ANDIE PTAK RECENTLY went to a dinner party with longtime friends. But instead of sitting around a candlelit dining table, they met in a backyard and ate at small tables at least 10 feet apart. They wore masks while they chatted with each other, taking them off only to eat.
The benefits outweighed the slight weirdness of it all. “It was lovely. It was really good to see friends,” says Ptak, who’s extra careful because she has respiratory issues. “The food was delicious, the company was wonderful and the weather was perfect.”
Ptak and her husband, Aaron Houseknecht, have also invited their daughter, Dakota, and Dakota’s boyfriend, Walker, over for shared meals. They keep their distance by dining at TV tables on the back deck.
Few things bring people together like a good meal — even, it turns out, if they’re not sitting side by side.
Laura Cooper is part of an ongoing supper-club group of about 10 people who used to prepare potluck dinners with recipes from a given cookbook every few weeks.
“When COVID hit, we obviously didn’t do anything for a really long time,” she says, especially since many of them work in health care. But by summer, they were itching to see, and cook for, one another.
They decided to forego the sit-down dinner part. Instead, everyone packed their carefully prepared offerings in separate containers. They met at one friend’s house to distribute the meals and have a socially distanced chat, then went home to dine. They rejoined via videoconference for an after-dinner beverage and conversation.
“It was so fun just to kind of share a meal, even though it was virtually,” Cooper says. And dinner — which included a lamb shank and an onion tart — allowed them to share their love of cooking again.
Virtual meals have become a staple at The Pantry in Ballard. Owner Brandi Henderson and her crew of professional chefs switched from their popular cooking classes, family-style dinners and hands-on field trips to online classes just as people everywhere were realizing they’d be eating at home more often.
They now teach in two studios they carved out of their kitchen spaces, complete with sophisticated lighting and multiple cameras. Classes range from cocktails to baking to preparing fish.
When I tagged along at a sheet-pan family dinner class, two of the participants turned out, unexpectedly, to be neighbors. “This is hilarious!” one of them said as they smiled and waved from their Zoom windows.
One couple mentioned having done a few classes with Becky Selengut, the instructor. “Maybe more like 4,000 classes,” she joked, and they agreed, laughing.
There are lots of jokes. “You can throw in all the knowledge you want, but if it isn’t fun, it doesn’t mean much,” Selengut told me after class.
At this point, the production is a well-oiled machine. Marie Rutherford, the class host that evening, handled technical issues (“Every class, we build in about five errors so you don’t have to feel bad,” Selengut told the group) and moderated the chat.
Part of the fun of cooking is the final product, of course — in this case, a meal of chicken, roasted veggies and peanut-butter cookie bars.
“At the end, not only are you proud of yourself; you have a delicious meal — and you’ve shared it with other people,” Rutherford said.