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The Quiet Tragedy of Losing Communal Meals

For many communities, especially minority diasporas in America, the ability to share food is a critical connection to traditions and customs

One of the best restaurants in L.A. is Meals by Genet, a button-sized bistro in the heart of the metropolis where Genet Agonafer cooks, all by herself, some of the best Ethiopian food in America.

No matter whether she’s serving a two-person date or party of 10, her food arrives at the table on a gleaming silver tray. At the base of the tray is chewy injera bread, serving as a foundation for little mounds of stewed vegetables, arranged like the digits on a clock. I’ve eaten so many different delicious things on this tray, with so many different people: the green lentil dish azifa, butter-drenched ribeye chopped with red pepper, collard greens. But the thing that sticks out to me most, as with so many of her customers, is Agonafer’s famous doro wat.

It looks like a simple thing on the tray, just some chicken smothered in a spicy, burnt-orange sauce, redolent of melted onions and the fiery Ethiopian spice blend known as berbere. Yet like the world’s greatest stews, doro wat might as well be pure alchemy — the result of rain, soil, flame and time, distilled into an entrée and plopped on top of tangy bread.

Eating this iconic Ethiopian dish feels like a celebration, given the communal nature of meal service and the instinctive way that injera serves as its own utensil when torn with fingers and dipped into sauce. “To us, food is everything. We eat together every day, and we make sure to feed each other. We have a custom called ‘gursha’ — putting a bite in someone’s mouth,” Agonafer tells me. “Food is for every occasion, be it sad, happy, anything. Someone has a baby, and we cook for 40 days. Someone dies, we also cook for 40 days. Eating together is the most important thing.”

COVID, of course, leaves little room for that, and the new normal is a bizarre place for Agonafer. In 20 years of running Meals by Genet, never did she expect that a global pandemic would one day prevent people from sharing food in her dining room. Amid a stunning rise in virus cases in Southern California, Agonafer is choosing to serve takeout only. The notion that she can have people dine inside, yet adhere to social-distancing rules, seems absurd. “To serve Ethiopian food without the part about sharing, it’s just insane. How are you going to keep people apart?” she remarks.

So, for now, Agonafer cooks alone as she always did, but without the connection and buzz that energized the last two decades of her life. To lose that tether to the people she feeds, sometimes literally by hand, is a small tragedy, among many larger ones — death, illness, rampant poverty, political corruption, social unrest. But for many communities, especially minority diasporas in America, losing the ability to share food and eat communally has meant losing a critical connection to their traditions and customs, too. Everyone enjoys a meal with their loved ones, but sharing the same dishes at the dinner table is engrained more deeply in the consciousness of some cultures.

It’s been a strange time for me, a Korean-American who grew up understanding that the proper way to celebrate is to sit a whole bunch of people around a table and grab food from the same plates. Many Westerners seem confused by the Korean penchant of dipping your personal spoon into a shared stone bowl of bubbling stew, or feeding each other for no apparent reason other than some spontaneous affection. To be comfortable with these habits is a sort of signifier that you understand the everyday tics of Korean culture, including the history of sharing food so closely.

And while it’s not something I forced on my non-Korean friends, I’ve basically always celebrated life events by gathering people and feeding them well. The doldrums of shelter-in-place — amid a pandemic that is nowhere near contained in the U.S. — make such a gathering an outright impossibility. It’s agonizing for anyone who prides themselves on hospitality, like Agonafer. It only hurts more to know that her customers still think about her despite being limited to takeout or moving away from L.A., she says.

“When this unfolded, I’m not kidding you, I was crying on a daily basis. People would call me, asking if I needed money, any supplies. I was so blown away by that,” Agonafer tells me. “I miss that interaction with my customers so much. So I still try to go out and say hello when someone is picking up an order. They say it makes life feel a little more normal.”

There has been a significant dip in business, and many restaurants that specialize in communal dining and service have seen major losses because their diners want the real experience, not a to-go version of it. Gazala Halabi, who runs Gazala’s Restaurant in New York City, chuckles when I ask whether her cooking is suited for the takeaway business. “I disagree with the idea. All food quality goes down when you put it in a package and let it sit for 20, 30 minutes,” Halabi says. “I hate it! It’s not the way.”

