Tag Archives: COVID-19

Saharan Sunset | Moveable Feast

The fact that our lives in the Southeast United States this weekend were significantly influenced by an infusion of dust from the African Sahara is a reminder of how small our world is and how close we all are.

There is a quality of light on this early summer late afternoon that is striking. It’s hard to determine, really, how much is cloudiness as a front settles in and how much is the dust. I just finished re-reading Faulkner’s Light in August and, as a firm believer in the Faulkner claim that his title refers to an actual natural phenomenon, I prefer to attribute the odd quality of the sky today to natural occurrences from across the Atlantic.

Driving down a two-lane highway into Oxford, Mississippi, on an August afternoon some decades ago, I was sure that the specific light through the long-leaf pines was what Faulkner, and his wife, Estelle, who suggested the title Light in August, surely meant. It was a special and translucent light that is hard to describe. When you encounter it, you will surely recognize it.

It has been raining off and on all day in north Alabama, and the pre-dusk light has taken on an intensely bright quality. The sunset last night was splendid, but tonight’s dusk tends to be leaning toward a chalky mundane.


Lifestyle changes have been the order of the day – every day – in this year of the pandemic. Much of my social activity for years centered around meals and an effort to satisfy my interest in foodways — in social as well as historical terms.

The last time I ate a meal in a restaurant was March. As restrictions have begun to be loosened – prematurely, I think – I still have no real desire to “dine in” for a while. I want to support my local eateries and I have ordered take-out from some of my favorite places in an effort to do so. Even as the restaurants do their part to ensure safety, there are just too many people who don’t seem to be taking this crisis seriously. Currently, I know of about eight people who are diagnosed with COVID.

I know many of the restaurants are open on a more restricted basis and I wish them well. I was amused to read that The Inn at Little Washington (www.theinnatlittlewashington.com), the much-acclaimed Virginia restaurant outside D.C., had plans to seat costumed mannequins in its dining rooms upon reopening so that the place would not feel so empty. It’s an amusing solution, but a little depressing, too.


Among the things I’m missing most are the Friends of the Café dinners in Florence at the factory/atelier of designer Natalie Chanin’s Alabama Chanin brand (www.alabamachanin.com).  These dinners began about five years ago and were my introduction to many chefs whose work was only previously known to me by their reputations and awards. I have met people from all over the world at these events and formed friendships along the way.

Four Friends of the Café dinner events were scheduled for 2020 and I had tickets to the whole series. The first two were postponed. The rest are up in the air for now. I am a little pessimistic about the likelihood that there will be any trips to Florence for Friends of the Café this year. The dinners also served as fundraisers for notable causes like Southern Foodways Alliance  and Chanin’s Project Threadways.

I have frequently written about these dinners in the past. The ambiance and sense of community they inspire always impressed me. Each featured chef has been on some part of the James Beard Award spectrum and the dinners have become a treasured part of my year.


American Public Television’s “Create” affiliate has aired the PBS show “Moveable Feast with Fine Cooking” (www.finecooking.com/moveablefeast) for a few years now. That program comes as close as anything I’ve found to capturing the spirit of those magical Florence meals. During the pandemic, “Moveable Feast” has become a brief escape for me, reminiscent of a more social time of the recent past.

The show’s title is inspired by a Hemingway title and quote about Paris in the 1920s. Each episode features a different location – sometimes American, sometimes international. The program host introduces the location and a couple of chefs from the area. They visit local purveyors to choose what to prepare for that evening’s “feast.”

Then it’s off to the kitchen where the host and guest chefs prepare their recipes for a pop-up communal meal. The show has always been appealing; nowadays, the sight of convivial guests gathering, hugging, shaking hands, toasting, and sitting down to have a meal together evokes bittersweet nostalgia.

