It’s amazing how the current epidemic has so quickly reduced our expectations for food. I’ve been cooking for myself for the last month, and even though I’m a good cook, what I’ve been eating lately almost never matches even the most casual restaurant meals I once ate every day.
Take the humble duck. I knew a half-dozen places where the Peking duck was so perfectly done, it wouldn’t make sense to try to duplicate it — places like Wah Fung No. 1 in Chinatown, and Hutong in Midtown, both equally excellent in their own way despite a price differential of 10 times. Heck, even if I wanted to make these ducks myself (and I understand how complicated the process is), I wouldn’t know where to source the waterfowl. And as for blowing air between the skin and flesh as the bird cures: Well, I guess I’d have to use my dust buster.
Besides, enjoying a Peking duck often involves a spectacle, too. At places like Peking Duck House, with branches in Midtown and Chinatown, a guy in a white outfit with a puffy hat pushes a trolley up to your table and with great deliberation and numerous flourishes of his scary carving knife cuts and lays out the duck so perfectly, that one hesitates to extract the first piece from a pile fanned out like a magician’s card trick.
Which is why, when a crudely lettered sign for carryout appeared in the window of Red Farm, occupying an ancient structure with an exterior stairway in the West Village, I hesitated for a few days before I decided to try the duck, the signature dish of the downstairs restaurant Decoy. Still, craving a semblance of past joys, I gave it a shot.
I hadn’t thought of it before, but dining out in a place like this — we’re talking pricey restaurants here — constitutes a complicated ritual in itself. You sit down, unfold the napkin and put it in your lap, scan the menu making all sorts of small decisions, and finally the waiter stands at your table, with pad, input device, or memory at the ready. It would be a rich field for sociologist Erving Goffman, parsing the thousands of cues and interactions that go into a two-hour meal.
Suddenly, a tiny microorganism that’s not even technically alive blew it all away. How would I feel about a meal that, as a critic, I would normally have approached like a general does battle, marshaling my attitudes, strategies, and taste buds for a specific length of time in a space that had been devised for that purpose? Yes, even the decor of a restaurant, its temperature, the music, and balletic movements of the employees — and don’t forget, the musical clatter of pans from the kitchen — all have a profound effect on the course and quality of one’s meal.
Now that has changed profoundly. The Red Farm dining room decor had been replaced with a single long trencher table, upon which brown bags of carryout were arranged stiffly in a row. Instead of a greeter, waiters, runners, floor managers, and busboys, a single employee — standing behind a barrier and wearing a hospital mask — greeted me. I would say warmly, except I couldn’t see the expression on her face.
She had developed her own ceremony of putting the check on a clipboard and poking it toward me with her gloved hand in such a way that I would have minimal contact with any aspect of the payment process. Yes, now you pay for your meal in advance, where once you paid afterwards. I grabbed my credit card, snatched the brown paper bag filled to the brim with plastic containers from a neutral spot that had been established on the counter, thanked the woman profusely, and ran down the stairs.
Once I got home, I realized I’d have to clear a lot of counter space in my kitchen to lay everything out. There were two large plastic containers of roast mallard, radiant in their orderly bounty, three sauces in smaller round plastic containers, another large package of steamed bao (the employee warned me that bao had been substituted for the usual pancakes), a container of julienne cukes and scallions, and a bonus portion of what looked like cauliflower kimchi.
Once the containers had been de-capped and arranged, my significant other and I picked up a couple of plates — our chipped and smeary crockery hardly seemed adequate to a feast like this — and paraded past the buffet on the kitchen counter. Morsels of duck and skin were tucked into the still-warm bao, then we dribbled a particularly good and probably homemade hoisin on top with the vegetable julienne. Duck legs, of which there were quizzically three, were laid beside the stuffed bao, plus a few bonus pieces of duck.
The skin crackled and the bao smooshed, while the flesh itself was preternaturally rich, rough textured, and grayish brown. This would have been a perfect Peking duck experience, except we ate it on a sagging couch in front of the final episode of Tiger King. We generally ignored the other two sauces (one tasted like smoked tahini, the other like sour cherry jam). The cauliflower, however, was fantastic.
We agreed that the $103.43 we’d paid for the feast, including tax (plus $20 for tip) seemed like a reasonable amount, all things considered. A meal of this magnitude would have cost probably twice that much if we’d eaten it on the premises, as in the old days, with wine, apps, dessert, and a larger tip due to the larger total.
On the other hand, while the new procedures for acquiring and consuming food, which are much like the purifying rituals of a forgotten religion, are now interesting and even semi-enjoyable on their own, the ambiance of my apartment — and the feeling of mild fear that attends every meal like an unwanted guest — make the enjoyments of a great Peking duck less than it once was.
It made me yearn for the return of restaurants as we once knew them.