At Large

Dinner on Speed Dial

By Published On: June 27th, 2024

Managing a move from the Litchfield Hills to the outlying suburbs of Boston is no mean feat. In our case, it involved the standard “tag sales,” farewell dinners with friends, all of which ended up with the de rigueur “We’ll see you soon,” and multiple visits to the town transfer station to make deposits on the “gift table” followed by tossing stuffed bags of trash into the maw of the compactor. Then there were moving vans with their efficient crews, final walk-throughs of a now-cavernous house furnished only with memories, and the final exit down the driveway onto the empty road. We were leaving the country and moving into town.

What quickly emerged from our new existence was a dramatic change in eating habits. None of the neighbors showed up with covered dish casseroles or freshly iced cakes. Not that we expected it. The menus between country and city do not vary all that much in New England. The casserole, or “hot dish,” is likely more a Midwest specialty.  

The local grocery chains are filled with mountains of produce, sprawling meat and seafood departments, and shelves lined with every ingredient possible. But, pizza is pizza. A McDonald’s Big Mac is uniformly the same from coast to coast. That, in fact, is the reason for the success of fast food chains. Wherever you go, the experience, the appearance, and the taste are reassuringly the same.

What’s for dinner?

What is quite different is how one gets dinner. For those whose resumé includes years in New York City, the idea of carry-out food being delivered is not a new experience. City dwellers have long survived on bags of food delivered by bicycle messengers with the only preparation required was opening a bottle of wine and spreading a towel on the coffee table to absorb any errant spills.

Then came COVID.  

Fledgling online services that offered food ordering, pick-up, and delivery for a fee emerged in cities and towns across the country. DoorDash, Grubhub, and Uber Eats became numbers on speed dial, and the answer to “What’s for dinner?” was often “Do you feel like Chinese, Mexican, or Thai?” Grocery stores continue to flourish, but their prepared food sections have grown thanks to the penchant for busy people to not feel like investing an hour of preparation time at the end of a long work day.

For residents of well over 6,000 communities across the country, meal delivery has become a way of life. For those who chose to leave the city and selected homes in more remote regions, believing they could work anywhere, the “cold turkey” realization that life had drastically changed was difficult to process. During the great migration, one wealthy transplant was nearly brought to tears when he asked a local where the nearest Starbucks was since he couldn’t make it through the day without his grande chai latte. “About 20 miles from here” was simply not the desired answer. Food delivery was in the same category in the back woods as specialty coffee shops with friendly baristas and touches of pumpkin spice in the autumn: nonexistent. 

Good humor and the new normal

But by now, many in the neighborhood rely on food delivery vehicles, which park, motors still running, while the ubiquitous brown bag of the evening’s delights are handed through the front door. This regular ritual is the “new normal”.

And, so, it came as a vivid bit of nostalgic counterpoint when on a spring afternoon with the temperature barely crossing 60 degrees, we were startled to hear strains of Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer wafting through the neighborhood. Made something of a light-hearted anthem when Marvin Hamlisch included Joplin’s brilliant ragtime compositions in the score of the 1973 Academy Award winning The Sting, it seemed mildly out of place on a Sunday afternoon in Litchfield.

But, there it was, getting louder and louder, until with slow elegance, the ice cream truck glided down the street, soon followed by a young girl clutching money in her right hand as she intoned “Wait! Stop!”

And, suddenly we were transported back decades to a time when the bells of the Good Humor truck or the signature Mister Softee song would punctuate the evening air in a town far away. The neighborhood kids, playmates, or co-conspirators of our youth would appear from our houses to breathlessly score a second dessert. Good as our instant pudding had been, there was nothing quite like a Creamsicle. We’ve been enjoying food delivery for a long, long time.

Perhaps, it’s a graphic example of how “what’s old is new again.” More to the point, long past the time when milk and bread were delivered to the front door, dinner, lunch, and ice cream are right there, evoking waves of nostalgia … and eliminating dinner dishes and cloth napkins from the evening routine.  

Living in a metropolitan area is certainly different from the bucolic life of the country. Not better. Not worse. Simply different. What do you want for dinner? I’ll call DoorDash.