In late spring, my kid went for a walk with some friends she hadn’t seen in a while, and they ended up hanging around outside our place as dinnertime rolled around. In normal times, or times when have I felt empowered to manage a global public health crisis with “an abundance of caution” and some commonsense adaptations, I would have invited them to stay for dinner and eat outside on the porch, but dinner that night was basically me forcing everyone to revisit the prior Week in Food by serving every leftover at once. Half a vegetable quiche, a baked zucchini-tomato thing, some night-before chicken, a large heap of watermelon wedges, black beans, rice pilaf, a small bowl of pasta in a creamy sauce, and a plate covered in a single layer of cucumber slices. I believe I added to this smorgasbord some steamed dumplings and warmed naan. When I was in high school, I went to a boyfriend’s house, and his father was moving his bowels in the half bathroom off the entryway with the door open. I felt like if my kid’s friends saw this dinner spread, they would remember me as I remember that dad, that dad and his thighs. That dad just waved hello to me from the can, shamelessly. I chose to watch my child’s friends walk home, one with a mane of hair like a young Samson, the other taller than me and graceful as a gazelle, and both probably hungry.
Although I still feel inhospitable about that evening this spring, it’s pretty nice not to host dinners. It just is. Earlier this summer, I was in a place where many vaccinated relatives were spread out over several lodgings and we could, all 20ish of us, eat outside together. One night, we were guests for such a dinner, and we all had delicious Vietnamese bun bowls. The following night, we were hosting. We had no plan or groceries for this dinner as of 2 p.m., and people were coming at 4 p.m. To get groceries, I needed to bike to the place where our car was being fixed, stow the bike in the back of the car, then drive to another town and shop in an unfamiliar store where people were alternately wearing masks and gloves and giving each other as broad a berth as possible or parking in the narrow aisles and yapping about types of pickles as they shared tubes of lip balm. One guy had taken a seat on a window sill and draped his leg over the stack of shopping carts as he talked loudly about a conflict with a friend, or a group of friends, or maybe someone he hated.
With roughly 70 minutes until people would expect food, because we had advertised the availability of food, I decided to just get cookout stuff. I looped around the store 85 times and picked up any ingredient that seemed like it had ever been part of a cookout menu. Burgers and dogs made of animals and of vegetables. Caprese salad, but with mozzarella that was compressed into a moisture-free block, like the kind of mozzarella you might whack at with your 4×4-shaped fist in Minecraft. Avocados. For what purpose? A garnish? A topping? I wasn’t sure. Things to make a green salad. Then, for no reason: several boxes of couscous. Then: things to make the couscous into tabouli. Chips upon chips. Many condiments, some in very small jars, others in large squirt bottles. At one point, standing in the aisle-long checkout line, my concerns subsided for a glorious ten seconds in which I figured out how to characterize this dinner. It was just going to be the most basic bitch barbecue. Naming it made me feel empowered and proud without cause, like a wellness influencer. And who cared? It was a nice night, and we were going to be outside in a place where the sunsets are lovely.
In the car, I had a moment of creeping dread that I tried to ignore, and then it turned into the familiar low constant hum of imminent failure. My bike tire made weird noises as it rubbed against the grocery bags. The local radio station, which plays the least challenging music ever made, lulled me a little bit, but then made me feel queasy, like when well-meaning women congratulate you too heartily for doing something very run-of-the-mill.
Back at the house, I set about making various salads. The caprese salad, in addition to involving a very springy, gymnastics-mat-like mozzarella, was made of slices of tiny grape tomatoes because those were the only ripe-ish ones I could find. It ended up looking like a mosaic someone had kicked before it had set, so I tried to hide everything under basil leaves. I cooked the tabouli and then neglected it for a while, so all the grains stuck together in the pot and dumped into the bowl in the shape of a wheel of cheese. I pried the grains apart with two forks and then put too little of everything that goes into tabouli into it. This time, rather than use herbs to hide the main event, I tried to obscure the whole situation with feta cubes and olives. Interestingly, tabouli contains neither feta nor olives.
At the end of the night, the “tabouli” had recongealed into a solid block, and not a single spoonful of it had been eaten. I wondered if I had unconsciously set up a psychological experiment. Setting out my shame tabouli was a little bit like setting out a stack of photos graphically depicting eye surgery on the coffee table of a waiting room full of students waiting to do an experiment that would earn them $100. But the experiment WAS the waiting room, and would they engage with the photos of detached retinas or was it too emotionally risky and socially terrible?
One day I would like to just fully give up and show up at a potluck with a bowl of loose cigarettes, one grape and one orange flavored vape pen, some Twizzlers, and a pile of scratch tickets. Or a large bag of apples. As my children’s favorite daycare teachers, Ms. Sam and Mr. Justin, used to say: “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.”
Nowadays, though, everyone is upset, with cause and without cause. Back in March/April, when many people were vying to get vaccinated and the daily death counts and infections were printed alongside the more hopeful data about vaccinations, a friend said he felt like we were in the Millennium Falcon in the Empire Strikes Back, gunning for the diminishing open spaces between the teeth of the giant albino space worm so we could get free. The teeth were the Covid variants. The moxie of Han Solo and the fuel left in the vessel was the vaccine. Unlike in the movie, we have at least skinned the roof off of the Millennium Falcon, and our neighbors are dropping down the monster’s throat.
I have neighbors I really like who are not getting vaccinated. One said he was trying to buy hydroxychloroquine. We are not “let’s grab a bite” neighbors, so navigating eating together is not an issue. But lately a number of people I thought I’d like to eat dinner with, I have learned, are entrenched anti-vaxxers, and even though it’s small number of people, less than half a dozen, it seems like a million people. One set of these people has been disinvited to things, whereas another set of these people are circulating amongst the public and then just being allowed to roll the dice on everyone’s behalf at dinner. Dinners I have avoided. My only move at such a dinner, if I attended one, would be to ask the unvaccinated, “Does this cocktail napkin smell like chloroform?” while wearing a hazmat suit and then shooting the people down a Slip ‘n Slide into a holding tank. Not a terrible holding tank though, but something like the smokariums airports sometimes have. There, everyone agrees, and no one is hungry. It’s perfect!