Restaurants often hold a special place in our hearts and memories. Perhaps it was the site of a first date or a marriage proposal; perhaps a celebration of a new baby; perhaps it was catching up with old friends or a job offer. We all have that special place that harkens back to happy times in our lives. That may be one of the reasons we feel such a sense of loss when we see a favorite restaurant fold – something much more prevalent during the pandemic. For me, a very special restaurant is Jaleo in Bethesda, MD. I have so many great memories at this restaurant – mostly revolving around Pixie and her dad. Unfortunately, at the time of this writing, the Bethesda restaurant has temporarily closed.
Pixie first brought me to Jaleo for a meeting of her Kale Committee sometime in 2002. You see, Pixie was a champion of kale long before the rest of the culinary world caught on! With utmost determination, Pixie was on a one-woman mission to elevate the humble vegetable to rock-star status. She would convene periodic meetings of the Kale Committee at area restaurants where we would discuss the indignant treatment of kale, such as the use of plastic kale as a garnishment in the deli case (quelle horreur!). One memorable meeting occurred at Jaleo when two of my children joined us; they leapt at any chance to spend an afternoon with Pixie – even if it meant talking about kale. We enjoyed wonderful Spanish food throughout the afternoon and Pixie convinced our server to agree about the sorry state of kale at that time and its potential to change the culinary world. She is a true visionary!
Pixie’s dad, Uncle Jim to me, was a larger-than-life presence throughout my childhood and into adulthood. Always quick with a wisecrack or witty observation, Uncle Jim and I had a close relationship that spanned most of my life. He was a professor of library science and instilled in me (and my siblings) a life-long love of books; I always looked forward to his visits – not only because they were fun, but because he would introduce me to a new author or a new book. When my husband took a fifteen-month sabbatical in the DC area, I got to spend a lot of time with Uncle Jim while we bummed around checking out art exhibits, movies, or just hanging out. Our outings generally involved a good lunch and Jaleo in Bethesda was a favorite where we spent a couple afternoons eating the most amazing Spanish food, sipping wine and talking about all sorts of topics while he gently ribbed me about feminism and neo-liberal policies. We bonded over those meals.
When he got sick and it became clear that there were no other treatments, I joined my siblings and my mother (Jim’s sister) in DC to spend some time with him. He didn’t have much energy to spare and certainly not enough to go out to dinner. While he rested throughout the day, Pixie was the ultimate tour guide! I had to share Jaleo with my family and let them get a glimpse of my relationship with Jim – and to enjoy some incredible food! We met there again after he had passed away to have a memorial meal and share crazy stories. This was a bittersweet meal, as these types of meals usually are.
Jaleo Restaurant was founded by Chef Jose Andres – a Spanish immigrant who popularized his country’s tapas in America. There are other locations in DC, Vegas and a few opening abroad. Chef Andres is also the founder of World Central Kitchen which has served millions of meals to people impacted by natural and man-made disasters – whether that be immigrants stuck on our southern border, those devastated by hurricanes and earthquakes, or the medical personnel selflessly caring for us during the pandemic. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. After stabilizing a region ravaged by disasters, World Central Kitchen then helps them rebuild a sustainable food web working through local channels. They have so many programs to help people gain access to clean, sustainable food. (You can learn more about them at https://wck.org).
I chose one of Chef Andres’ cookbooks – Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America – for my December cookbook as part of United In Food’s cookbook project. I’m feeling nostalgic for special afternoons with people dear to my heart. I miss the indulgence of sitting in a restaurant, enjoying a good meal with others, without worrying about catching a deadly virus and spreading it to my family. I am saddened to see that the Bethesda location is temporarily closed, but it is certainly emblematic of the restaurant industry during the pandemic. When we finally emerge from this, the food landscape will be very different than it was in January 2020.
I have a long list of things I’m going to do when the pandemic ends. First and foremost: I’m going to Florida to hug my mother and kiss her beautiful cheeks because I have not been able to come near her. After that, the list is pretty long. Travel is up at the top – especially to Victoria to see my son and his Canadian family. There are many other destinations in mind, both domestic and foreign. And concerts? My goodness, the concerts and music festivals we are going to attend! I’m going to let the music wash over me and dance with strangers! And how about a movie in a movie theater? Pass the popcorn, please! I’m going to get my hair cut, get a pedicure, and please do something with these eyebrows. The list is long for sure. Definitely near the top of the list – ahead of the concerts and movies – is a dinner at Jaleo with Pixie. We’ll raise a toast to her dad and to Chef Andres … and to our health and good fortune. It’s these glimpses of the future that keep us going through the tough times.
Pepper, November 2020