Once again, we have a Stay at Home edition of NPR quiz show Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me! The guest is cooking teacher and author Samin Nosrat, who hosts a special on Netflix about international cooking. She has a very upbeat interview with host Peter Sagal since not only is she very excited to be on the show, but she notes that she’s emotive about pretty much everything, and they amusingly talk about how she’s been dealing with cooking during home isolation.
For all the stories about businesses opening, the ones that have seemed to get the most attention are about restaurants. And I understand that. Their impact on both the economy and our culture are profound, arguably more than any industry -- not just for the food and all the people and related-businesses they support financially, but also the sheer social aspect of the dining experience. So, I get it. And I'm pleased that, unlike most businesses that are closed, restaurants at least have the option of continuing to operate by developing take-out business. It doesn't compensate for the loss of sit-down customers, but it's something, which is more than most can say.
This all came to mind yesterday when I got an email from IHOP. (Yes, I'm on their mailing list because I get free pancake offers from them a couple times a year -- on my birthday and the anniversary of then I signed up with them). It explained all the measures they're taking to make sure their restaurants are clean and safe.
And the efforts they're taking seem to be the same that stories all explain the lengths that other restaurants are taking to make their places safe.
Still, as much as I admire the efforts and as much as I hope restaurants can open and swarm with business, because I love restaurants (One of my first jobs was working for a Burger King, which my mother would generally call, "King Burger." I used to be a very teensy investor in a restaurant in Los Angeles. I've written lovingly three or four times about a restaurant, Charlie Beinlich's, near where I grew up outside Chicago. I still have fond memories as a very little kid being excited to take occasional family trips about 20 minutes to Des Plaines to go to this new, little place which turned out to be the very first franchise ever for McDonalds.)
But as much as I love restaurants and hope they survive and thrive -- and as much as they're making great efforts to keep their places clean and safe -- I wouldn't even consider going to one until there is a vaccine, and most people have been inoculated.
And from stories I've read, I get the sense that most customers feel the same.
I appreciate that they'll be disinfecting the chairs after each customer. And be extra special cleaving the plates and silverware. And only have single-serve ketchup and mustard packs. And that they'll keep patrons separated at their tables to reduce capacity. And waiters will wear masks. And there will be hand sanitizer on tables. And many restaurants will have single-use plastic utensils. And single use paper menus. And...
Seriously, knowing all these efforts being taken to keep a restaurant safe, does that give you the idea that maybe restaurants have a safety issue that requires all of these steps? And isn't there just a gnawing thought in the back of your mind that every restaurant is not going to all these steps every time without slipping up? (We all expect slip-ups in life, including in restaurants. When the the result of that mistake is the possibility of death, they're a little less acceptable.)
But let's even say that every restaurants takes all these safety measures and even more, and handle them all perfectly, ever time.
There are still other problems with a restaurant that are just inherently built into the experience.
Like -- will people be wearing face masks? If yes, which I'd think would be the case, that would seem to make it incredibly difficult to eat. And if no, to facilitate the eating process...isn't that a huge danger-warning light glaring on-and-off??! After all, if "no," they'd be taking all these many steps for safety -- but leaving out the one requirement that has become pretty standard. So, neither option makes much sense. Or the fact that a large part of the dining experience is relaxing and socializing -- but the longer you're in an enclosed place, socializing, the greater the chance of viruses being spread through the air. And you're sitting at a table, just a few feet away from your dining companion, everyone talking, talking and talking. (Which brings up again the previous question of wearing face masks.)
And the thing is, the problems are just as great from the restaurant side of the coin. To open up your restaurant, there are costs involved with that -- staff, electricity, gas, maintenance, security, insurance and more. But even at best, it would seem likely that business will be down 70%. On the positive side, if you're doing take-out, then some of those costs are already being paid. But not all, or most. It might well be much more cost-effective to stay closed until you know for absolutely certain it's safe.
Which brings up probably the biggest caveat. If your staff screws up just once, and a customer gets sick, but worse, dies -- that's not only a tragedy, but a disaster for your business. Most restaurants probably couldn't come back from that. And if that one person gets sick...it seems likely that it won't be limited to just one. So, the question for restaurant owners is whether to risk opening as they no doubt desperately want, or play it safe for yourself, your staff, your customers and your future.
I love restaurants. I can't wait for them to open. I can't wait for it to be safe enough for them to open where all those safety requirements aren't needed.
But until that latter happens, I have a hard time seeing going out to dine. And I suspect that's the case for most people.
Last night I was watching the Food Network when they ran an ad for a new show there, premiering on May 11. It turns out that Amy Schumer's husband Chris Fischer is a James Beard Award-winning chef. So, together, while quarantined -- with their nanny handling the camera when their baby is sleeping -- they will be doing a show called, Amy Schumer Learns to Cook.
Food Network came to them, looking for some new programming that they could put on the air during the quarantined. For Schumer, she said fine that it seemed like a good idea. After all, she noted, it combines their two passion. "Chris's is cooking. And mine is eating." It's scheduled for a limited run, I think I read nine weeks somewhere. Here's the ad.
