Yesterday, I calculated that I’ve taken the same 5-ish-mile walk through my neighborhood 200 times since the stay-at-home guidance.

I mark my days not with numbers on a calendar, but in the installation of storm windows, ripening front-yard apples, and soon enough: the brush of rakes over crispened leaves.

Over the past seven months earning my daily 10,000 steps, I’ve also become familiar with a recurring cast of minor characters. There’s Big Strides, a young bespectacled man whose lengthy gait and occasional air-boxing recall Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks sketch; Invisible Dog, an Australian-Slouch-hat-sporting gentleman who appears to be pulled along by his outstretched right hand, making it look like he is holding a leash that isn’t there; and the rarest of them all, The Metronome, a power walker with a violently whipping ponytail that no-doubt keeps pedestrians at least six feet away. (Bonus: She is visible from a distance of two blocks, which makes her easy to avoid.)

It has gotten to the point where just spotting one of these notable neighbors constitutes sufficient material for an entire dinnertime story. Not too long ago, we all had more exciting events and encounters to relate to our families.

But when every day mirrors every other, it feels sometimes like the pandemic has killed off novelty. Reading helps. So does cooking. I have talented friends who have generously shared favorite recipes and techniques to help me counterbalance some of the monotony.

Still, I don’t want to cook every single night – doing so would birth its own species of sameness. For a change of pace, I break things up with takeout and delivery. I wrote about my top picks in the greater Portland area recently and found it difficult to select only 15. We are a fortunate bunch up here in Vacationland.

And yet…I’ve caught myself yearning for new, surprising options recently. In normal circumstances, I’d satisfy that itch with road trip food: Old Bay-dusted blue crabs on the Chesapeake Bay coast or buttery Michigan shortcakes topped with end-of-the-season raspberries, perhaps? But travel is complicated in a pandemic. For many, it’s impossible.

One solution comes in the form of restaurants and producers who ship nationwide. Hundreds of independent businesses have done this for decades, but over the past few years, a company called Goldbelly has stepped in to aggregate options online.

Browsing, I discovered I could buy a bagels, cream cheese and Nova Scotia salmon kit from my former Manhattan neighbors H&H Bagels for $69, a six-pack of coconut-macadamia banana bread from Maui Banana Bread Co. in Lahaina, Hawaii ($59), or 16 housemade sausages from Banger’s Sausage House in Austin, Texas ($79), enough to feed 10 hungry people.

Last month, when I was feeling wistful for the chill of late summer in the Windy City, I ordered a special meal for four from Chicago’s The Girl & The Goat ($119, including shipping), part of the virtual celebration of the restaurant’s 10-year anniversary.

I first visited Stephanie Izard’s flagship restaurant shortly after it opened and was smitten with the boldness of her food. The flavors – everything from char to vinegar to chile across a broad-ranging, globally inspired menu – pull no punches. If Izard’s name sounds familiar, it might be because she won the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef Great Lakes award in 2013, or more likely because you remember her winning the fourth season of Top Chef.

This summer would have been a season of celebration at her restaurant, but circumstances this year weren’t especially festivity-friendly. Izard adjusted. “I always thought in 10 years, I would drop the mic and peace out,” she told me. “It turns out that I’m not quite ready. So we started planning a huge party back in January, but that couldn’t happen and now we are finding fun things to do to celebrate. That anniversary package highlights things that have been on the menu since we opened. Those are our highest-selling menu items, the three tops.”

Just a couple of days after I placed my order, a cold-pack-stuffed box the size of a large laser printer arrived on my doorstep. Insulated in mylar and still frigid when I sliced it open, the package impressed me immediately. It had been so painstakingly assembled, so carefully filled, that even the four cage-free eggs from Little Farm on the Prairie in Saunemin, Illinois, remained uncracked.

I’d need those eggs later to top the main dish: Izard’s riff on a traditional Italian coppa di testa (head cheese) that she brazenly calls “Pig Face.” If whole-animal cooking is new to you, this dish, with its pan-crisped edges, cilantro oil and tangy tamarind sauce will certainly smooth the introduction.

The Girl & The Goat’s pan-seared green beans, part of its 10-year anniversary mail-order package. Photo by Andrew Ross

The Girl & The Goat’s other two signature dishes were also superb: pan-seared green beans drizzled with Izard’s citrusy, umami-darkened “This Little Goat Went to Southeast Asia” sauce; and baked (or fried, your choice) empanadas stuffed with slow-cooked shreds of goat shoulder.

