Oh joy, my lockdown food is on its way

Look, I said pointing to the screen on my phone: Rodwick’s turning into North Street. I knew the Uber Eats delivery man’s name, an impressive feat of 21st-century technology that still floors me.

My nephew rolled his eyes and, to paraphrase Graham Greene — writing in his excellent 1955 novel The Quiet American — flung his unmistakably young and unused face at me like a dart.

The withering glance was matched by an equally contemptuous muttering under his breath: “You need a life.”

I blame it on the pandemic, this new sport of tracking food from its source to my table. It’s a game, sort of, but not quite the farm-to-fork principle that is so in vogue.

Only, instead of a field on a farm, from which vegetables are plucked, still clinging to the soil they’ve fed on, think of a steamy kitchen where a chef in a white hat expertly tosses and drizzles and sprinkles over a sizzling pan.

Like Pavlov’s dogs, my saliva glands begin to secrete when the app tells me that the chef has to prepare my dinner. It informs me when it is being packed, letting me know my “prawn curry, extra raita, carrot pickle, paratha, no rice” has been picked up by Rodwick.

I can follow his little Suzuki motorcycle — my yummy dinner safely tucked into its black hotbox behind the rider’s seat — all the way from Norwood to Birdhaven.

As he draws ever closer, my mouth juices flow more freely as excitement builds. The anticipation … It’s the culmination of my day, a day usually spent at my desk, often glued to a Zoom screen, or writing, as I am now.

Ordering a takeaway is a new and unusual experience for me. BC (Before Covid), I had never ordered food online — well, in New York, perhaps, but never in Johannesburg.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not holier-than-thou-slavish to fresh, home-cooked food, and am happy to eat ready meals that, after being defrosted, go into an oven or are tipped into a pan to be heated.

Everything changed when, one chilly day in the first weeks of hard lockdown, I was too engrossed with watching the bizarre Tiger King — the Netflix series that gave us all something to talk about on our Zoom calls to friends — to be bothered with reheating.

An aside: this comment came from a friend. “Tiger King? Wow, that dates you.” I suppose it does: to April 2020. Have you noticed how, since the start of the pandemic, we seem to measure time by the series we’ve watched or are watching: Tiger King in hard lonely lockdown, then Unorthodox; the final season of Shtisel, Mare of Easttown and The White Lotus. How else would we measure time, since we have no reference points like holidays or dinner parties or any social outings that would have been calendar markers BC.

Research publication Sage Journals recently published a paper on a student study done around this time. The Covid-19 pandemic, it said, has “majorly disrupted many aspects of people’s lives, provoking psychosocial distress among students. People’s positive and negative attitudes towards the past, present and future were a dispositional pre-Covid-19 reality. Faced with a pandemic, people have reported disruptions in the speed of passing time.”

And there you have it, from the mouths of researchers. 

It is becoming more and more evident that when there are huge societal changes — I think we can all agree that the pandemic represents such a monumental change — people need to have moments to hang onto.

By way of example, many of my friends with children who’d been forced into homeschooling devoted a not inconsiderable amount of time yearning for schools to reopen.

And so in the middle of this standstill, I took the plunge and ordered from Uber Eats. The experience of being fed a hot meal from a restaurant in my own home was so enjoyable, it fuelled my new sport: the following of motorcycle deliverymen bringing me tasty treats. It also involved taking bets (with myself) on the accuracy of the advertised arrival time.

The advent of Covid-19 has inexorably changed us in ways that we do not even begin to realise. Our concept of time and sense of urgency seems to have drifted into a miasma of despair at worst, or apathy at best. We seem to have reset the clock, which, in itself, is not necessarily a bad thing.

Tejal Rao, restaurant critic for the New York Times, described a world that is alien to current day lockdown diners.

“I used to sit down to dinner at 9.30pm, or even 10,” she wrote, “and didn’t think twice about it, but in the past two years I have aged approximately three decades. I now find myself committed to the early-bird dinner.”

Have we not all turned into retirement village residents, happy to sup when, or even before, the sun goes down?

BC, you were always invited for 8pm to my friend Peter’s legendary Saturday-night dinner parties. Eight for 8.30pm to be more precise. He called it keeping European hours. 

We — those of us who dared not refuse (for reasons of FOMO, or fear of missing out) — called it indigestion-late, since the last sumptuous course was usually served close to midnight.

Then came the Covid curfew and everything moved forward by at least two hours. Today, most people keep “old people” eating hours: booked in at a restaurant by 5.30pm or 6pm. Wined, watered and dined by eight. Home very soon after that — especially since the roads, until recently, have been empty because many people have avoided eating out, preferring to stay safely ensconced in their homes — waiting no doubt for men on motorcycles to deliver piping-hot, restaurant-quality dinners.

Still, there’s something deliciously subversive about eating early; about getting home long before nine. Mostly it means that you still have several hours before bedtime — time to allow some sort of digestion to take place before turning in.

There is still enough time to read a book or watch TV. (Catch The White Lotus on Showmax if you haven’t already; it’s mesmerising and composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s soundtrack is as impressive as the line-up of brilliant characters.)

The beauty of an early feed is that you’ll still be asleep at a respectable hour, ensuring you keep your circadian rhythm as you get your beauty sleep.

A restaurateur friend says that although shorter hours means lower booze sales, it also means a shorter, more focused service, at the end of which restaurant staff can clean down and get home to their families early-ish.

Whether we will return to late-night dining is unclear. But, if my friend Peter’s changed attitude persists — that there are upsides to eating early — we will not.

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Charmain Naidoo
Charmain Naidoo is a journalist and regular Thought Leader contributor

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