This year has been ... confusing. It’s moved along as quickly as it has slowly. It’s been unpredictably dynamic, even as we sit feeling stagnant on our couches. It’s been divisive and unifying, in turns and simultaneously. And through it all ― the tumult, the boredom, the stress and the uncertainty ― one thing has consistently provided us joy in 2020: food.
Sure, we may have been fickle of heart, embracing and discarding trends faster than ever before as we sought distraction like never before ... but, man, did we find comfort in food this year. At times we fought to acquire our food, feeling like a mighty hunter-gatherer during the great meat and yeast shortages. We made food, mastering sourdough bread and pantry meals. We indulged in food, buying up limited-edition treats in solid attempts to eat our feelings. And we savored food as our favorite restaurants faced shutdowns, treasuring every bite as if it might be the last we’d taste (ahem, COVID-19-related loss of taste and smell).
As we get ready to wish 2020 good riddance, here’s a look at the journeys our palates took while we stayed close to home.
As the new year and decade began, most Americans were either unaware of or optimistic about COVID-19 ― we had not one but two oceans between infection hotbeds. And so, mainstream America carried on with our increasingly elaborate doughnuts and tidy Sunday meal preps, distantly hurting for Italy and China in an empathetic but still slightly detached way. Little did we know what was in store. By the end of the month, a new and unprecedented food trend was the quiet shutdown of typically always open Chinese restaurants and markets as they felt the uneasy deja vu of the avian and swine flus that normalized mask-wearing on the other side of the world so many years ago ... and the beginning whispers of Sinophobia.
We spent January bracing for impact, and in February, COVID-19 breached our borders with a vengeance. The biggest food trend of the month was the act of storing and hoarding, as chicken flew out of market fridges and into home freezers, and limited market hours and socially distanced lines started to appear. Many people panic-bought groceries to stockpile, and food preservation for the long haul became an art. This month was the beginning of a historic home freezer shortage as they sold out across the country.
People began shopping with intent and purpose for simple home recipes as opposed to fun challenges. Scarcity built loyalty for conventional food stores as consumers made their way back to supermarkets to score staples. One such basic was ground beef ― by the end of the month, it was on track to surpass even the demand for chicken, which it did by the end of March. Recipes using chopped meat became a search trend as it was a bit more accessible, and chili, meatloaf, burgers and meatballs enjoyed a moment of glory, elevated from their normally humble status.
This was when the food scene reached its boiling point. Supermarket shelves were bare, which led to supply chain concerns and further panic, building upon the shortages that had begun toward the end of February. Stay-at-home orders and fears of a total lockdown and inaccessible ingredients exacerbated the hoarding and home kitchens started bustling.
By the end of the month, people who hadn’t much experience buying groceries and cooking at home saw their fresh food beginning to spoil, and they started looking for thrifty ways to use their surplus. Banana bread began its rise to the top of home menus, tapping into the desire for comfort, survival, warmth, pleasure and accomplishment. One of the most iconic #quarantinebaking trends, banana bread is nearly foolproof to make, simple to customize and a smart way to make something sweet and nourishing out of cheap fruit on the cusp of spoilage. With its Great Depression-era roots, it smacks of nostalgia and found itself the star of many a publication as “the official comfort food” of the pandemic and the subject of deep historical, lifestyle-wellness and social analysis.
To go along with that sweetness, we all needed coffee. Enter Dalgona coffee, a trend so trendy it was nicknamed TikTok coffee for its stardom on that channel. This cold whipped coffee was all the rage for a hot minute, but it cooled down by mid-April.
Meanwhile, for those restaurants that braved the risk of remaining open, stay-at-home orders meant delivery ones, and takeout became de rigueur ― but people wondered how safe it really was. Third-party services that restaurateurs had quietly labeled necessary but predatory exposed themselves: When Grubhub, Doordash and Uber Eats suspended fees in an effort to generate good optics, their PR backfired as consumers were shocked to learn of the extremely high cuts the services usually gobbled up.
As “Tiger King” ruled the streaming airwaves, sourdough fever came upon us. Everyone was into baking bread, for a myriad of reasons. Bolstered by their success, many then tried their hands at more advanced techniques, such as sweet cinnamon rolls and babkas, as yeast bloomed back on the shelves. When April failed to feel like spring, warming cinnamon found its way into other popular baking projects that were also good uses of odds and ends a la banana bread, such as carrot cake and French toast. And this was the month that “pancake cereal” went viral.
By month’s end, flour had become the hot, rare commodity and home bakers sought more challenging ways to use their newfound skills and experiment with this baking science.
This and ongoing shortages created another pandemic food phenomenon and a smart solution to broken supply chains: restaurant-cum-markets.
