Whenever we’ve gone to Atlanta, our first stop has always been Miller Union. Usually that means lunch, because it’s only at mid-day when the restaurant serves its homemade ice cream sandwiches, cut into squares from a great big pan and wrapped in tissue paper. For a plant-eater like me, Miller Union is an absolute delight, since there’s really no place I know in Georgia that brings out the flavor of black-eyed peas, or okra, or green farro, or grits and celery roots or any of the other delicious Southern staples with as much affection and pride as they do. I’m assured by carnivores that they’ve got one of the best burgers in town, too.
Miller Union has been closed for dinner since the start of the pandemic. But they haven’t been inactive: they’ve been providing free meals for the frontline workers at Emory Healthcare. That’s consistent with the mission of Miller Union as I’ve come to understand it — they see themselves, and rightly so, as a restaurant born from the Georgia soil. If the city is hurting, they’re hurting, too. Right now, Atlanta is in pain: more than two thousand people in Fulton County have tested positive for the coronavirus. A terrible strain has been put on those healthcare workers at Emory. I’m grateful to them for doing what they’re doing for their beautiful city, and I’m grateful to Miller Union for feeding them.
My own history with Miller Union is a funny one, and at the risk of digression, I’m going to write it down right here. The head chef is also a guitar player. He was one-fourth of a thorny, innovative dream pop group called Seely. In 1996, I’d picked up a copy of Parentha See, their first album, from the bargain bin at Tunes in Hoboken; I’m not even sure why I did, because there was nothing particularly intriguing about the cover or the band name. We brought it home, and we loved it: we played it to pieces, and any time Seely did a show in the Northeast, we were always sure to catch it. All four members of the group were extremely endearing, and we became fond of them all. When I wrote my book, I pinched the guitar player’s last name and gave it to my main character, who was a (mostly) friendly Southern kid, too.
So when we first took a chance on Miller Union, it wasn’t because of the James Beard Awards, or the restaurant’s placement on the Eater 38, or any of the local accolades they’d gotten. It wasn’t because of their commitment to locally-sourced produce and sustainable farming. No, it was because the guy at the stove had been in Seely, and we’d loved Seely, so we expected to enjoy Miller Union, too. Even so, I was shocked by the quality and creativity of the restaurant. The food is an act of culinary wizardry: everything they bring to the table simultaneously reaffirms and transcends regional cooking. In this, it’s a direct reflection of Atlanta, which is part of the Deep South, even as it’s also part of the constellation of cosmopolitan cities that stretches around the globe, and constitutes, in a way, its own nation, with its own loyalties.
Regrettably, at the moment, the Deep South maintains jurisdiction. Employees at Miller Union, and thousands of other restaurants, are about to be ordered back to work by the state government. This strikes me as a bizarre, unwise decision: testing in Georgia hasn’t been good at all, the statewide caseload continues to grow, and metro Atlanta, given its poverty rate and population density, is vulnerable to a spike in cases. The health care system is already overwhelmed. It’s worth noting that the Governor’s order contradicts the guidelines established by the White House — conditions in Georgia do not meet the liberal standards set for reopening. Nevertheless, as soon as Monday, they’re going to do it.
Miller Union won’t be doing it with them. The chef believes the back-to-work order is premature and irresponsible, and he refuses to put his staff, and his customers, in the way of a virus that is nowhere near under control. Other Atlanta restaurants are refusing to reopen, too. They’re supported, in spirit at least, by the Mayor, who was clearly stunned by the decision, and who knows she’ll be expected to clean up the mess if things deteriorate further. She’s recommending that people continue to stay home. But beyond that, it’s unclear what the municipal government can do to defy the reopening order, or if Atlanta has the resources to take care of workers who defy the Governor.
So the deterioration continues: states pulling away from the White House, major metropolitan areas attempting to wriggle away from the control of the states. Our inability to coordinate action continues to be one of the greatest hazards we face. The dream of one nation, united by science and enlightened by a collective ethical vision, seems farther away today than it ever has. Many people across the country have the saws out; they’re more than ready to chop off the West Coast and the Northeast, and fly a strategically-edited flag over the rump. But the loud resistance from Miller Union, and other businesses like it, should remind us that America’s divisions don’t end at the borders of red states and blue states. Metro Atlanta asks for a policy consistent with the one now in place in Hudson County. Parts of New York have more kinship with Oklahoma than they do with Fifth Avenue. The federal government was designed to harmonize competing claims, but in the midst of crisis, leadership has gone missing.
Me, I like Georgia, and in spite of everything, I like America. I’m not ready to give up on either one. I’m certainly not ready to give up on Miller Union. It’s exactly the sort of creative, responsible, community-first small business that governments ought to be looking to reward. I look forward, hungrily, to my next ice cream sandwich. I hope I won’t need a passport to get it.