Dining Together Under Quarantine

April 30, 2020 — Commentary

Dining Together Under Quarantine

A dispatch from home.

My best friend returned from a work trip to Italy at the end of February and, out of an abundance of caution, had self-quarantined upon return to Los Angeles—weeks before Mayor Eric Garcetti would issue the city’s Safer at Home mandate. The Saturday night of the order, we FaceTimed from our respective living rooms along with our spouses and Tanqueray and Indian tonics, and clinked glasses on our screens. Everything was as it always was. Except it wasn’t.

That first remote cocktail hour was wonderful because of its novelty, but also because the enormity of what was coming had not yet registered. We laughed that evening as we had on countless nights over the past twenty years and remarked on how it felt like we were sitting in each other’s living rooms. As the weeks have progressed and the sobering headlines have intensified, there has been increasingly less laughter, but the need to connect has never felt more urgent.

Perhaps the reason I was initially drawn to writing about food and drink for a living is because food has the transformative power to create connections and community. Over the years, I have been welcomed into strangers’ homes to share countless meals. We’ve gathered around a live fire in the South African winelands for a family braai, shared dishes of bacalao in the hills above the Douro, and picked grapes together in the middle of the night in Napa, stopping between vineyards to quickly recharge with coffee before the backbreaking work resumes. Food is what connects us as we tell the stories of our communities through how and what we eat. 

But these connections look different now that we are sheltering in place. In my Los Angeles neighborhood, it means one neighbor posts on Nextdoor that she’s placing a basket of lemons on her steps for anyone who needs extra. Another neighbor leaves a loaf of sourdough on my doorstep. Running low on herbs, I exchange a bag of flour for a bunch of oregano, mint and sorrel. On my block, several of us have taken turns cooking for Miss Joyce, a ninety-three-year-old widow who is partial to onion soup, steak and potatoes. And in these contact-free exchanges, I feel an incredible sense of community. And yet, there is no substitute for throwing open the front door to welcome a friend with a California hug.

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In an attempt to cling to some form of normalcy, I’ve turned to Zoom, which is a terrifying platform for a writer. As a journalist, the whole point is to ask other people questions and remain behind the scenes. And now here we all are, like an episode of Hollywood Squares, with nowhere to hide. Even so, I’m embracing technology in order to preserve the friendships and rituals I hold most dear. Like a Saturday night preprandial with my cousin Stefanie—the highlight of my week. Or a quick round of Zoom cocktails after work to toast friends’ birthdays. Or the incredible kimchi webinar I took last week with Jessica Wang of Picklé, which focused on preserving and fermenting seasonal vegetables; we’re all trying to stock up on healthy, long-lasting staples. 

Rituals help us create a sense of stability. For the past decade, I’ve belonged to a cooking club and when you get a text that reads, “GIRLS!! It is imperative that we uphold the monthly tradition, come HELL or HIGHWATER,” who are we to say no? The theme last week was cooking from our pantries, and when we gathered in our respective squares, the mood was frenetic. One member was simmering a stew using canned chickpeas. I was using grain I don’t remember buying to toss with vinaigrette, the last of the feta, mandarin slices, and some withering herbs. Another member was mixing margaritas with a handle of tequila and some citrus from her yard. Some of us were facing job insecurities, another was grappling with the realities of single parenting in lockdown, and—just as we have each month for over a decade—we talked, laughed, and maybe even cried a little while we cooked. Then, we all sat down to eat a meal together from the isolation of our respective tables. We had stumbled into a new normal, but one that was unexpectedly satisfying. 

I want us all to be standing when this is over. For the moment, preparing a meal is one small way to remain connected to the people and places we love.

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