They were my go-to comfort foods, but it will be a long time before I crave them again.
In April, I ate corned beef for five days in a row. Six pounds of purplish-spiced meat sat in a metal pan in my refrigerator, and twice a day, I peeled out slices to reheat on a plate.
Normally, I like to eat corned beef on rye bread, slathered with Guinness cheddar cheese and sauerkraut to make a Reuben sandwich, closing my eyes in pleasure as pickling spice and anise seed explode on my tongue. But at that moment, I would have given anything not to be eating corned beef. It was only there because the small Irish pub we own in Harrah, Oklahoma, couldn’t serve it.
When Oklahoma ordered restaurants to close their dining areas to help prevent the spread of Covid-19, we tried to make the restrictions work. We offered takeout and curbside delivery. We offered to bring out cold pints to the patio for our guests to sip on while they waited.
The corned beef became an unexpected, additional source of sadness: The flavors I love have become associated with the bitterness of closing down.
But the luck of the Irish wasn’t enough for us to stay open, so all the leftovers had to come home. The waitresses with their deep-fried accents and the young line cooks were given the first choice of food before we shuttered. It was the least we could do.
Our pub is a small affair in a tiny town, but it was a popular spot for an area that only had fast-food restaurants and pizza joints. Bands rotated out, playing jaunty Irish tunes like “The Irish Rover” and “Danny Boy.” Our famous fish and chips flew out on plates faster than a rounding rendition of “Finnegan’s Wake.” Of all the dishes we served, I miss the fish and chips the most. The dish was so popular that it generated more revenue than pints of Guinness—which is saying a lot.
During the closure, I found myself bringing home commercial-scale ingredients, food in sizes and quantities beyond what any family could consume. We had five pounds of ground lamb, once destined for Shepherd’s Pie. We had six planks of rosy salmon iced over next to pot pies in the freezer. Large, unused bags of potatoes sprouted in the darkness of the pantry. And there was all that corned beef.
The corned beef is back in the walk-in where it belongs, but I still dread that pounds and pounds of it might show back up in my refrigerator at home.
The corned beef became an unexpected, additional source of sadness: The flavors I love have become associated with the bitterness of closing down. I can only taste the sourness of worry. I can only smell the rottenness of having to furlough six people who depended on the pub for a paycheck. Years of enjoyment have boiled down to a few long months of anxiety, endless discussions about whether to close or stay open—and if we can reopen safely, how we will survive.
At this moment, the pub is open again. But the shadow of pandemic is long, and cases seem to rise every day. The corned beef is back in the walk-in where it belongs, but I still dread that pounds and pounds of it might show back up in my refrigerator at home. I’m still afraid that the rich offering which should be served to customers will instead be reheated in my microwave at the house. It will be a long time before I can eat a Reuben sandwich without the side of grief.