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Hey, is the Toast Burning?

Before the pandemic made us retreat behind closed doors, my relationship with food was already socially distant. Now after two months straight of eating at home, it’s become a loveless marriage.

*This article first appeared in the July/Aug ‘Food History’ 2020 issue of Wine & Dine

Years ago, as a bachelor, I lived like a free-spirited jazz musician — meaning my meals were mostly improvised, surprisingly soulful, and raised serious health questions. Let me give you an example. Once, I came home famished after a long day. I was low on groceries, but I found two large potatoes in the furthest, darkest corner of my fridge.

These spuds were in my fridge since the Old Testament. But I was ravenous and unfazed, so I halved them, covered them with mature cheddar, and popped them into the oven. They were excellent with some diced rosemary, black pepper, sour cream, leftover bak kwa, and a couple of fried eggs. Popped open a cold can of soda. Ah, life.

I’ve discovered something over the last 10 weeks of lockdown — this must be what house arrest feels like! You can’t leave your home. There’s limited square footage to roam. You need very specific reasons to roam your neighbourhood while hyperventilating in a face mask. Either you’re picking up dog poo, or abusing yourself pounding the pavement. Amazing options.

The potential was immense in the first week of lockdown. What shall we do with the enforced “free” time? What food delivery shall we order? What’s good on Netflix? But it’s not all fun and games. My favourite mala xiang guo stall is still closed till further notice — yes, 50 days and counting.

I wish I could say we’re sauntering about our apartment in monogrammed bathrobes, perched on artisanal furniture hand-made by prepubescent Tibetan monks, sipping on iced-kombucha, while discussing grown-up stuff like mutual funds. But that’s not the reality.

If this was a Judd Apatow movie, “2020” would be that deadbeat friend you invited to dinner who keeps surprising you with toxic news, one worse than the other.

“Guys, I have a super infectious disease. (Belches loudly) You better get tested.”
“Also, I lost my job. Can you help me with rent?”
“Fine, then can I sleep on your couch?“
“No? Are you racist?”

But seriously, the more I linger on social channels, the more our obsession with food makes us look tone-deaf and privileged. The “pressure” to eat well in Singapore, even in a lockdown, is real. “Influencers” are plating their char kway teow, chicken rice, and satay for the ’gram, while griping about how they must stand and queue at hawker centres in the hot sun. Yes, Karens exist here too.

While the rest of the world simmers with the deadly coronavirus and violent racial conflict , there are Singaporeans debating aggressively about where to find the best wanton noodles.

Excuse me while I get off my grass-fed high-horse to clarify; I am not a bystander. I was born and bred on roast pork rice and mee siam. Pre-Covid-19, I was obsessed with food — the bougie restaurants, the grimy hawker stalls, the rankings, the reviews. The creative stories — written by oh-so-imaginative publicists — behind the leather-bound menus at restaurants that cared as much about their wallpaper as their cauliflower popcorn. What better way to squander your disposable income, am I right?

I paid attention to chefs’ names, and which tuberous root they ate when they were 4 years old that inspired their award-winning dishes that are exactly one mouthful. (Quality over quantity, you plebeians). The fetishizing of food feels so self-important and aggrandising now. When did food become a flex, a status symbol?

Whether you’re throwing instant noodles into boiling water, or attempting your own Beef Wellington, cooking is a white-collar privilege if you are bored, and not hungry. Opening up your fridge for the 27th time in a day? You might need friends. If you’re stalking someone’s Instagram two minutes after dinner for inspiration on what to eat next, your relationship with food is a privilege.

What is “farm-to-table”, when a silent majority are grappling with “hand-to-mouth” in a troubled economy? What is “locally sourced and harvested”, when beloved small businesses with razor-thin margins are shuttering? Maybe I should avoid the harsh 24-hour news cycle and live in a bubble? But hey, I HAVE been in a home-based bubble for 10 weeks.

Not to mention — warning, unpopular opinion ahead because I’m incorrigibly practical — cooking when you’re stuck at home between back-to-back virtual meetings is an absolute chore. There is no redemption in this challenge. There is no “therapy” in the cooking, or the bliss of your meal.

The hawker and delivery culture of cooked food in Singapore is so entrenched, so convenient, that it’s hard to justify putting aside 1.5 hours to set up, wash, cook, and clean again. All that, for 7 minutes of inhaling your onion soup with al dente pasta. The math doesn’t add up.

After almost three months at home, there are afternoons when I feel like a primate chewing on lunch, eyes distant, out the same kitchen window. I’m tired of browsing Netflix for anything decent — because the streaming service is quantity more than quality. I would like to respectfully outsource my meal prep to hardworking hawkers and delivery guys who topple my burgers.

Just spoon me the MSG, I’m fine with it.

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Tommy Wee

Contributor

A contributing editor who knows he can do much better than this "creative" bio, when he's not busy being a thought leader (for himself) he tries to resist putting hot sauce on everything.

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