Belgian Fries and COVID-19

By Helen Horner

As the COVID-19 pandemic charges into its fourth month and continues to weigh in on how Maine restaurants can do business, dining options remain in flux. Curbside pick-up, scheduled delivery, weather-dependent outdoor eating, and well-distanced, indoor dining are all on the menu.

But no matter how any single food establishment chooses to serve its meals to diners, each and every one walks the razor-thin line between what’s economically feasible under current conditions and what lives up to Maine’s long-standing reputation for excellent summertime food. Not that Maine food is not good all year round, we just happen to be in the season of super fresh lobster rolls, piping hot steamed clams and really, really good fries.

Duckfat, a casual dining fixture in downtown Portland, has opted to spill out into Middle Street to offer rain or shine covered dining. It also offers curbside pickup, but owner Rob Evans draws the line at dropping any of his well-known and loved Belgian fries before his team sees the whites of your eyes. These fries are hand-cut from Maine potatoes, fried in duck fat for nine minutes and served in a spiral metal cone lined with parchment. To ensure hot, crunchy, fresh fries every time even in these tumultuous times, the potatoes are not placed in the hot oil to sizzle until take-out customers call to say they’ve arrived, or dine-in customers order them from their server. Delivery would put the quality of these delicious fries at risk, so it is not an option.

I recently sat down at Duckfat for the first time in months and almost everything was different from the last time I sat atop a high wooden stool in the small café’s tight inside accommodations. The outdoor seating area was surrounded by concrete blocks, the waiters wore masks, and the tables, equipped with hand sanitizer made by a local distillery that switch gears to help fight the spread of COVID-19, were duly separated. But in some ways, the restaurant’s atmosphere felt the same as it always had for me. The fries tasted just as good, and there was something refreshing about sitting amongst people, smelling other diners’ food as it passed by, and watching the bustling waiters take orders.

Maybe Duckfat’s decision to hold fast to its fries’ reputation yields benefits that span beyond that sad moment when you dip the last fry in the cone into the lovely garlic mayonnaise served alongside it. Taste is a powerful tool tying us to memory. The warm, crunchy fries brought me back to the normal Maine summers I’ve known, and am longing to experience again.

Adaptation for safety and economy during a pandemic is paramount, of course. But when restaurants establish their own food quality lines in the sand, they add a different level of service to the mix. They help keep the food memories of past Maine summers alive and well.