As the coronavirus outbreak has driven people into lockdown with anything resembling a social gathering cancelled the days start to go very slowly.
Not being able to share meals with friends and family, to gather at others' tables or pull up more chairs to our own, has been one of the most disconcerting effects of the coronavirus. But just as those weekly work meetings have become virtual, the communal meal lives on.
Many people have turned to platforms like Zoom and Google hangouts for happy hours: Friends, each with their choice of "quarantini" drink in hand, gab from little boxes on one another's screens. And still others have taken it further and are making appointments to break bread together in groups big and small.
Connor Ferguson, a writer from Somerville, Massachusetts, has been holed up at home with his wife, venturing out only to go for walks or to the grocery store. But on Tuesday, he dined with more than 20 members of his extended family. The virtual dinner party was his wife's idea, and it took off as soon as she proposed it. In the end, eight households from Nashville to Chicago participated. Everyone made pasta with red sauce.
"It just felt good to maintain that feeling of connection," he says.
So much of the anxiety in this crisis has centered around food. Restaurants are closing, supermarket shelves are emptying, and so many of our questions are about sustenance: Have we filled our cupboards with the right things, and what do we make for dinner tonight?
How fitting, then, that eating together, even in different houses in far-flung cities, has been a balm.
In London, Caroline Fiennes' tennis group usually meets on Wednesdays at their club for matches, and then many of them stick around for dinner afterward. This week, taking the regular dinner date online has helped her feel like not everything in life has been upended, even as tube stations closed and rumours swirled about a city lockdown. Four members of the group logged on at the appointed time, with several of them eating together. "We had a nice chat - it was the usual random nonsense we talk about," says Fiennes, an adviser on philanthropic giving. "We're going to have to find ways to do the normal social things, or else we're all going to go mad."
Because virtual hangouts involve technology, there are often glitches. Not everyone makes use of the mute button when they should, and conversation doesn't flow like it would in person. Four seems to be a manageable number but for a big family dinner you might want to try a more directed approach; play a couple rounds of 20 Questions or decide on a question or topic and each person/group gets a turn to have their say.
Fiennes, who considers herself a very social person, imagines that as the weeks of isolation wear on, the dinner parties could get ever more elaborate, just for the sake of diversion. She's planning to "get together" with college friends on Saturday for a dinner, and there's talk of having everyone cook the same recipe, so they can compare their efforts. "At some point, it will be like, 'We're having a posh dinner, everybody dress up!' " she says.
There's plenty of advice against dining alone. It's been linked to depression, obesity and other physical conditions. And the Greek philosopher Epicurus once wrote that "a dinner of meats without the company of a friend is like the life of a lion or a wolf." Not that everyone is eating all alone these days - plenty of people are at home with families, spouses or roommates - but even a limited number of dining companions can make people feel lonesome.
Alice Julier, a sociologist and the author of Eating Together, says being forced to dine at home has been good in some ways: It's made people more aware of their dependence on restaurants and more conscious of the labour involved in putting food on the table. But depriving people of the ability to eat communally goes against our nature, she says. "We don't feel good in isolation, most of us," she says. "We've organised our whole world around social contact."
And sharing food is a natural way to maintain such connections, even in these weird times. Setting up virtual dinner dates, says Ferguson, takes away some of the potential awkwardness of asking people to sit down and do a video chat with you. "Situating it around a meal makes it feel more natural - in a completely unnatural situation," he says.