Web Exclusives #4: “It Wasn’t Tokyo, But It Would Do”

*For our recently published special issue, “Food in the Time of COVID-19”, we received more submissions than we could accommodate in the print version of the issue, so the following article forms part of a series of submissions which will be published as Web Exclusives which speak to the theme of Gastronomica 20.3.

By Dana Jennings Jelter

March 31, 2020: San Francisco, CA

Last year, we ate the freshest sashimi in Tokyo.

This year, we argued over how long we should scorch the pizza box.

We’re not food snobs. OK, he’s not a food snob. I get a little snobby, but only if it’s on one of three special occasions when we allow ourselves to have an “elevated dining experience.” He hates when I say elevated. Maybe I am a food snob.

Our anniversary has always been a time to splurge, a day to do something memorable and outside our comfort zone. For me, it usually involves food.

Twelve months ago, it meant crossing my dream foodie vacation off our bucket list. During COVID-19, it meant ordering take-out.

I dug through my box of sculpting supplies for a wrinkled pair of plastic gloves I’d normally use while molding toxic clay. Now, I’d use them to swipe my credit card.

I raised the box of gloves in an offering to my partner who shook his head. He opted for stretching the sleeves of his waffle-print thermal down over his fingers as he turned the metal knob of our outermost apartment door. We pulled our masks over our heads and down our faces. A familiar uniform, we actually felt lucky to have respirators left over from last year’s wildfires.

Lucky, for two devastating events within a year. An earthquake would really complete the trifecta, we joked darkly.

The pizzeria was only a 14-minute walk, but with masks laboring our breath up the rolling San Francisco hills, the jaunt felt like a marathon.

When we arrived, a short stairway in front of the pizzeria led to a dark dining area. The absence of light seemed for no other reason than to remind us that these weren’t normal times. Maybe a lamp would make customers a little too cozy. The sentiment seemed to be get in, tip well, and get out.

In the city’s North Beach neighborhood, it felt like we were entering a speakeasy, like the ones that made their homes just across the street 100 years ago. What we were doing wasn’t illegal, of course, but it felt dangerous. Were we risking our lives for the cheap thrill of greasy carbs?

A woman still lingered in the dining room clutching her brown paper bag. She smiled at our uncomfortable grimaces as we desperately danced between tables to give her enough room to leave. She so clearly didn’t want to leave. Her eyes were pained and she seemed to ache for social interaction. I smiled but quickly turned my head, as if I’d forgotten the nuances of being human.

A man who looked in his seventies came from the kitchen for my credit card and I tossed it on his tray like a hot coal. He gave me a nod that seemed to say “thank you” and “I’m sorry,” at the same time. I couldn’t imagine what he was going through as a business owner and I immediately regretted not ordering more food. I had the extra money now, but would I later? I guess that wasn’t guaranteed, but I felt my privilege. At the end of the day, I’d have an anniversary we’d probably recall for years as less-than-exciting, but we would be healthy, safe, and best of all, full of pizza.

When we’d reached the safety of our apartment, I carefully slid the pizza box into the preheated oven like a lab intern handling Plutonium. We based our actions on the experience and information we had, and it wasn’t much. While my sweaty, gloved fingers cross-contaminated my favorite room of the apartment, I immediately regretted taking this shot at normalcy. But there’s nothing quite like crispy cups of oil-pooled pepperoni to turn your paranoia to comfort.

I watched my partner wring his sudsy hands at the sink while I stood next in line, arms outstretched like a surgeon.

“Don’t touch the box!” I snapped as I noticed him about to break protocol.

We’d read all about safely consuming take-out and had agreed on a solid plan:

  1. Walk into the house without touching anything
  2. Put the pizza box directly into the oven
  3. Wash your hands vigorously for twenty seconds
  4. Come back to the oven with your freshly cleaned hands and crank the temperature

After more bickering and Googling, we agreed on a proper amount of time to re-heat the cardboard and its contents. As the ticking kitchen timer scored the mood, I knew we were both making peace with the fact that this might be date night for a while, but we’d adjust.

We ate in silence—barring our chewing and the guzzling of beer that seemed a necessity. I thought of last year’s delicacies that made the soggy cardboard in front of me seem savage.

It was different, but at least it was still memorable.

It wasn’t Tokyo, but it would do.

Dana Jennings Jelter is a writer, editor, and artist from Upstate New York. She is the author of the short story collection Love in the Slow Lane and won a Daytime Emmy Award during her time as an associate producer at Lucasfilm. Dana’s writing focuses on culture, entertainment, and culinary history.