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COVID Halted My Career as a Food Critic - placeholderCOVID Halted My Career as a Food Critic
5 min read | Nov 2021

COVID Halted My Career as a Food Critic

I spent decades writing about my local dining scene. When COVID put restaurants on pause, I found fulfillment in other ways.

PATTY MELT / Gen X / Progressive / Journalist

It was mid-afternoon on Friday, March 20, 2020, when the email landed in my inbox.

The wrath of the first wave—we’re on what, the fifth now?—of the crucifying COVID-19 pandemic was just beginning to decimate restaurants and bars, many of which were places I’d been embedded in—and written about—for decades. And when that email came, I was forehead-deep in writing multiple versions of “where to eat and drink now” stories for an organization where I’d freelanced for more than a decade. They were my primary client, and they paid me well. They loved my work. I loved writing for them. Life was peachy. 

The gist of the email was this: We’re pausing your workload. Our funding stream has been annihilated. “Hope you’re hanging in there,” it ended. Thud. There went the universe. 

Each time the science (looking at you, Dr. Fauci) suggested there was light at the end of the dark pandemic tunnel, or our governor allowed restaurants and watering holes to (sort of) reopen, I sent what surely sounded like desperate follow-up emails asking if I could resume writing again. Nope. More budget cuts, staff layoffs and reduced hours for former full-time employees. My editor wished he had better news. I knew it would be months, if not more, until he did.

I sighed, sobbed and slammed my laptop shut. And I wondered aloud: Is this it? Is my 30-year career going to crash and crumble into smithereens? Am I done? Shit. I can’t afford to be done. But for 19 long months, I was.

“”

I Was Destined to Have a Career in Food

Food has always been at the epicenter of my universe. My mother was—and still is—a remarkable home cook. I learned to bake casseroles when I was a toddler, and by the time I was in elementary school, I was in charge of roasting the Thanksgiving turkey in my mom’s then-unreliable oven. I cooked whenever—and whatever—I could, flipping through recipes in my mother’s tattered From Julia Child’s Kitchen and The Illustrated Encyclopedia of American Cooking food bibles. I knew that when I eventually embarked on a career path, it would involve food. 

By the time I graduated from college with an undergraduate degree in English, I’d worked in restaurants, lived in England for a year and traveled extensively throughout Europe, including France and Italy, two of the world’s most extraordinary culinary utopias. Restaurants, I believed—and still believe—are the yin to my yang. I wanted to be a restaurant critic. 

At the age of 32, after working in the public relations arena and spending a shit-ton of money on grad school just to get a useless journalism degree, I got my wish: I was tapped as the chief dining critic at a startup city magazine. It paid just enough for a jaunt to the market once a month, and I recklessly maxed out numerous credit cards springing for my own meals.

Still, I was there for several years, and I’d made a name for myself; big enough, I guess, to land the food critic position at a major metropolitan daily newspaper. By the time I left—the paper abruptly closed one fine Friday morning—I had almost a decade of restaurant criticism under my belt, which meant I’d also met and mingled with a lot of chefs and restaurateurs; too many, I thought, to continue as a critic. Plus, I was over wearing disguises that fooled no one.

I Kept Food in My Life as Much as Possible

For the next decade, I shifted to writing about my local dining scene, interviewing chefs for a weekly feature and covering restaurant openings and closings. And lists. Lots and lots of dumbed-down lists, specifically for a now-defunct, no longer relevant digital restaurant site with international prominence. That job sucked.

But not as much as losing my food-writing freelance gigs as a result of a global pandemic that, nearly two years later, continues to ravage the industry I’ve dedicated myself to for more than three decades. Like so many others facing uncertainty, I felt unbuttoned, abandoned and isolated, and my brain had turned to something resembling vomit. My partner wasn’t working either, so there we were: two unhinged souls trying to navigate the abrupt dissolution of our lifelong careers. The very thing that fed my soul suddenly went poof.  

Still, it was crucial to continue supporting local restaurants, so I ordered takeout pretty much on a daily basis, and I purchased a lot of liquor. Neither fulfilled me. I took long walks with my dog and met neighbors I’d never spoken to prior to COVID. We talked—always masked and socially distanced—about how much we missed the camaraderie, pleasure and thrill factor that makes dining out so different from pitching a fork into a soggy box. I reluctantly applied for unemployment, which initially made me feel worthless until I bought two trunk’s worth of groceries and returned to the therapy that always brought me joy: cooking. I cooked nonstop. Like a maniac. And I shared those dinners—there were always leftovers—with neighbors, my ex-husband, mom and very close friends. That made me feel somewhat whole again. 

And I took up a new sport: fly-fishing, a passion of my partner. The rivers were bereft of humans, and while I took a major tumble at one point—river rocks are slippery little suckers—I managed to save my fly rod by shoving it in my mouth. Instinct. And a small triumph.

I took several out-of-state road trips, bunking at secluded cabins, usually on a river, and found peace in nature. We even drove to Mount Rushmore, just a few months after the country had all but shut down, and do you know how many people were there? Four. A park ranger, a professional photographer, my guy and me. Imagine that. 

“”

I Found Joy in Making Birdhouses

In the midst of the profound bedlam, I found so many unexpected silver linings, for which I am grateful. Still, I wasn’t certain if I’d ever return to my chosen profession—a profession that had always been my first love. I fell in and out of fury, depression and apprehension. My son sensed my angst and suggested I “find a hobby.” Earlier this year, in April, I completely pivoted from writing and started designing and painting fricking birdhouses. Never did I ever. 

The first few were mostly discards, but I’ve since sold dozens of them on websites, at festivals, to random strangers, good friends and supportive neighbors. One woman bought 14 and wants more. She made my year. 

And so did a recent note from my former client. Nineteen months after that crushing email from March of 2020, I’m writing about my local food and beverage scene again for the same organization. The restaurant climate has changed exponentially since that first wave of COVID, and while those that made it through the pandemic are still struggling (the labor shortage is real), there’s optimism, ebullience and a deep, deep sense of newfound purpose. And for the first time in a long time, I feel it, too. 

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