Restaurants had begun to really feel the financial pinch of their to-go model. Conflicting information made folks fear the coronavirus could be transmitted via to-go containers. Some went so far as to microwave every dish that came into the house to theoretically kill germs and avoided salads using ’rona as a new excuse. But as more dining establishments closed, farmers were at a loss where to sell their products, revealing the absurd disconnect between wholesale and consumer food distribution. They bemoaned the legally unavoidable waste as they were forced to destroy eggs, dump milk, toss produce and more due to the separation of those supply chains ... even while people begged for their products. So restaurants in some communities converted their empty dining rooms into bodegas, selling restaurant-grade meat, seafood, produce, divvied-up bulk goods, and not-for-retail baked and frozen foods.
In what was proving to be a long quarantine, it was no surprise when kits for DIY cocktails started cropping up and states began legalizing cocktail delivery service and drinks to go.
Amid emerging signs of stovetop fatigue, the kerfuffle over exorbitant third-party fees offered folks the perfect excuse to leave the kitchen and instead support local restaurants, which by now had had two months to get their to-go game together. Servers began delivering, establishments started taking direct orders, and ordering in became the new going out.
The OGs of the takeout-delivery concept, Chinese restaurants, many of which had closed out of fear and threats, started quietly reopening to accommodate demand. By May, 74% of them were back, meaning their sector matched the national 1-in-4 closure rate for restaurants across America. (In evidence of the racial politics of food, pizza parlors experienced a surge during the pandemic even though they also shared a cultural association with a country hard-hit by COVID-19.)
And in a move as nostalgic as chain-store pizzas (looking at you, Pizza Hut BOOK IT!) and as eagerly anticipated as ’90s show reboots, Dunkaroos were revived, returning in triumph to a tizzy of Xennial joy.
The ghost kitchen concept that had started to gain traction in 2019 exploded in popularity amid the new normal. Stir-crazy people tired of following the rules felt a need for naughty, and Prohibition era-reminiscent and drug deal-like adventures in eating became the latest thing. From clandestine, contactless food drop-offs to “underground” businesses, people were itching to break some rules. Newly confident casual bakers and home cooks started selling their pastries, casseroles and jarred items in their communities, federal and state legalities be damned. In fact, in New Jersey, legislation a long time in the making that allowed those sales finally passed. Google searches for “cottage food laws” spiked this month, which also marked the start of a jarring equipment shortage that would come to a head in October.
July and August
During the longest shortest summer ever, we tried to reclaim a sense of normalcy. Trendy foods took a back seat to tried-and-true classics, like grilling at home. Snacking didn’t so much make a comeback as it became our favorite long meal, with people packing bags to picnic in the park and sunbathe by the shore. After months of folks being shut in, eating outdoors was the hottest thing in the summer of 2020 ― under tents or trees, on benches and blankets, at drive-in movies, and in poorly advised parking-lot tailgate and folding-chair circles.
It was during this traditionally slow restaurant season that the family meal package began to emerge. After a day in the sun, on a boat, by the pool, or wherever else, cooking seemed daunting. Families wanted complete family-style eats that they didn’t have to make themselves and restaurants adapted quickly, scaling down their catering menus and scaling up their regular ones to produce package deals for four to eight people.
September and October
Slow cooker and Instant Pot recipes started spiking in searches again. With parents who were working from home now also back to supervising their kids’ virtual learning (if not conducting it themselves), convenience and comfort once more became a priority when figuring out what to eat.
So did warmth. “Igloo dining” became a commonly searched term for those who felt unsafe in semi-enclosed tents, and talk turned to heaters, heaters and more heaters as a qualification for eating-out spots.
Ice cream became cool again for a time due to President-elect Joe Biden’s well-documented love for the stuff. Then, at-home cocktail kits were in demand as the stress of Thanksgiving and the unknowns around it drove many to drink. For the teetotalers, hot chocolate bombs were the beverage of choice.
Obviously, we talked turkey in November, too. Fowl producers worried and speculated while consumers, facing a smaller Thanksgiving table than in years past, hunted smaller turkeys into a near-shortage. Bigger birds were passed over for alternative proteins like ham, beef, roast pork, and seafood, according to Kroger. Others chose to avoid that challenge entirely, taking advantage of more heat-and-eat, carved-and-ready, and hot catering-style family packages as local and national businesses tried their hands at it.
Here we are, folks, in the homestretch of the longest year in history! Most of us have been eagerly counting down to New Year’s in hopes the universe will magically know it’s time to reset and make 2020 up to us. But first, the holidays! Trending now are searches for ordered-in Christmas and Hanukkah dinners from those who either learned from last month or have heard testimony of a successful Thanksgiving. Either way, the prior holiday was essentially a trial run for this option, and restaurants have worked to iron out the kinks for the last big feasts of 2020.
Could something else still make the food headlines this year? There are just a few days left ― but in a year like this, anything can happen.