I grieve for communal food experiences

By Ashlie D. Stevens
Group of friends having a meal together Getty Images/Alexander Spatari

During the depths of the pandemic, I found myself craving hyper-specific communal food experiences. I recalled a reporting trip I'd taken to Asheville, N.C., only a few months before the novel coronavirus was daily news. 

There, my partner and I connected with some other food professionals. Together, over the course of a few days, we bonded over biscuits, a trip to Foothills Meats — a tidy butcher shop where we had a breakfast of hot coffee and cold cuts while the owner showed us how to break down a pig — and an afternoon spent at a local farm. Between interviews, we played with a pair of farm dachshunds that were dressed in slim polar fleece jackets to protect their low bellies from the frost. 

On our final night in town, we all met up at Vivian, a cozy, warmly-lit restaurant in the arts district that serves European-influenced dishes built with Southern ingredients. I remember some of what we ate (like the "Nordic deviled eggs" stuffed with smoked fish, potato and cornichon), but mostly I remember how we ate: shoulder-to-shoulder around a long, wooden table, sharing food and pushing slices and pieces onto other people's plates. 

RELATED: Can food halls help diversify the post-pandemic restaurant industry? Yes, if done right

As the pandemic wears on, the list of experiences I miss continues to grow. There's "hey, thanks for helping me move" pizza, where you and your friends collapse into a sweaty heap onto someone's new kitchen floor. Suddenly everything is funny, and you realize that pepperoni pizza has never tasted better

There's traveling to a new city — perhaps with someone who is still a little new to you — and inevitably ending up at a diner that's not great but very good. Together, you drink just fine coffee and ice cold water from those plastic pebbled tumblers and start to wonder if you're falling in love just as the pancakes arrive

Then there's the standard: cooking something, anything really, for someone to show you care.


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The pandemic has taught us many things — about our society, our communities, and ultimately, about ourselves. One of the most basic, yet simultaneously most poignant, of these lessons is that we humans tend to do better overall when connected to one another. 

And Zoom cocktail hours just don't cut it after a while. 

From the Salon Food archives, here's some writing that focuses on how food and community are often one big overlapping circle in the weird, cosmic Venn diagram that is life. If you like this collection of writing, do sign up to receive "The Bite," Salon's food newsletter — which is where this essay originated and subscribers receive recommendations of what to read, watch and eat every week. 

Read 

In her beautiful essay "Glitter and Cotija: The poignance of my first lunch out with my daughter," Tabitha Blankenbiller writes about becoming a "quarantine parent" and what it was like connecting with her infant daughter over a first spontaneous lunch together. "It is so beautiful to be seen with your child," Blankenbiller writes. "For over a year, she's been a secret from the world, deprived not only of the familiar relatives doting but of these small, fleeting, random moments of connection."

One of my favorite pieces from our recent "Coffee Week" — a series of essays, how-to's and reporting about America's favorite caffeinated beverage — was by Maggie Hennessy. In "Observations from a Chicago Dunkin' Donuts," she writes about how coffee shops can often serve as "a microcosm for the city itself." They're a place for meeting, for talking, and you know, maybe a little harmless eavesdropping. 

Also from "Coffee Week," I wrote about the importance of LGBTQ-owned cafés as sober, queer spaces. While gay bars hold a deeply important place in the history of LGBTQ rights and visibility, many queer folks seek spaces where they can feel the same sense of community while also taking an occasional or permanent reprieve from alcohol. That's where these coffee shops come in — especially for "the morning gays," as coffee shop owner Andrew Zarro put it. 

Watch

Back in 2014, Salon's own Mary Elizabeth Williams (who also writes our Quick & Dirty cooking column) published an essay for the New York Times' Modern Love section. It was recently adapted for TV for Amazon Prime's "Modern Love" anthology series, which you can stream after reading. In a recent food desk meeting, Williams mentioned there was a lot of cooking in the show version of her life, which prompted this mini-interview via Slack: 

ASIn your real relationship, is food something you connect over with your family? (If so, how?)

MEWMy immediate family is made up of four individuals with incredibly different tastes, allergies and health issues. And yet, there is a very special and specific connection I feel when we're feeding each other  baking cookies with my daughters in the kitchen, even just the gesture of making somebody a cup of tea. Nothing says, 'I love you. Let me take care of you,' in the way that food does.

One of my favorite series from the past several years is Netflix's "Gentefied." It's about a Mexican-American family who owns a taco joint, Mama Fina's, in Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood. The show tackles some big, big topics — family legacy, gentrification, racism. At its core, it's a beautiful distillation of how restaurants can serve as de facto community centers.

Also, everyone loves to connect around food — even Paris Hilton, though she's not particularly talented at navigating a kitchen. Give an episode or two of her new series "Cooking with Paris" a watch on Netflix — the first one with Kim Kardashian is predictably a mess — and then check out our assessment of how celebrities who can't cook became food TV's fastest-growing genre

Eat 

Put your hard-earned pandemic bread baking skills to good use — and pull out these giant focaccia sandwiches for your next appropriately-sized get-together. They're the new (better, crispier) party subs. 

Keeping with the Italian-American theme, cook up some chicken parmesan for someone special. It's a touch more time-intensive than some of our other weeknight favorites — like this customizable sheet pan chow mein — but Salon Food contributor Michael La Corte has a tip that will make the cutlets impossibly crisp. If that's not spreading the love, then I don't know what is . . .

Also from La Corte, this recipe for chicken piccata — with a rich, velvety and slightly briny sauce — is a low-stakes but thoughtful dish to make, especially paired with a side of hearty pasta. If dessert is on the table, make it Williams' extra dark sheet pan brownies. They're perfect for sharing (and also for making ice cream sandwiches).


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