Food in a Time of Quarantine – Tilly Dillehay

It’s a strange time for food in the United States. As far as the supply chain goes, we have plenty of it, we have been repeatedly assured. Even so, families using WIC and food stamps suffered during weeks of empty shelves due to panic-buying. Grocery stores have experienced increased sales, while restaurants struggle to get by. People online joke about the “Quarantine-15.” And those of us who’ve quarantined have experienced something new: long months of eating our meals at home, with family, in private. Our most basic human habits have changed.

I’ve been blessed during this time to discover that, in many ways, my life hasn’t been altered substantially. I was home with small children before. I’m still home with small children. My husband hasn’t lost his job. I’ve experienced much, but not the total shock to everyday life. Church meetings had been the biggest loss—and those have started back again. 

Our most basic human habits have changed.

But there’s been one area of life that has continually come to my mind during quarantine. I’ve noticed some shifts in my approach to food. I’ve also noticed friends, family members, and neighbors—reporting their private experiences through screens and neighborly chats across the driveway—experiencing food in new ways.

Here’s what I’ve seen.

1. There’s Life After Gluttony

This is the most obvious, if you’ve seen any meme anywhere for the last two months. Everybody’s aware that the various challenges of work, parenting, fear management, and social/spiritual isolation have often translated to extra trips to the fridge.

In the privacy of constant home life, I’ve come face to face with my own lack of temperance. Many of us have come to a crossroads in our quarantine—where the desire for comfort has intersected with our realization that we have to somehow keep our bodies going, as the crisis develops into a longer-term way of life. The virtues still serve us—before, during, and after quarantine. And virtue at the table means approaching our food with gratitude, self-control, and presence of mind.

We’re like children in the face of COVID-19: full of questions, uncertain of whom to trust, impatient with our experience of time. How fortunate that, for the Christian, a child is exactly what we are—whether we’re dealing with the problems of plenty or the problems of famine. COVID-19 has only given us clarity. We feel we have no control—that’s because we don’t. We feel our experiences are new and strange—and they are. We feel we need someone to take care of us—and we do. 

We have an opportunity to lean into some of these awakened feelings of helplessness. Because in reality, we’re children. Children with a great Father. And he has promised to watch over us in matters small as well as great (Matt. 6:25–26). His children can sit down to a plate of food, enjoy it with full attention, then get up to do something else. This is what it means to be a child. And children who know their Father is both good and powerful don’t need to bury their heads in the pantry in order to forget their troubles.

2. Hospitality Has Shifted Gears

The people in my church have gathered for a potluck meal every Sunday for about 35 years. Until March of 2020, this tradition felt unbreakable. As country folk, we usually invited people over to our homes for supper instead of suggesting a meal out. But for my family and friends in nearby Nashville, cutting off access to restaurant dining felt like cutting off a lifeline.

We’ve all had to adjust. For my small community, hospitality as we knew it was absent—or seriously modified—from life. Instead of inviting groups of people for a meal, we were sharing prayers over Zoom. Instead of preparing potlucks in the church kitchen, we were leaving groceries on porches. It was a disruption. But not a discontinuation.

Now, as restaurants begin to reopen on a limited basis, it looks like people are only slowly trickling back to eating out. Some who weren’t used to regular in-home hospitality now have the time, drive, and mental space to think about it. Surely, as we ease slowly into public life again, our first options for fellowship may be old-fashioned: “Y’all want to come over for supper?” In this way, people may rediscover the experience of home-table fellowship.

3. Some of Our Food Conceptions Have Been Removed

It was as if the whole internet fitness world went dark during those first few weeks of quarantine. None of the workout buffs was pushing for new and better ab definition. The nutritional gurus had nothing to say about why we shouldn’t be consuming gluten. It was like a silent agreement had been reached, that the public fragility needed to be respected. Just as the candy aisle of grocery stores remained well-stocked, even while meat and potatoes disappeared, there was plenty of powdered goji berry available, even while canned goods flew off the shelves.

Emergencies have a way of “trimming the fat,” so to speak, when it comes to excessive or frivolous diets. It appears that in the face of true death threats, those of us tempted to idolize bodily health experience conflicting fears. We instinctively reach for simple when faced with a health crisis.

The little ways we’re tempted to use food as social markers don’t seem to matter quite as much when we’re doing all our eating inside the privacy of our homes. Finding out about that cool new ingredient before others do, researching an obscure diet, posting impressive lists of the foods we no longer intend to poison our bodies with—these pleasures have seemed dimmed during the coronavirus.

This is something Scripture has been telling us all along: wartime is no time to be nitpicking each other about food (Rom. 14:3, 17).

4. The Family Table Is Back

In a return to a way of life that some of us have never experienced, many families are now eating meals together. For better or worse, we’re reduced to depending on the people we live with for both the food on the table and the fellowship we experience while eating it. 

Some children have never experienced home-baked bread before. Now, I see dozens of women online talking about their baking joys, as flour suppliers scramble to keep up with demand. I’ve never seen so many vegetable gardens in my community. Seasoned gardeners and newbies like myself are suddenly seized with the urge to grow tomatoes, corn, potatoes, and green beans out of any nearby patch of soil.

Christian families may begin to recognize new gospel opportunities. If we keep a family table, that means we can invite people to it. The family table won’t deliver the gospel to anybody, but it’s certainly an occasion for sharing it.   

The family table won’t deliver the gospel to anybody, but it’s certainly an occasion for sharing it.

For many years, the table has often been crowded out of our busy schedules. One wonders if—even as we filter out of our homes—we’ll recognize the value of these outposts and keep them higher on our priority list in the future.

Food and Gratitude

Before quarantine, during quarantine, and as we begin to ease out of quarantine, one part of our life remains unchanged.

To sit quietly and thank God for his provision of a plateful of something reminds us of our humanity. It reminds us that we’re not ultimately in control of our destinies. And it reminds us that, like the sparrow, we’re looking expectantly to the One who is.

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