I was one of Kathy’s Deli’s first employees. When it closed forever during the pandemic, I wondered if I’d lost my teenage self.
“My growing up had taken place at Kathy’s, in the stories that cooks handed off like sheet pans.”
It’s mid-May, and I’ve just finished a list of what I’ve managed to cook during quarantine—from salted pistachio brittle to lamb stock from one Easter bone—when my former boss Kathy sends me a Facebook message. “Did you hear the news?” she asks.
I hadn’t. Her deli was closing.
Seventeen years ago, I was among Kathy’s Deli’s very first employees in Shippensburg, a small town in south central Pennsylvania. A high school senior, I worked Thursday nights, spreading mayo to the exact edges of hoagie rolls and moving from sandwich bar to slicer, to the rhythm of the customers’ requests. When I graduated, somebody took my picture, slender and serious, next to the deli sign on West King Street. I remember smiling self-consciously at the passing cars, thinking more about the fruit trays that I had to assemble than my upcoming time as a creative writing major at Susquehanna U.
Over the next seven years, the deli’s popularity expanded like rising dough, and I left the work and returned more times than I could count. There were the heat-soaked summers during college, the winter breaks with holiday platters piled higher than I could reach in the walk-in. After a year of teaching English in France, I returned to Kathy’s, where my bright-eyed boyfriend—now my partner of 16 years—visited me in the mornings as I Windexed the cold food cases.
Over time, I mastered how to hold a knife, to move swiftly in a crowded kitchen, to measure cheese by eyesight. I attended more weddings as a caterer than as a guest, more graduation parties for friends I’d never know, and more corporate meetings as a temporary interruption: the weary worker who slips in with chafing racks by the back door.
“It’s time,” Kathy says over the phone, and I understand. But the announcement swells inside me like a sudden fever. The deli’s closing is my first loss to the coronavirus.
The deli’s closing is my first loss to the coronavirus.
My growing up had taken place at Kathy’s in the stories that cooks handed off like sheet pans. I was told that in life you make decisions that eventually make you. That strong-willed women are less respected than strong-willed men. In the hot, crowded kitchen next to the three-bay sink, none of us were thinking about a global pandemic, the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, or the 2020 presidential race.
But somehow, with the magical intuition unique to small-town cooks, maybe we should have seen it all coming? Probably not.