospitality community, fighting to survive.
I think first of the people who produced delicious, nutritious food to keep us all going. Crescent Ridge Dairy delivered the milk my family drinks like water, along with occasional boxes of produce from Ward’s Berry Farm. When harvest season was in full swing, a CSA share from Allandale Farm provided greens, tomatoes, Japanese sweet potatoes, garlic and onions, herbs galore. We got fish from Jordan Brothers Seafood, meat from Lilac Hedge Farm, cheese from regional companies like Jasper Hill. I feel fortunate as a consumer to be able to support the local food economy, and this year that felt particularly good, as stories broke against the backdrop of the pandemic about outbreaks in meatpacking plants, the dire conditions faced by farmworkers, and surplus food going to waste even as many went hungry, each illustrating the flaws in our food system.
As people stayed closer to home, small joys made quarantine life better. It is always exciting to get mail, particularly when that mail is . . . beans! After I-don’t-know-how-long on the waitlist, I landed a spot in the Rancho Gordo Bean Club. (You can order from them even if you’re not a member.) When my first shipment arrived from the California company, I was embarrassingly giddy about the cassoulet beans, desi chana, black-eyed peas, and more in the box.
I felt the same way when I opened a brown paper sack and stared down into the most beautiful assortment of mushrooms I’d ever gotten my hands on. They were dropped at my door along with a loaf of excellent sourdough bread, both thanks to Mushrooms for My Friends. The home delivery service started when forager Tyler Akabane had a shipment of mushrooms coming in earmarked for restaurants just as the state shut down dining rooms. He put out the word, asking if anyone would be interested in buying some. “It worked, so I did it again the next week and the next week and the next week,” he says. He makes the bread for Somerville restaurant Tasting Counter, so it made sense to offer loaves, too.
And, sorry not sorry, (responsibly consumed) wine improved my pandemic experience quite a bit. (Also Negronis: All hail cocktails with easily memorized proportions of fuss-free ingredients.) Streetcar Wine & Beer has a monthly pass program that functions much like a CSA for wine from small-scale producers. You don’t know what you will get, and that’s part of the appeal. There are some things I hope stick around in the future, and surprise wine selections delivered to my door are among them.
I was especially thankful this year for new takeout options that woke my taste buds out of their routine. I could consume Bánh Mì Oi’s delicious sandwiches on flaky bread — along with their vermicelli bowls, velvety sweet cafe sua da, and other Vietnamese specialties — every week. I crave Thai restaurant Mahaniyom’s rambutan salad and crab curry on the regular. And at Obosá, Gloria Omoregbee’s fish pepper soup, jollof rice, and banga stew bring deft Nigerian spicing to the table.
It’s always nice to indulge in a local specialty, and South Shore-style bar pizza reached new heights of fame and obsession this year, with the appearance of popular Facebook groups celebrating its existence. I went along for the ride, sampling a roster of the 10-inch pan pizzas, topped with mostly cheddar, crust crisp and biscuit-like, edges caramelized or (better yet) sometimes burnt. I enjoyed all of the versions I tried, but two spots stood out as particularly worthy: the Lynwood Cafe in Randolph and J’s Flying Pizza in Bridgewater.
There are some dishes I never want to make but always want to eat, and fried chicken is high on that list. This year I loved two versions. At BISq, boneless thighs are crisp, craggy, and juicy, available in sandwich form or as part of a four-piece dinner. I considered getting Chickadee’s fried chicken feast — with almond-cauliflower pilaf, brown butter hummus, and cheddar biscuits with honey butter — for Thanksgiving dinner, and I suspect we all would have preferred it to the turkey I’m making instead. It’s holiday-worthy. (Popeyes will also deliver a spicy chicken sandwich to my house now, but I try to forget that most of the time so it doesn’t become problematic.)
During the shutdown, perhaps the thing I missed the most was dim sum. We used to gather regularly in large groups to share food from the same plates, and that seems like a billion years ago. But dumplings, pork buns, and rice rolls taste better than ever after an absence. I’ve gotten them to go from China Pearl in Chinatown and Winsor Dim Sum House & Bar in Quincy. I’ve even gathered with friends to eat them — in a park on blankets spaced safely far apart, but the spirit was still there. I was grateful for that and outings to places like Revere Beach, fueled by ceviche, pupusas, tacos, and mangoneadas from La Metapaneca Grill. Strolling seaside after that feast, things felt almost normal for a bit.
For restaurants and diners alike, patio dining was a boon during warmer weather. At Ivory Pearl, I had my first taste of oysters in eons. They were magical. So were the unique, wine-inspired cocktails, which somebody else made for me. I am thankful for bartenders. And at Thistle & Leek, small plates practically blew my mind: an assortment of delicious things, all at once! Chicken liver agnolotti and curried lamb meatballs were wonderful, but the dish that most stuck with me was griddled plums with house-made ricotta and digestive biscuits.
But more than thankful, I am choosing to be hopeful this Thanksgiving. I hope there will be relief money for restaurants, so they can continue to employ and feed this country. I hope there will be a vaccine soon, and we can return to their tables. And I hope next Thanksgiving we will all eat together once again.