Long before Netflix and other streaming services atomized our viewing habits, millions of people watched the same television programs at the same time. So it should come as no surprise when I tell you that practically every household in my neighborhood watched the 1976 airing of ABC’s “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble.”

A young John Travolta starred in the made-for-TV movie as an immune-suppressed teen forced to sequester himself from the rest of the world to preserve his fragile health. When his isolation becomes too much to bear, he ventures out into the world, protected by a NASA-inspired suit stitched together from layers of space-age filters and pressurized plastic.

And while the movie was barely more than mediocre, it inflamed my 6-year-old imagination. I wasn’t the only one – every kid I knew couldn’t stop talking about it.

But in my neighborhood, we took things a step farther. One of my friends misappropriated his parents’ clear shower curtain, and a tiny gang of us spent the next few weeks taking turns trying to navigate the world from underneath a steamy polyurethane sheet, imagining what life would be like if we, too, had to live in a protective bubble.

This past week of online videoconferences and waving at neighbors through windows has brought those memories crashing back. How, I’ve wondered at least a few times a day, does a restaurant writer cover what’s happening when dining rooms are shut and food businesses are scrambling to reinvent themselves?

Well, for me, the answer is simple: I order takeout and delivery, supporting local entrepreneurs and keeping my fingers crossed that everyone else with the appetite and the ability does the same.

For the duration of this public health crisis (and please don’t delude yourself into thinking it’s anything other than a crisis), I will not say anything critical about any restaurant or food business. To do so in such a brittle economic environment would feel mean-spirited and irresponsible.

Instead, I’ll share a few of my personal experiences exploring how to dine (and drink) in, while still engaging with our state’s remarkable food-and-beverage businesses.

John Herter of Portland picks up a to-go order from Will Sissle at The Cheese Shop on Washington Avenue. As of last Friday, the shop is closed for all but curbside pickup. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

I.

This Tuesday, amid a chilly drizzle and what felt like a never-ending cascade of bad news, I spotted a tiny break in the clouds when I learned that The Cheese Shop of Portland was open.

Owners/cheesemongers Mary and Will Sissle have made several adjustments to their businesses to allow them to respect the need for social distancing while continuing to offer a wide-ranging selection of local and imported cheeses, dry goods, wines and charcuterie.

If you don’t feel like calling the shop to discuss what’s available, there are photos of the shop’s inventory – everything from ductile, ultra-savory French Roquefort from Gabriel Coulet ($23.99/lb) to 500 gram bags of ridgeless, 100% hard durum wheat penne from family-owned Martelli Foods ($10.99) – on display on the shop’s Instagram (@cheeseshopportland) and Facebook accounts (facebook.com/thecheeseshopofportland), so you can see what you’re purchasing before you order.

Two weeks ago, the couple rearranged the interior of their shop to create more space and to give a few customers at a time an opportunity to browse without feeling like they’re risking their health. “More than anything,” Will Sissle told me when I called around that time, “we just want to help people to do what’s most comfortable for them.”

Since then, though, in accordance with new city regulations, they have switched to 100 percent curbside pickup. The Sissles will prepare your order, run your credit card and one of the staff will come out to the shop’s parking lot and hand off your packages at your car.

II.

Checking in with a good friend who lives across town made me rethink how well I had prepared for at least a few weeks of being stuck at home. “I’ve got plenty of carrots,” she told me, “Even tons of sugar and toilet paper. But you know what I don’t have that I wish I had bought? Wine.”

Maine & Loire to the rescue. Owners Peter and Orenda Hale have created a new online ordering page where customers can purchase mixed or single-style cases (12 bottles) and smaller packs of natural wines across a range of bottle prices from approximately $17-$33, depending on availability. The shop’s staff will deliver to Portland, South Portland, Falmouth and Cape Elizabeth, and even provide a contactless delivery option, as long as the purchaser is home to show proof of age.

Among the selection in the “What We’re Drinking” case I ordered was a terrific, offbeat oddball bottle: the unsulfured, 2016 Adrien Baloche Grolleau ($27). “Grolleau is one of those funny Loire grapes that’s taken a back seat to more popular grapes like Cabernet Franc,” Peter Hale said. “But it’s more savory and rocky, with tangy, barny flavors that give way to a core of brooding purple fruits at its center. It also has an ebullience to it, a little fizz to it when you open it because it’s unsulfured.”

The Grolleau reminded me of some of the wilder, petillant wines I have tasted while dining at the couple’s restaurant, Drifters Wife, which (luckily for locals) continues to serve meals Tuesday through Saturday for takeout and curbside delivery, for at least the next two weeks when the moratorium on in-restaurant dining is (we hope) lifted.

The current crisis has also led to an expansion of Drifters Wife’s service hours. Chef Ben Jackson has begun offering both lunch and dinner menus to correspond with the wine shop’s retail hours. Order by phone (805-1336), then pull up in front of the Washington Avenue storefront, where a staffer will bring your meal out to your car for a minimal-contact transfer of food and wine. Yes, wine – thanks to an emergency change in the state’s licensing regulations, Drifters Wife is also able to sell a small selection of wines to accompany takeout orders of dishes like peppery, boneless fried chicken thighs with spicy mayonnaise ($16), and frilly kale salad topped with a poached egg and a bright, lentil-flecked vinaigrette ($12).

When you order, be sure to tip. All gratuities go directly to pay salaries and health benefits for the two-person back-of-house team.

III.

Rather than hoard AA-batteries or Beefaroni, I decided a few days ago that I should probably lay in a few extra bottles of gin. That’s not to say that I don’t value canned provisions or emergency power supplies, but if things get bad, I’ll want a drink.

So I placed two orders: One for a 750 ml. bottle of Tanqueray Dry Gin ($25.14 plus $7.99 delivery) from RSVP Discount Beverage, supplied by carhopme.com, and the other for a bottle of Dolin Blanc sweet vermouth ($11.14, plus $4.99 delivery) from Old Port Spirits &  Cigars, supplied by Drizly.com.

Both services offer delivery windows throughout the day, as well as contact-free drop-off to allow the recipient to accept an order by showing his/her photo ID through a window. I laughed when I first read about that option, then decided that, in this bizarre and terrifying world we find ourselves in today, it made sense.

“It looks like everybody is stocking up for parties these days, but I guess there are probably no parties happening, huh?” my Drizly delivery person asked as he set my order down on my front porch.

I nodded solemnly, then held my driver’s license to the windowpane in my door.

“When this whole thing is over though, we’re gonna have some rockin’ parties, buddy. Count on it,” he enthused. From behind my bubble of glass and wood, I chuckled and gave him a thumbs-up.

“I hope so,” I called as I watched him walk away. I really hope so.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of three recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at: [email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME


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