“Create” showcased hours-long blocks of “Moveable Feast” episodes over the weekend and I found myself drawn to them – even though I had already viewed most of them. I was most pleased to revisit a charming episode in which host Michelle Bernstein visits and cooks with Jeremiah Tower, a godfather of California cuisine, in his current hometown of Merrida, Mexico. The occasionally prickly Tower, whose memoir California Dish is among my favorite books on food, exudes immaculate charm and wit as he shows Bernstein around the town and introduces her to a wealth of local ingredients and their knowledgeable purveyors.

In another favorite, host Pete Evans attends an event of “Outstanding in the Field” (www.outstandinginthefield.com), a roving pop-up restaurant event founded by artist Jim Denevan. The guest chef is Ravi Kapur and the site is Secret Sea Cove on the California coast. Guests at the table closest to the ocean get a gentle foot soaking as the tide moves in during the magical feast.

I was interested in what “Outstanding in the Field” is up to during the pandemic and found a moving letter from Jim Denevan on the website. He explains that the project is on hiatus until 2021 and concludes, “The table will be set. It will have been a long time coming. We are looking forward.”

In the milky sunset of a Saharan-influenced dusk, I will only add “Amen.”

The Panic of Cardinals

At the end of February, as friends and I left a late performance at Louisville’s Kentucky International Convention Center, we were stunned by the appearance of a bright red cardinal, trapped in the gigantic convention hall. He was clearly in panic, flying frantically back and forth along the massive third floor concourse where, as far as we could tell, there were no clear openings to the outside. Others gathered to watch the bird in frenetic flight. All of us cheered him on.

At dinner the next night, other friends spoke of seeing a female cardinal trying to find an escape from the same place the next morning.

Cardinals, you know, mate for life.

I find myself worrying about those desperate cardinals each morning when I awaken. I hope they found escape; I worry that they did not.

Tradition from many cultures tells us that a cardinal sighting is the visitation of the spirit of a loved one, letting us know that we are being heard and watched over.


At the time, my friends and I didn’t suspect that the theatre convention would be our last opportunity to be around people, business, and social events for who knows how long.

This current international health crisis, frankly, has me flummoxed. I try to find comparisons. Most recently, for my part of the world, there were “After the tornadoes” (2011), “After the BP Oil Spill” (2010), “After Katrina” (2005), and “After 9/11” (2011). But all of those had the hope of an eventual “after” of some kind. This current crisis is so ill-defined, … so nebulous.


I find comfort, as always, in nature and the circle of life.

At my father’s graveside service after the funeral four years ago, one of my most distinct memories is the abundance of wisteria vines in full glory in the trees just beyond his gravesite. Today, as I drove through Alabama, I was stunned by the transient presence of wisteria wherever I gazed.

Today, at home, my Japanese pink cherry tree is starting its annual bloom. My neighbor’s white blossomed cherry is reaching its peak, and my crimson camellia, at last, has yielded a respectable bounty after two years. My grandfather’s legacy rose is thriving, as is the wild rose I harvested from a friend’s lakeside ten years ago. My redbud is stagnant, while redbuds bloom in profusion everywhere I look; this is its habit and I will trust it to sprout its heart-shaped leaves before long.


I’m afraid I tend to be a pessimist by nature. That increases my personal stress and tension in times such as these. I find myself drawn to less exuberant literature of my past. In these times, two titles that keep creeping into my consciousness are Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Death in Venice by Thomas Mann. I re-read Death in Venice on my first extended visit into New Orleans after the Flood; it calmed and strengthened me.


I heard a recent interview with poet Reginald Dwayne Betts; he spoke of how the current crisis is making him more aware of nature. He comments that on a walk with his son, “I heard the sound of a squirrel’s claws as he climbed a tree – as stressful as this time is, it gives us time to reflect.”

When Alexander Pope wrote “Hope springs eternal in the human breast” in 1732, I have no doubt his specific choice of verb was intentional.

At dusk a couple of days ago, as I drove along the crest of Shades Mountain, two cardinals – a male and a female – flew up out of the sunset from the ridge and directly into my path. I braked, but they were already clear. The pair skimmed the surface and flew into the darkening woods. I watched them fly up through the trees and disappear.

It’s enough to make a man superstitious.