Dinners With Friends in the Time of Coronavirus Lockdown
Under normal circumstances, my weekend is rarely complete without sharing a meal with friends. Eating through New York's lively restaurant scene is a favorite pastime for many, and my partner and I are no exception to that—both our phones contain ever-growing lists of new must-try restaurants, which we pull up mid-week to try and nab reservations for the weekend.
But just as frequently, we'll invite friends over for a Saturday night dinner at our place. When it comes to cooking for one of these dinners, there's usually quite a preparation going on. Cookbooks are pulled off shelves, recipes matched into meals, yields doubled or tripled, and mothers called on to explain the recipes that only exist in their memory.
Our kitchen space allows for several people to gather around the kitchen island—a blessing I still keep in my daily gratitude mantras—and we've relished having it packed with friends as we cook. Huddled together, we'll share wine, stories of recent trips or job woes, and all other things that accumulate in our brains during the week. It may sound crazy, but cooking in a buzzing kitchen full of people—chatting, debating, and laughing—is where I feel truly at ease.
Before the coronavirus hit New York and temporarily shut down our lives, as well as the restaurants we love, there was a kind of supper club forming in our friend group. We had talked about making an official schedule, where once a month, we would take turns hosting the whole group for dinner. Unfortunately, because of the strict quarantine guidelines now in place, those plans are on hold indefinitely. And without the ability to gather our people around food, I started feeling like our friendships would be on an indefinite hold, too. Celebrations of birthdays and job promotions were postponed, face-to-face interactions replaced by cautious "just checking in—are you ok?" text messages.
Sure, we've kept up cooking for ourselves, and maybe we're doing it more than ever. But the food has taken on a more urgent role as basic sustenance, rather than a celebratory treat prepared with gusto.
Then a week into the quarantine, a couple of our friends suggested having dinner together. We had all been cooped up in our homes for some time, navigating the new unfamiliar routine of working from our living rooms, cooking three meals a day, leaving our apartments for short trips to grocery stores, and with no other plans in sight. The isolation had started wearing on us all, and this simple, obvious suggestion was met with excitement. We would continue our gatherings around the dinner table virtually, in smaller groups, and we would do it as often as possible.
I have to admit that no matter how digitally connected we are in this day and age, it never really occurred to me to use video-calling apps for dinner plans before. Sure, we've had friends move across the country, and even scatter all over the world, but we never thought about coordinating mealtime with any of them. Maybe it was because we seeing them in the near future didn't seem like a total improbability. And maybe it was because the perks of sharing a meal seem hard to replace: the smells, the nurturing quality of passing platters of food around the table or topping someone off with more wine, the lively teamwork of tasking everyone with some small contribution: peeling, chopping, stirring, garnishing. No, dinner with friends in the time of the coronavirus pandemic wouldn't be the same by any means. But it could take place on a different platform and still serve as a familiar anchor of human connection.
At 7:30 that night, we connected over video and brought out our dinners to the table—our friends proudly showed off their gorgonzola radicchio risotto, and we our bucatini fra diavolo—complete with two bottles of wine. The whole thing felt oddly natural. The familiar faces (albeit a little pixelated) and voices beaming with joy as we explained to each other how we made the food, which ingredients were hard or easy to procure, and what we're planning to cook next . . . then digging in and enjoying a few moments of blissful silence as we took our first bites. This was as close to what we had before the quarantine, and it filled us with hope that we'd have it again soon.
We chatted for several hours around our virtual dinner table. Our collective thoughts were a healthy mix of hopes and fears about the future, one in which global pandemics were a real possibility. But we also shared recipes and meal planning tips for the coming weeks. Food is a never-ending source of fuel for our friendship, and that was still very much the case. In fact, it occurred to me that cooking every day had made us more thoughtful cooks, planning and prepping our weekly meals with an unusual amount of foresight. Would we have enough ingredients for a homemade focaccia? Should we be planning meat-centric meals or go vegan for a while? There was a lot to talk about, food-wise.
We parted ways on a shared hope that we would soon be together again, maybe by the summer. Maybe we'll break our social fast with a picnic in the park, or throw a barbecue party in someone's backyard. We'll make Aperol spritzes, and we'll absolutely bake some sort of a fruity dessert for the occasion.
The next day, we had agreed on a time for our next dinner—it would happen a few days later, and menu planning was in full swing immediately. After that, my virtual birthday drinks would follow with our friends quarantined in Brazil and Argentina, and a cheese and wine hour on a Saturday night was suggested by a dear friend in Brooklyn. Suddenly the prospect of online dining together, at least for a while, didn't seem so bad.
It's been a challenge to find things to look forward to when we have to stay away from each other, when the world and our city seem to be changing forever, and when uncertainty has rendered most of our 2020 plans useless (it almost makes one feel a bit silly to have had plans in the first place). But there's great comfort in community, in continuing our social rituals, and starting new ones. In connecting through food, together, but apart. Via webcam.
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