At the beginning of March, I spent a magical afternoon with a group of fellow food writers touring the markets of Istanbul. Food writers are greedy people, and as we walked through the jostling streets, we shared bites of this and nibbles of that with each other, curious to taste everything that the city had to offer. The dishes were unbelievably good, all the more so because of the way we were sharing them from hand to hand.
It now seems almost miraculous to remember that the act of eating could have been so free and trusting. Suddenly, the idea of sharing food hand to hand with a group of strangers is off the table, along with so many other forms of sociable eating.
Our thinking about food looks dramatically different in the wake of the coronavirus. Until recently, we were living through the most open and diverse era of public eating the world has ever seen. Never in human history had there been such a variety of cafes and restaurants, street food markets and sushi joints, taco trucks and noodle bars—all of them full of people innocently enjoying delicious things with friends outside of the home.
But social distancing has changed the rules of eating. It used to seem rude to refuse someone’s offer to share food. Now, all of a sudden, the act of offering food has become more complex, particularly if the recipient is elderly or vulnerable, although it’s reassuring to know that so far, the evidence suggests that Covid-19 is not spread through food itself.
Table manners have changed many times before. Until the 18th century, Westerners believed that eating with fingers was more polite than eating with forks. But never has there been such a precipitous shift in eating etiquette as the one happening right now. One day, people are making wry jokes on Twitter about the coronavirus bringing an end to the fashion for “sharing plates.” A few days later, New York, San Francisco, Paris and other cities famed for their food have closed their restaurants to diners, and it’s unclear if so many beloved businesses will recover.
Some of the ways that we have adjusted our behavior around food have been welcome. It’s no bad thing that people are finally starting to see they actually do need to wash their hands before eating. For years, I have been nagging my children to wash their hands before dinner, but it is only now that they understand why it matters.
These anxious times have also refocused our minds on the sheer importance of food for our survival and well-being. Lentils and beans are suddenly disappearing from store shelves. The upside of self-isolation, for many people, is that it allows us to give the preparation of meals the time it deserves, at long last. Cocooned in the house for longer than usual, I find myself turning back to long-forgotten recipes for comfort.
What none of us knows right now is how many post-coronavirus changes to eating etiquette will be permanent. One change I pray won’t last forever is the erosion of hospitality, whether it’s dinner in a restaurant or the easy charm of a meal at home shared with friends.
In these times of life and death, many pundits have started to describe eating in company for pleasure, rather than for mere survival, as something nonessential and frivolous. It goes without saying that we each need to do our part right now to help get the pandemic under control. But I yearn for the day when the restaurants reopen and we once again trust each other enough to eat from hand to well-washed hand.
—Ms. Wilson writes the Table Talk column for The Journal.
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