It’s late April, and I’ve just finished writing a list of what I’ve managed to cook during the COVID-19 quarantine — from salted pistachio brittle to lamb stock from one Easter bone — when Kathy Pugh sends me a Facebook message. “Did you hear the news?” she asks. I haven’t. Her deli is closing.
It has been over 17 years since I was among Kathy’s Deli’s first employees on West King Street in Shippensburg. A high school senior, I worked Thursday nights, spreading mayonnaise to the exact edges of the hoagie rolls and moving from sandwich bar to slicer to the rhythm of the customers’ requests. When I graduated, somebody took my picture, slender and serious, next to the deli sign that read, “Congratulations to our grads.” I remember smiling self-consciously, thinking about the fruit trays that I had to assemble rather than of Susquehanna University, where I was to attend in the fall.
Over the next seven years, I left the deli more times than I could count, only to return. There were the heat-soaked summers between college, including the one when the air conditioning broke; the winter breaks with Christmas orders piled higher in the walk-in cooler than I could reach. There was the year after teaching English in France in which my blue-eyed boyfriend — now my partner of 15 years — visited me in the mornings as I windexed the deli cases. In between, I learned how to hold a knife, to move swiftly in a crowded kitchen, and to measure cheese by eyesight. I attended more weddings as a caterer than as a guest, more graduation parties for friends I’d never know, and more corporate meetings as a temporary interruption: the one who slips in wearily with the chafing racks by the back door.
“It’s time,” Kathy says over the phone, and I understand. Her foresight has always been as clear as her handwriting on the catering order forms. But the announcement swells inside me like a sudden fever. The closing of Kathy’s Deli is my first loss to the coronavirus.
My growing up had taken place at Kathy’s in the stories that cooks handed off like sheet pans. I was told that I’d make decisions that would eventually make me. I was informed that strong-willed women were not viewed the same as strong-willed men. Over stockpots of simmering soup, I was challenged to buy the car, to wear the bikini, to go for the scholarship, and to set my sights higher than the top back shelf of the upright freezer.
Sharing food is deeply powerful. Making it for others may even be more so. In Shippensburg, where we watched July fireworks from Kathy’s parking lot and spread our sandwiches with her chicken salad, a pandemic cuts deep, a butcher's knife through roast beef. Which one of our neighbors needs a phone call or a fresh strawberry pie? Who among us knows how many the macaroni salad will feed?
I hang up the phone. My Harrisburg kitchen is dark and quiet. I think about making Kathy’s shredded potato casserole and leaving it in Tupperware portions on friends’ front porches. I wonder if I have enough mushrooms to make myself a panini. From the drawer next to my stove, I unfold a faded navy blue apron.
Thank you kindly, Kathy’s Deli. We’ve got some work to do.