Home Context ‘My people are food people’

‘My people are food people’

In a guest essay, André Gallant shares the story of Homero Elizalde, who like many other chefs and cooks in these social distant days, is staying connected with diners through meal delivery and ingenuity

Photo courtesy of André Gallant

This is a guest essay from André Gallant, who is a writer, editor and photojournalist based in Athens. His work has appeared in The Oxford American, Gravy, Bitter Southerner, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Southern Cultures and Atlanta Magazine. He is the author of The High Low Tide, a work of narrative nonfiction about the Georgia oyster industry published by UGA Press in 2019.

I’d wager many of us — those of us who are being COVID-19 cautious — pine for a sit-down restaurant meal, and that longing is accompanied by harsh physical symptoms, not unlike the gut punch that DeVonta Smith delivered as he slipped behind a Georgia defender en route to an agonizing run to the endzone in 2018.

Recently, when I returned home from my first day of public, face-to-face work in months, teaching part-time at the University of Georgia, I wanted to do nothing more than shake off the stress at my most happiest of places: a booth at Tlaloc in North Athens, where I’d normally line up empty glasses of charro negro, a spiced and limed Coke and tequila cocktail, consume my weight in enchiladas de mole, and regain some sense of calm.

That therapy hasn’t felt like an option lately and I feel worse for it. It’s not the lower caloric intake or diminished buzz that hurts the most. I miss my people. 

My people are food people. 

Many of my friends are chefs, dishwashers, bartenders, and servers. My wife and I both spent years in food service, and still keep a foot in that world. She’s now a baker; I help by stoking a mean fire in our outdoor brick oven that will puff and brown her sourdough loaves; buddies drop by our house to pick up bread for the week. My family drools in anticipation of a new season of Street Food. 

We eat a lot, and spend a good bit of time talking about what we’re eating in the past, present and future tense. That conversation, in normal times, is shared widely among our friends who own restaurants or work in restaurants. It’s limited now. Kitchens are closed or operating at half speed. Talented cooks are out of work or finding fewer hours. My people live to provide hospitality to others. Now they can’t, or it’s frustratingly difficult, and that sucks.

But I’ve found hope in the pivot that some of my cook friends have made. I’m thinking specifically of Homero Elizalde, whose day job, in the before times, was as a prep and line cook at home.made, the Southern-focused restaurant on Baxter Street in Athens, Georgia, owned and operated by Mimi Maumus. Mimi, whom I also consider a dear friend, decided to temporarily close home.made over the summer, after weeks of attempting no-contact to-go orders and other make-shift bandages for COVID-cancelled lunch and dinner service. 

In late July, Homero began sending out menus via text and Facebook messages to a small group of his friends. I read the descriptions and, to put it simply, got really hungry: roasted pork shoulder in tomatillo salsa, pan-seared chicken breast in rosemary mustard, plates of barbacoa tacos, all accompanied by a slice of his wife’s tres leches cake. If we ordered a day ahead, he offered to deliver food to our door—no contact, just a knock—in time for Friday dinner in exchange for a donation.

Yes, Homero. With all deliberate speed, yes, please. Take-out is no replacement, but this delivery has been a balm. I would describe Homero’s deal as a quarantine win-win, or an example of making the best of bad circumstances: since I can’t quite safely spend face-to-face time with the cooks I love, I’ll appreciate their personalities as expressed through their food; Homero keeps his skills sharp and pads his bank account as an uncertain future unfolds. It’s not a fix, but we stay connected.

Communal moments have been hard to come by, isolated as we are to keep each other safe, but focusing on the talents that our friends and neighbors possess and how they can be translated to increasingly strange days has made the distance easier to bear.

Here’s a bit more about this particular cook: Early in my work as a food writer and journalist, the people I met while reporting honored Homero as the unsung hero of the Athens restaurant community. I was told that his skills with recipe, knife, and pan ensured the proper function of a restaurant like 5&10 and, later, home.made. Homero’s peers and bosses have lauded his culinary strengths for years, but mostly behind the scenes. Credit came in off-the-record conversations; tales of his ethic and genius were spun during post-shift cocktails. 

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Perhaps it was difficult to truly praise his gifts because Homero’s contributions to a menu weren’t always obvious, at least to diners. His impact couldn’t be seen from the table; his prowess was in the preparation that concluded before guests arrived. When Homero left 5&10 and joined Mimi’s team at home.made, his influence could not be missed. His abilities were championed top-of-menu. For a charcuterie appetizer at home.made, Homero, a native of the state of Michoacan, Mexico, created jalapeñowurst — sausages spiked with hot peppers — and carnitas terrine — the classic Mexican confit pork method fried in a golden breading — that honored his family roots and fine dining training. I was lucky that my wife worked in pastry at home.made at the time, and I could compliment Homero’s talents directly to his face. 

Photo courtesy of Chris Shumway

What Homero provides on Friday nights these days comforts in a way that makes the distance between diner and dining room less painful. Communal moments have been hard to come by, isolated as we are to keep each other safe, but focusing on the talents that our friends and neighbors possess and how they can be translated to increasingly strange days has made the distance easier to bear. That, for me, is the power of a great meal: For a moment, not much else matters except the eater, the plate, and the person who prepared it. I can only thank Homero with a wave from my doorway and he drives away to the next delivery, or with a drooling emoji messaged after I’ve cleaned my plate. But it’s what we have, for now, and I’m grateful for whatever I can get. 

*Apologies. I hope you’re salivating over the idea of this incredible cooking, but Homero is running at capacity, and can only prepare enough for friends. He doesn’t have the ability to serve more meals than he already is providing. Go see him once home.made reopens. 

The views and opinions expressed in submitted articles, essays and features are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the editorial staff at BTT. 

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