The Girl & The Goat’s chocolate chip cookies. Photo by Andrew Ross

My favorite part of the menu was not the chunky chocolate chip cookies (nubbly with milk and dark chocolate bits), but an inventive empanada add-on — a packet of juicy, cold-smoked wild Michigan blueberries. “I love trying to add a little smoke wherever I can get away with it. There are some things that take it well and some things that don’t,” Izard said. “We’re coming to the tail end of the season for wild blueberries here, and we smoke them just long enough to pick up the smoke. The goat inside the empanada has also had a little smoke, so it brings out that flavor.”

Admittedly, The Girl & The Goat’s anniversary box was cheffy, maybe even a bit over-complicated here and there. Clocking in at 17 vacuum-sealed, bottled, and bubble-wrapped components and several paragraphs of instructions, the kit required some advance-planning to get right. In order to get everything on the table hot, I had to rearrange the order of the preparation of dishes (bake the cookies, blanch the beans, start the Pig Face, put the empanadas in the oven, finish the beans, plate). Had I followed the directions blindly, I would have spent hours eating each dish in sequence.

But was it worth the extra hassle? Absolutely. It also reminded me how much labor and precision-timing restaurant meals demand.

As I cooked, I chatted on the phone with faraway family members, one of whom told me how jealous she was of my stay-at-home culinary adventure. That reminded me of something Izard said about customers using Goldbelly as “a nice way to travel with food.”

I decided I couldn’t travel alone. Why not spend some of the money I would have wasted on taxis and hotel rooms on experiences for people I love?

The next day, I logged back onto Goldbelly and shipped a Memphis, Tennessee, pork barbecue package to my mother-in-law in Florida. At $79, including shipping, Central BBQ’s dry-rubbed ribs and pulled pork dinner comes with a 16-ounce bottle of their homemade sauce and a shaker of dry rub. All told, it is designed to feed four people – or in this case, lunches and several (messy) dinners over the course of a week for one, with extra sauce to slather over future rotisserie chickens procured from the local Publix.

Central BBQ is known for the sweet-and-fiery, brown-sugar-caramelized “bark” that develops on the exterior of its slow-smoked pork ribs. The Goldbelly version (a full slab’s worth) was no exception. Indeed, what my mother-in-law received looked identical to what you’d be served at any of its five Tennessee restaurants.

Ever a believer in equal treatment of relatives, I sent a gift to my mother in North Carolina. It has been many years since she visited Portland, so I figured: If Mom won’t come to Maine, then Maine must go to Mom. Into my cart went a lobster roll kit for four from McLoon’s Lobster Shack on Spruce Head Island in South Thomaston. For $153, including shipping, you or your recipient get a pound of picked lobster meat, four Country Kitchen split-top rolls, mayonnaise and a tub of locally produced Casco Bay sea salt butter.

One of the original group of vendors to sign a contract with Goldbelly, long before the pandemic, McLoon’s has packing and shipping down to a science – especially important when they’re dispatching perishable fresh seafood hundreds or thousands of miles away.

“We’ve been doing it for maybe three or four years now,” owner and general manager Bree Birns said. “They actually approached us – the CEO and his wife did a trip to Maine and came to eat at the lobster shack. They asked if we’d be interested, and it sort of built slowly. Until COVID. Then it really spiked.”

It seems I’m also not the only one to express my affection for a loved one through mayonnaise and knuckle meat.

“For a lot of people, they think, I can’t travel, but I can get a lobster roll shipped in from Maine,” Birns said. “More than that, it’s a way to do something nice. I’ve been noticing that a lot in the gift notes we include with the receipt. They say something along the lines of ‘Sorry we can’t be together, but here’s a taste of Maine.’ It’s a way to connect during pretty strange times.”

My mother tried to convince a local, lobster-phobic friend to share a socially distanced roll with her, but things didn’t pan out as planned. “He said he’d try it, then he chickened out,” she reported, adding with a laugh: “Oh well. More for me!”

As we talked about her stockpile of leftovers, she asked me about the shack they came from, and I told her the story of how I had made a detour to picturesque McLoon’s after an August trip to Vinalhaven a few years back.

Apparently, I am not alone in this, either.

“Last summer, we had people come to the shack and tell us that they literally planned an entire trip to Maine around us,” Birns said. “They saw us on Goldbelly, ordered, and got this idea of us in their heads. They said, ‘We have to go there.’ It’s weird for us because we’re small, on this tiny island on the Midcoast. But it’s amazing when people do things like that. I hope it can happen again.”

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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