Way back in the halcyon days of 2019, I booked a video game-themed dinner reservation. Eric Rivera, chef and owner of addo:incubator (a Seattle-area restaurant with quirky, experimental menu choices that hosts pop-up events and other unique meals), planned to host a series of dinners themed around The Oregon Trail.
In fact, the premise was:
Join Eric for a 7 course tasting menu inspired by the original game The Oregon Trail. You may or may not make it, dysentery is a thing.
I love The Oregon Trail. I love fancy dinners. I don’t love dysentery, but I do love a wild premise and a theme. I had to be a part of this.
And then COVID happened. My initial date was set for May 2020. Naturally, that didn’t happen; at that point, Washington was still in phase one of opening, which meant no indoor dining. They offered to reschedule or give credit for a takeout meal, but I was dedicated—I wanted to experience this dinner as it was intended, so we rescheduled for October.
We’re now in extended phase two in Washington. Indoor dining is allowed at lower capacity, but addo, along with Rivera’s other restaurants, has not reopened its dining rooms. I appreciate that, just as I appreciate how Rivera’s restaurants have turned to offering ready-to-heat, low- to medium-cost meals in a uniquely difficult time. I could have canceled my reservation at this point, but I held on, less out of hope that something was going to radically change by the time my reservation came up and more because I respect what Rivera is doing.
Of course, things got worse in October and indoor dining still presents a distinct risk, especially for the workers of Seattle restaurants. So addo offered a uniquely 2020 option for this dinner: they’d deliver the food and we’d all hop on Zoom to do a sort of weird and funky version of the planned dinner and game. I took the opportunity, surprised that they were willing to deliver a meal to me, almost an hour away, at no extra cost.
The food arrived without incident: four courses consisting of trail mix, jerky, oxtail stew, and a fancy cake dessert I have no name for, plus two bottles of wine (one for each of our parties, except neither of us drink wine). The instructions said to eat our stew before the Zoom call, but to enjoy our snacks, wine, and dessert during, if we chose. I snuck a peek at everything, as well as tasting the trail mix and jerky as soon as it arrived, some seven hours before the event.
The trail mix consisted of a mix of spicy and sweet ingredients, including sweet granola clusters, spicy popcorn, nuts that I think were pecans, and dried cranberries. It was a good deal fancier than anything the actual Oregon Trail travelers would have eaten (I’m making assumptions, but they probably didn’t have access to Hershey’s chocolate out there), but it did have a nice, hearty flavor that kept it from feeling too much like an unsatisfying, bougie take on trail mix. Verdict: pretty good.
I also took a sample of the jerky because I’m a filthy sneak with no patience. Later, when I learned that my husband doesn’t like jerky, I had a little premature feast, but my first indiscretion was nibbling on a normal, sneaky-sized piece. Appropriately salty with nice cracked pepper. More on the dry side of jerky than the chewy side, which I appreciate. Verdict: pretty good.
About an hour before the scheduled Zoom call, we pulled the entree—oxtail stew—out of its somewhat greasy packaging and popped it into the microwave. This was… inadvisable, not only because heating up your oxtail stew in the microwave strips a fancy meal of much of its glamor, but also because the mushrooms—of which there were many in varying shapes and sizes, to my delight—got a bit chewy. The stew itself was delicious and hearty, just the kind of thing I would (probably) want to eat if I was traveling across the U.S. in a covered wagon. I have only myself to blame for the meal being lukewarm, but, in a way, that too added to the experience.
We fired up the Zoom call and were greeted immediately by Rivera himself, which was both surprising and wonderful—he was a funny and energetic host, which is a true feat when you’re talking to people for the first time via webcam. Immediately, I realized I was underdressed. Several people were dressed up as pioneers, and my best friend, participating in her own home, had set her Zoom background to a painting of covered wagons. Said best friend also got a shoutout from Rivera for having a cute dog. I hurriedly changed my background to a nice prairie scene to make up for my lack of costume.
The rules of the game, laid out by Rivera prior to beginning, were that we’d be progressing through a series of mostly arbitrary tasks. He’d decide the winner or winners based on mostly arbitrary rules. The last person standing would receive a gift card for a future addo adventure.
Things got off to a hectic start with a scavenger hunt. Rivera said that he wanted those of us playing in the same home to play against one another, which meant a rapid scramble for a magazine, flashlight, hairdryer, bag of flour, Sriracha, colander, and face mask. I nabbed most of the items very quickly, but my husband dashed off upstairs for our single hairdryer before I could grab it. I made it back downstairs first and confessed I had everything except the hairdryer, which my husband surrendered to let me have the win. However, Rivera made us rock-paper-scissors for it anyway because he, by admission, wanted more chaos. My husband won, but Rivera gave me the win anyway. My husband, and several other people, were kicked from the Zoom call.
The next round was trivia—specifically, Oregon Trail (and Oregon Trail)-themed trivia. Given that both were, at one time or another, pet interests of mine, I felt pretty well-equipped for this round. Rivera told us that Googling the answer was definitely not against the rules, which gave all of us a fighting chance, provided we were fast typists. I was too good at trivia, in that I qualified my answer about the year that The Oregon Trail was released with a statement that I was talking about the Apple II version (predated by the HP 2100 minicomputer version, which was only available in the Minnesota school system). I also answered another question too quickly, by Rivera’s judgment. I’m unsure whether I got credit for either answer (things were going pretty quickly by then) but I survived the round. My best friend did not—she was kicked from the Zoom call, even though her dog is super cute.
Next up: a talent show. We had two minutes to scramble to find an instrument or something that would work as an instrument. I searched the garage for my old trumpet (which I have not played since sixth grade), hoping the surprise factor would help, but no dice. My husband pointed me upstairs to his extremely out of tune electric guitar, which I absolutely do not know how to play, and I resigned myself to losing this round.
My resignation was absolutely right. We had to put on an impromptu performance with our instrument of choice, and being unable to play the guitar did not mix well with my natural tendency to self-deprecate and freeze up under a spotlight. I mumbled my way through disparaging remarks while strumming the guitar and did not secure a single vote in my favor, which was fair. Other players played cups, made up an original song while strumming the guitar, or, in one notable case, seemed to play the guitar very well but unfortunately did not unmute their microphone, rendering their performance moot. The original song won, deservedly, and I was kicked from the Zoom call.
This wasn’t the experience I anticipated. I don’t think it was the experience any of us anticipated. When I booked this dinner in November of 2019, I couldn’t have guessed that my last meal out for the year would have been at a local restaurant chain I don’t even like. I couldn’t have guessed that I’d be eating microwaved oxtail stew at home, watching my friend through a computer screen.
I thought about this as I ate my dessert—a layered cake with raspberry, cream, and chocolate crunchies. If this year wasn’t this year, if I had gone into addo and been served microwaved oxtail stew with chewy mushrooms, I would have been disappointed. If the “Oregon Trail” experience was a scavenger hunt and poorly-played instruments, I probably would have felt misled by the dinner’s premise. But this year—this absolutely horrible fucking year—making a fool of myself over a Zoom call with a bunch of strangers was an unexpected highlight. It was very much about making do with what we had, and what we had was food delivery, improvisation, and a microwave for my oxtail stew. I don’t want to do it again. I want to eat a meal at addo and play a weird game with strangers and have some other one-of-a-kind experience. But this absolutely bonkers dining experience/game was a bright spot in this miserable year, even if I didn’t win a gift card.
I hope that someday I’ll get to enjoy one of Rivera’s unusual dining experiences in person. For now, I’ll treasure my lukewarm oxtail stew and chewy mushroom clusters as the kind of positive memory I could only make in 2020.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.