Halabi grew up in a Druze town in Israel named Daliat el-Carmel, about an hour north of Tel Aviv, where she was immersed in the traditions of this Arab-speaking religious minority. Like both their Muslim and Jewish neighbors, the Druze place an outsized importance on food, and their techniques and specialties have made Daliat el-Carmel a culinary jewel in the region. To share food at the table, including with strangers, is sacred. Rotating a variety of mezze is the norm, as is tearing into a single big entree (say, a slowly braised lamb shank) with lots of super-thin Druze pita bread.

Like Agonafer, Halabi is a bit of a perfectionist; she is meticulous in her recipes and dedicated to hands-on cooking. Her homemade labneh is intensely tart and a must at the table; the baba ghanouj is made one batch at a time rather than all at once. She sighs softly when noting that American palates demand less intensity (of salt, acid and spice) than her Druze tastebuds suggest. To cook for others is instinct by now. Halabi never intended on opening a restaurant; she moved to the U.S. in 2001 with her Druze-Israeli husband, against the wishes of her family, who believed a good Druze woman needed to stay close to home.

When I ask how she’s been handling the COVID pandemic and the loss of eating together, Halabi’s mind snaps back to her first years in America. “To have no family, no friends, it was very very hard. Druze life is so together, everyone talks and meets and shares and eats together,” she says. “In New York, I was cooking alone in my apartment and handing out food to my neighbors. I didn’t know any better. And it’s hard now, in a similar way. A lot of people are eating alone now.”

Losing your dining room and group events is a massive dent in the bottom line, but losing the energy of a big family or wedding party feels a little like a spiritual loss to Padmini Aniyan, the co-owner of the beloved Indian restaurant Mayura in L.A.. She’s now resorting to generous freebies to show regular customers that she’s still thinking about them, but it’s hardly flexing the craft of hospitality that she honed over the last decade and a half running Mayura with her husband. Eating communally with your hands is a cornerstone of every big Indian celebration, whether it’s a wedding, Diwali or Gandhi’s birthday; right now, Aniyan just misses seeing extra-large platters of food floating out to a group of 25, eliciting “oohs” and wide grins.

“All over India, families getting together to eat is very important every single day. It’s like a divine feeling to do it with people you love. I’m sure everyone is missing it badly. I can’t even imagine how you social-distance an Indian wedding,” she says. “Even more than other cultures, we love gathering together so much. The bigger the better. We celebrate all the holidays at Mayura, and people line up for our specialties, so it might be a tragedy this year to miss that.”

We saw this unfold with the holy Muslim holiday of Ramadan, which took place from April to May. COVID decimated the tradition of happy gatherings for the breaking of the daily fast, called iftar. During the 30-day fast, few things spark joy quite like this feast in the evening, yet countless Muslims found themselves having to eat takeout alone. No private dinners, no big meetings in the park or town square — even though communal dining is the cornerstone of the holy celebration.

Of course, humans are a resilient bunch. Despite the depressing course of 2020, Muslims from Washington to Florida banded together to try and take all that restless energy and channel it to good, feeding vulnerable people free meals and offering delicious food via campaigns like #DriveThruIftar. Agonafer is quick to note in our conversation that her business problems and the sadness of losing communal dining is a small price compared to, say, growing homelessness or medical workers getting sick (her son works in an ER, amplifying the stress).

Eating together and sharing food, however, is more than just leisure — it’s a serious cultural act. It helps bond people and ignite their faith in the community around them. It helps support ethnic diasporas in places that might not value such customs in the same way. It reaffirms, through the tangible pleasure of food, the joy of spending time with others.

Agonafer is a vegan now, so she wouldn’t eat the doro wat her customers love, but it’s still the dish she would cook at her restaurant for a hypothetical breaking of COVID distancing with all of her favorite people. Then again, she reminds me that cooking for people will hardly be the first thing she does when her dining room safely reopens in L.A.

“I just cannot wait to just hug them,” she says, giggling. “Really, the most important thing for me is to hug them and say, ‘Thank you, and welcome back.’”