Schefs Zoom call, where students from across the world can tune in to discuss cooking, food or anything related — a great way to enjoy company, and a meal, while quarantining. (Rae Specht / Sun Staff Writer)

July 6, 2020

Eating Together Online with Strangers During the Pandemic

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As college students across the nation impatiently await announcements from universities regarding the status of the coming fall semester, many of us are searching for productive and meaningful ways to spend our free time now that classes have ended. With internships, summer research and academic programs cancelled, some of us are trying to readjust to living in our hometowns with parents and siblings, away from the friends, professors and resources we’ve come to rely on at Cornell.

As we navigate this new reality, many students are staying connected with peers through podcasting, music-making and Youtubing, innovating new ways to engage with others in the absence of physical space. A few weeks ago, I learned about a free platform called Schefs that aims to connect students from different universities and facilitate interesting discussions about a wide range of topics, from pop music to quantum mechanics, all through a shared passion for food. Co-founded by two college students, Pedro Damasceno and Lola Lafia of Columbia University, Schefs started out as a way for like-minded people from schools across the nation to come together on their campuses and share a themed meal. With recent COVID-19 developments, Schefs has gone virtual. The mission of the platform is to enable any college student to host or participate in food-related conversations that we’d traditionally engage in face-to-face, in kitchens, dorm rooms and on-campus spaces.

I convinced my friend, majoring in Performing and Media Arts at Cornell, to virtually attend a Schefs event with me, titled “Films and Food.” Other event selections, hosted by students from various universities included, “Let’s Talk Climate Change over Brekkie,” “Top of the Morning, Bottoms Up: Tea Time for the Gays” and “Biotech and Burritos.” During “Films and Foods,” students from several different schools, including Cornell, Columbia, Yale and Barnard came together for an hour-long Zoom call to talk about our favorite movies, bringing along a snack or food item corresponding with the theme.

Honey drizzled toast. (Rae Specht / Sun Staff Writer)

Honey drizzled toast. (Rae Specht / Sun Staff Writer)

Most participants kept it simple; a juicy peach to represent the famous “peach scene” from Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name (2017), a cozy cup of hot cocoa, a reference to the moment in Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998) when Truman begins to realize he’s living in a constructed reality, as his wife promotes a hot chocolate brand during a serious conversation. Other selections included Pão de Queijo, a traditional Brazilian pastry to honor the 1959 film Black Orpheus, shot in Brazil by Marcel Camus. I snacked on a piece of toast drizzled with local Ithaca honey, corresponding to the 2019 documentary Honeyland, by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, about wild beekeeping in the mountains of North Macedonia.

Produced by Frenesy Film Company, La Cinéfacture, RT Features, M.Y.R.A. Entertainment and Water's End Productions

“The Truman Show” (1998) produced by Scott Rudin, Andrew Niccol, Edward S. Feldman and Adam Schroeder.

After two months of minimal social interaction, aside from a couple socially distanced walks with friends and Zoom lectures (usually with my camera off and mic muted), I was slightly nervous as I logged on to the call. I wondered if it would be awkward, virtually eating and talking with a group of total strangers.

To my pleasant surprise, the conversation was fluid and natural. We discussed the role of food in our favorite films and let the conversation take a shape of its own, hitting all topics, from strange food alternatives that stylists use on movie sets (did you know they sometimes substitute mashed potatoes for ice cream to avoid melting?) and considered some of the most pressing questions known to humankind: Is Gossip Girl so bad that it’s actually a cinematic masterpiece? We watched scenes of movies featuring food that are so artfully produced, you can practically taste what you see, including a sushi-making scene from Wes Anderson’s stop-motion animated film, Isle of Dogs (2018).

"Isle of Dogs" (2018) produced by Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin, Steven Rales and Jeremy Dawson.

“Isle of Dogs” (2018) produced by Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin, Steven Rales and Jeremy Dawson.

Of course, sharing a meal with friends (or random strangers-turned-friends) online has its limitations. Over Zoom, we miss out on some of the most fundamental aspects of cooking and eating together in person. The ever-important sounds and smells of something sizzling in the oven or bubbling on the stovetop can’t be recreated in online spaces. The intimacy of squeezing together around an apartment kitchen table, or passing along a warm fragrant dish, family-style, gets lost in the transition as well. At the same time, as some participants noted during the call, eating together online puts the element of conversation at the forefront and allows for a more diverse group of individuals, anywhere in the world, to share in the experience.

Even for those of us who are surrounded by family, friends or roommates during this strange time, it’s easy to feel isolated in lieu of the programs, classes and social functions that give our summer months structure and help us stay stimulated. Sometimes, eating lunch over Zoom with strangers while reading bad poetry together, or trying to define the term justice over coffee, or making pancakes in front of your computer camera as you ponder the meaning of life in quarantine just hits the spot in a way you wouldn’t expect.

Rae Specht is a rising junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].