The aromatic broth of vegetable scraps, mushrooms, and scallions simmers on the stove. I place a twirl of noodles into a bamboo bowl, ladle in the steaming broth, add chopped shiitakes and bamboo shoots, then tweezer on a few sesame seeds for flavor and garnish. There is a diner already seated at my new ramen-ya, awaiting the artful balance I hope to have achieved. He sniffs, sips, and in one giant slurp, it’s gone—bowl and all. Sometimes this happens with chipmunks. Did I mention my food is tiny and my “restaurant” is on the front steps of my porch?
I am a freelance food writer by trade. My work centers around eating and drinking and observing the restaurant culture of Atlanta, where I live, and then writing about it. But these days, like everyone else, I’m at home. ALWAYS at home. There are no more new cafés to review or omakase dinners to critique or chicken wing competitions to judge. I’ve hoarded the beans, planted the garden, and grown the scallions on the windowsill. I’ve written about how industry folks are coping with “the new normal.” But how am I coping? Well.
It was mid-April when the giant box appeared on my front porch. The return address was from my Uncle Ed, who owns a bowling center in Ohio and thus has had quite a bit of time on his hands since COVID-19 shut down his business. I unwrapped layers and layers of Bubble Wrap and there it was: a mini wooden picnic table on which red magic marker scrawled out “Angela.” It was intended for hanging on a tree for squirrels, said Ed, but I took a shortcut and sat it out on the porch, putting a few walnuts left over from Christmas on top. By the time I’d walked the box to the recycling bin, a chipmunk had taken a seat at the wee table. In seconds he’d gobbled up all the walnuts.
The next morning he came back and dined on walnuts again. He seemed eager.
By day three I’d made a makeshift tablecloth cut from a bandana. Then I fashioned a vase out of one of those rubber guards for pencils and filled it with a tiny purple vinca bud. “What do chipmunks eat besides nuts?” I wondered as I made a grocery list. A deep google dive gave me answers. Much as expected: seeds, berries, buds, and small worms. And, more surprising: mushrooms, vegetables, and small frogs. (Spoiler: This porch café does not serve small frogs.) I read that chipmunks are crepuscular creatures mainly active at dawn and dusk when fewer predators are a threat. And sure enough, those were the hours in which Thelonious, as I had now named my chipmunk (Thelonious Munk, get it?), came calling.