Local hopes

NEW ORLEANS— The practice of making New Year’s resolutions is something that has never interested me. I guess I have just always assumed that I could make a vow to myself on any day, and if it’s something that I really need to do, or a practice that I need to start implementing, then I shouldn’t wait until January 1st to get to it.

The no-resolutions policy has never precluded me from having wishes, hopes, and dreams. I am 100% down with those three things.

I’ve always been a dreamer. It must be deep in my DNA. I don’t dream much these days, and I don’t spend a lot of time wishing for things either. But I do consider myself as a person of hope, actually a person with a lot of hope. These days I mostly live in the hope and goals realm of daily life.

I don’t set many personal goals, but I deal with a lot of goals in my business life. It’s the hope thing that seems most important to me today, especially after the last two and a half years we’ve experienced.

My dictionary defines hope this way:

Hope (hōp)
Noun

1.) a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen: he looked through her belongings in the hope of coming across some information / I had hopes of making the Olympic team.

– a person or thing that may help or save someone: their only hope is surgery.

– grounds for believing something good may happen: he does see some hope for the future.

Verb (no object)

-Want something to happen or to be the case: he’s hoping for an offer of compensation/ (with clause): I hope the kids are OK.

– (with infinitive) intend if possible to do something: we’re hoping to address all these issues.

 I am full of hope. I’m not sure if it’s possible to have too much hope, but if it is, say hello to Mr. Glass Is Way More Than Half Full. With that settled, I do have one hope I’d like to share.

It is my hope that in 2023— more than ever— people realize how important eating locally is to the health of a community. I sit here writing this column in my favorite little bakery on Magazine Street, La Boulangerie in Uptown New Orleans. Citizens of New Orleans, New York, Chicago, and the like don’t worry about eating local because those cities are filled with independent, locally owned restaurants, bars, and cafes. A food savvy New Orleanian will look at you as if you just stole his king cake if you suggest eating at a chain restaurant. Why would anyone, when there are so many great independent locally owned establishments in town?

You might be saying, “Yeah, but I don’t live in New Orleans.” Fine. Your town or city has locally owned dining establishments, no matter how small. Support them.

To my thinking, locally owned restaurants, bars, and cafes tell us more about a community than the slickest chamber of commerce flyer ever will. Some people judge towns by their population. Others judge them by amenities such as parks and playgrounds. Many consider school systems and tax policies. I judge towns by the quality and longevity of their small independent diners and cafes.

The chain restaurant at the interstate off-ramp in your town is exactly like the chain restaurant at the interstate off-ramp in a town 500 miles down the road, and in Cleveland, and Peoria, and Albuquerque, and Des Moines. Your locally owned restaurant was dreamed up, conceived by, and opened by the risk and sweat of your neighbor.

By you allowing your locally owned restaurant to feed your family, you’re making it possible for them to feed theirs. The money stays in the community and turns over several times.

Even though we are almost three years removed from the onset of Covid, restaurants are still struggling. The ones who survived are dealing with supply chain issues, astronomical food costs that can’t be passed along to customers, and massive labor shortages. National chains have easy access to capital. Locally owned restaurants have gone into deeper debt trying to keep their doors open.

A more jaded reader of this column might opine that the columnist is only trying to drum up business for his establishments. I would quickly respond that the jaded reader obviously doesn’t know me very well. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are mostly ok. There are still some positions we need to fill, and we can’t do anything about the excessive cost of wholesale food, but we’re purchasing at— or below— what our neighbors are paying, so we feel blessed. No, I am lobbying on behalf of the independent restaurateurs in our communities who are still hanging on by a thread, and trust me, there are tens of thousands of them across the country.

They are in your town, and they live in your neighborhood. Their kids and grandkids go to school with your kids and grandkids. They shop in your stores and buy groceries in your markets. I believe independent restaurateurs support locally owned businesses more than others in the community, because they know— on a deep and personal level— how important it is to keep all commerce local whether it be grocery stores, hardware stores, gas stations, or boutiques.

A chain-restaurant proponent might make the argument that the chain restaurants are hiring people who also live in the community, and I can’t argue that. But corporate profits get sent to corporate headquarters in Dallas, Orlando, or wherever the base of operations is located. Think of it this way— if there weren’t so many chain restaurants in your community squeezing out the independent operators, there would be more independent restaurants filling that void, creating unique character, vibe, and distinctiveness in your town, while keeping everything local.

My hope is that in 2023 more people will make the decision to eat at places such as the Coney Island Café, T-Bone’s, Jutama’s, and Mexican Kitchen in my hometown, and places such as The Mayflower, Broad Street Bakery, and the Trace Grill in the Jackson metro area. Over the last couple of years, we’ve lost so many others I’d love to be able to name. Your city or town has places just like those, run by independent restaurateurs who wake up every day ready to fight the good fight on the frontlines of their local business community. It is my wish, my dream, and especially my hope that in 2023 we give them our support, more than ever. Join me.

Eat local.

Onward.

Sesame-Soy Cabbage Stir Fry

1/4 cup peanut oil or vegetable oil
1 Tbl minced fresh ginger
1 Tbl minced garlic
1/4 tsp crushed red chili flakes
1/2 cup red onion, peeled and julienne
3/4 cup carrot, julienne
3/4 cup red bell pepper julienne

1 head  bok choy cut leaves crosswise into 1/2” thick slices (approx 5-6 cups cut)
6  green onions, trimmed, cut diagonally into 1-inch pieces

1 1/2 cups fresh snow peas

1/2 head Napa cabbage, leaves cut crosswise into 1-inch-wide strips (about 3-4 Cups cut)                            
2/3 cup good-quality chicken stock or broth or vegetable broth
1/4 cup soy sauce
1Tbl  cornstarch, dissolved in 1 tablespoon cold water
2 Tbl toasted sesame seeds

Heat a large wok over medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons of the oil. When the oil is hot, add the ginger, garlic, and chili flakes and stir-fry just until they are aromatic, about 30 seconds. Scoop out the aromatics and set them aside.

Add the remaining oil to the wok. Turn the heat up to high. When the oil is hot, add the julienne carrots, red peppers and red onion pieces and stir-fry until they turn glossy and bright, 1 to 2 minutes.

Add the bok choy. Stir-fry 1 to 2 minutes more.

Add the scallion pieces and snow peas. Continue stir-frying until they are bright green and glossy, 1 to 2 minutes more.

Add the Napa cabbage along with about 1/3 cup of the hot stock and the reserved aromatics. Continue stir-frying until the vegetables are all tender-crisp, about 2 minutes more. Add the remaining stock, soy sauce, and cornstarch mixture and stir-fry until the vegetables all look lightly glazed with sauce, about 1 minute more.

Transfer the stir-fried vegetables to a heated serving dish. Garnish toasted sesame seeds and serve immediately.

Yield: 8-10 servings

(Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and cookbook author who lives in Hattiesburg, Miss.)


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