The Art of Eating In

Napkins, I have come to learn over the past few months, are the secret to a good in-vehicle eating experience. Tons of them. As many as the hard-working masked woman (maybe man?) at the little window behind the Plexiglas shield will hand over.

The sad fact is, you can’t not make at least a little mess when you’re eating out/in these days. It’s impossible not to plop a dollop of ketchup, smudge a streak of grease, or lose a stray sesame seed into a table-less seat while navigating a steering wheel in your grill and an arm rest in your rib. A well-placed napkin or three is sometimes all that’s between you and an unsightly stain on your shorts.

It oughta be on all the public service announcements: Six feet apart; Wash your hands, a lot; Don’t touch your face; Bring napkins.

Life during the pandemic.

I always thought that eating in the car was the sphere of anti-social gluttons and puppy-packing families on the road. Why else would you do it?

But the coronavirus has changed even the basics of life, like the ability to safely snarf down a too-big burger and an insane amount of fried potatoes while sitting in plastic chairs with a bunch of like-minded strangers. No hob-nobbing with the local plumbers and painters these days. No more watching tired moms idly sipping a soda and staring at their smartphones while their kids tumble down a germ-infested indoor slide.

It’s a little thing, maybe, missing Wendy’s. But it hits home. For millions of us.

In the absence of a fluorescent-tinged safe space, now we have to hit up our apps to order and sit in the drive through (or park in the curbside delivery spot) to get our quickie lunch (or desperation dinner). And then, the question is this: Rush home, where the fried potatoes have turned into a barely warm box of congealed salt and fat and the burger has self-deconstructed into something you don’t want to think about? Or find a parking spot to settle into, as fast as you can, and get it while it’s hot?

The last time I parked with a big bag of calories on my lap — I would guess it’s happened five times since the virus arrived — I think I finally nailed it. I cleared the cup holder out so I wouldn’t be scrambling at the drive-through. I knew where I was going to park; close enough so the food would still be faintly palatable by then, but in a place where I could be away from prying eyes while snarfing shamelessly. And in the shade, which always helps if you’re planning to sit in a car in the summer in Georgia.

I spread out the burger wrap on my lap, the “burger” sitting forlornly atop it, with the fries next to it in their little box on another napkin. I put another napkin underneath the burger wrapper — you can never be too careful with fast food — and had yet another napkin ready for my fingers (nothing’s worse than trying to lick a little salty goodness off just-sanitized digits). The bag that all the food came in was open and ready to receive anything I didn’t recognize or want.

And so, I eat, such as it is, watching the traffic stutter by and wondering how in the heck we all ended up here.

If it seems like a lot of trouble — too much trouble, maybe, for what it is, which is an inexpensive and non-nutritious gut-filler — well, yes. I can see where you might think that.

But these days, when everything is so whacked out and a little slice of normal sometimes seems unreachable, you grasp for what you can get. You laugh with your family and hold onto that paycheck a little tighter. You talk with friends, and maybe even visit them when you can (from a good 6 feet away). You watch a little too much TV just to give your brain a rest. You try to ignore the politicians. You listen to some oldies. Maybe sit in the sun.

And, once in a while, you embrace the simple pleasure of eating out. Even if it’s eating in.

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