Virtual dinner parties help people fight isolation during coronavirus outbreak

  • People are "dining" with friends -- virtually -- as they stay home during the coronavirus outbreak.

    People are "dining" with friends -- virtually -- as they stay home during the coronavirus outbreak. Getty Images

Posted3/31/2020 6:00 AM

As the coronavirus outbreak has driven people into their homes, a haunting set of images began circulating on social media.

"We are all Edward Hopper paintings now," one user wrote, accompanying the message with paintings of the American realist artist famous for his portrayals of alienation, often populated by solitary figures in spaces that are typically the sites of conviviality, such as restaurants and cafes.


And many of us do feel like Hopper's lonely people. 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 such as 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 he recently 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 canned goods, and what do we make for dinner tonight?

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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. Taking the regular dinner date online has helped her feel like not everything in life has been upended. 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."

Holidays are when families and friends gather for shared meals, and with Easter and Passover on the horizon, many families are looking for ways to adapt their traditional gatherings. Ben Shlesinger, who does government relations for the American Kidney Fund, and his family usually go to his parents' home in Silver Spring, Maryland, for Passover. His mother has cooked the Seder dinner for as long as he can remember, making brisket, chicken, matzo ball soup and kugel. This year, they won't be there, but his mom came up with the idea of Facetiming the grandchildren as she cooks at least some of the traditional dishes. His 3-year-old daughter will watch from their home in Rockville, Maryland, and so will his niece in New York who is "completely obsessed" with cooking, he says.

Shlesinger says that as parents of two young children, he and his wife are used to a limited social life. "But not being able to have family get-togethers -- that's what's really missing for us," he says.

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. Ferguson and his wife also had a recent online dinner with his uncle and aunt (each household made burgers), and they found that four was a manageable number. But for their big family dinner, they tried a more directed approach, playing a couple of rounds of the game 20 Questions.


Fiennes is weighing whether for future virtual meals with her tennis group, participants should have a phone with them so that if they wanted to break into side conversations, they could. However their gatherings evolve, she's certain that she and her friends will get better at it. "We have months and months to perfect this," she says.

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 labor 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 organized 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.

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