Since people are pretty much homebound these days and doing without restaurants, cooking for themselves, I figured it's a good time to head back into the kitchen for another "50 People Try..." video from Epicurious. Today, we take a look at 50 people trying to do something that I suspect a whole lot of people are trying to do these days -- make a smoothie. Now, you'd probably think that not much can go wrong -- hey, it's a smoothie. You'd be wrong.
Chef Jose Andres and his World Central Kitchen are remarkable. They are currently serving over 160,000 free meals per day in the U.S. and Spain. And they just made a new commitment to buy one million meals from small, local restaurants -- providing them with work. WCK will then deliver those meals to families, seniors, frontline healthcare workers and more. You can read more about it here.
By the way, Chef Andres will be interviewed on "60 MINUTES" tonight. I assume he'll be talking about all this.
I've donated to World Central Kitchen for several years now. I first became aware of Chef Andres after he shut down plans to open a restaurant in the new Trump hotel in Washington, D.C. after Trump had made racist comments about Mexicans when running for president. The Trump Organization sued, and Andres (who is Spanish) counter-sued, saying that Trump's remarks made it impossible to hire any Mexicans for the staff. The two parties eventually reached a settlement two years later.
Anyway, for those who might interested in donating to World Central Kitchen, the link for it is here.
I just saw an ad about a new Pizza Portal Pickup from Little Caesars and it looked interesting for avoiding contact with others when doing take-out, so I checked it out. I know it’s not The Best pizza, but it may have the safest delivery program. And that might outweigh anything these days.
The way it works is that you download their app from the Little Caesars website or Google Store (you'll have to register an account), order and pay for your pizza on the app, when it’s ready they send you a notice and an ID code, and then you go to the store where they have a warming locker with shelves – you enter your code, a door pops open and you take your pizza and go. No contact with others.
I just pass along this info, in case you're missing ordering pizza and there's a Little Caesars near you. Here's a video a guy made showing the real-world process
The Washington Post is running periodic articles that they say are meant to be "constructive" for dealing with issues during the coronavirus crisis -- pieces that many readers will find "helpful and reassuring". Also, they are making the articles free to everyone on their website, which usually requires a subscription. They are putting the pieces under the heading of "The Week in Ideas."
This one is on a topic that I thought would be of particular interest to everyone on a regular basis. It's about how to handle groceries and delivery bags.
It's written by Joseph G. Allen, who is an assistant professor of exposure and assessment science, and director of the Healthy Buildings Program at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He not only gives strong and easy suggestions on how to deal with the issue, but makes clear up front: "The risk is low." And then adds why, adding, "Let me explain."
He writes --
"First, disease transmission from inanimate surfaces is real, so I don’t want to minimize that. It’s something we have known for a long time; as early as the 1500s, infected surfaces were thought of as “seeds of disease,” able to transfer disease from one person to another. In that NEJM study [New England Journal of Medicine], here's the finding that is grabbing headlines. The coronavirus that causes covid-19 "was detectable...up to four hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel."
Professor Allen then goes on to explain in clear detail what this all means for making the risk "low" -- and then adds step-by-step actions you can take if you are nonetheless concerned and want to be even more careful.
You can read the full article here.
Since people are homebound these days, I thought it would be a good idea to head back to the folks at Epicurious for another of their fun "50 People Try to..." videos. Today, we go to something which should be pretty easy -- making a grilled cheese sandwich. But not only do an inordinate amount of people surprisingly have difficultly with this basic task, but there are some tips it's good to know from their chef at the end that everyone probably doesn't do. The fun here though isn't so much learning how to make a grilled cheese sandwich properly -- since, honestly, it's pretty basic -- but the challenge far too many people have.
At my local grocery store yesterday, amid the hoarding, almost all varieties of soup were sold out. All except one type. There were empty shelves -- and dozens and dozens of cans of cream of mushroom soup.
What's odd is if it clearly is such an unpopular soup there, why does the store carry so much of it??
Mind you, I know that once upon a time, cream of mushroom soup was in most-every recipe in the 1950s. And I can see them selling a lot around Thanksgiving for that spinach-fried onion crisp casserole . But not being Thanksgiving (let alone Thanksgiving in the '50s...) and clearly it isn't selling now, that's what's so weird about them having SOOO much of it.
It was really funny -- empty shelf after empty shelf after empty shelf, except for all that cream of mushroom soup. People really didn't want cream of mushroom soup. Even in a hoarding panic. I mean, seriously people cleaned out ALL the cans of soup. All of it. Except the cream of mushroom soup.
I wrote about this on social media, and people were trying to come up with explanations and not all the things people really do use cream of mushroom soup for. What I tried explain was that -- whatever the reason it's the only soup still there and however many reasons there are to use it -- the only point is that it's odd. Odd that cream of mushroom soup is the only one left on the shelves, and odd that the store still stocks a soup that clearly isn't being bought like all others. (Shelf space is tremendously valuable and competitive. If a product doesn't sell enough, it's replaced.) So, that's the only point -- that it's odd. And really noticeable. And funny.
This photo doesn't even do it justice, since you can't see how far the looooong rows of empty shelves go -- empty except for the cans of cream of mushroom soup. And yes, all those cans are only cream of mushroom.
I always like heading back into the kitchen for the fun videos from Epicurious on "50 People Try to...". Today, what their 50 people try to do is poach an egg. And then when they finish, an expert chef will come along and explain the proper way.