Allison Ward used to grab coffee during her commute to work. The 34-year-old, a project manager at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, told me she needs caffeine every day, and that ever since the coronavirus pandemic put the city on lockdown, she’s been missing her Starbucks fix.
Then she learned about dalgona coffee. The recipe—made of equal parts instant coffee, sugar, and hot water, whipped until foamy—has been around for years in countries such as India, Greece, and Libya, but became a viral trend in March after South Korean YouTubers began testing the concoction. Like other quarantine micro-trends—sourdough starters, for one—the drink grew popular online for being both easy to make and pretty to photograph. (When whisked well and poured over iced milk, it looks like an artisanal latte.) “It’s been a nice taste of familiarity in hard times,” Ward told me over the phone. “It’s a fun novelty, and it’s definitely a nicer presentation than normal coffee, if you want something fancy looking.” She first tried the recipe shortly after her office closed in mid-March; since then, she’s made a cup of frothy dalgona coffee every weekend.
Food culture changes constantly. In restaurants, chefs work to keep their menus updated. When immigrants move, they remix traditional dishes with ingredients available in their new communities. And dietary restrictions inspire the development of new technologies; the rise of veganism, for instance, has led to the growing availability of plant-based foods.
But food innovation—the invention or popularization of ingredients, recipes, and methods of producing, cooking, or preserving food—tends to spike the most during times of crisis, food historians told me. The years leading up to and during the French Revolution helped potatoes, an ingredient typically only fed to animals, become a popular element in French cuisine as prices rose and food shortages began. The Great Depression forced Americans to incorporate cheaper products into their diets, causing mac and cheese (and the Kraft company) to rocket to fame and ubiquity. Both World Wars saw the rationing of essential ingredients, leading families to devise unusual recipes such as cakes made of mashed dates instead of sugar, eggs, and flour. Wartime years also led to the development of processed foods by military scientists and nutritionists—foods that eventually became a staple of everyday life in the form of power bars. Drinks-wise, Prohibition sparked a creative boom in mixology, as people created sweet cocktails to mask the disgusting taste of bootleg alcohol and to stretch limited supplies. Some of those resulting mixtures, including the sidecar and the bee’s knees, have become mainstays on bar menus.
“Upheavals impact so many patterns in our daily lives,” Ashley Rose Young, who is the historian of the American Food History Project at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, told me. “One of the first sectors of our lives that is hit can be food culture … It’s something that we do every day: procure food, consume food.”
Yet, despite all the wartime terminology associated with the current pandemic, the disruption to food culture hasn’t been drastic for people who can work from home and have the time and money to continue buying groceries. They can purchase ingredients, and order delivery or takeout from select restaurants, unlike the millions of Americans turning to food pantries for assistance who must wait in miles-long lines. Some ingredients may have been depleted, but not because of mandatory rationing; in fact, food waste is on the rise as farms destroy fresh goods they can no longer sell to restaurants, hotels, and public schools.
Though initial food trends seemed to indicate panic buying—sales of canned foods and bulk grains dominated the beginning of quarantine—some hard-to-find items indicate a need for stress relief rather than a need to survive. “There are factors that are very similar [between the pandemic and previous crises], with the limitations of some key ingredients, but a lot of them are—and I hate to say it this way—self-imposed,” Laura Carlson, a food historian and the host of The Feast podcast, observes. “People are going out of their way to buy flour because they want to try sourdough at home, rather than because there’s an actual shortage of flour.”
Necessity may be the mother of invention, but isolation and boredom are proving to be close cousins. Cooking is serving as therapy. Quarantine recipe exchanges in the form of chain emails are flooding people’s inboxes as friends crave connection. These trends resemble little of the inventions from crises past: New recipes aren’t merely cheaper or more accessible substitutes for unavailable foods—they’re activities that help give cooks a sense of control and security during an uncontrollable time. For those who can afford it, culinary experimentation could become a practical hobby. As the food historian Sarah Wassberg Johnson explained to me, “When you see something that looks cool and you’ve got some extra time on your hands, you’re more likely to attempt it.”
Still, for all the culinary development that may be happening, most dishes created in times of crises don’t last. Emergency-replacement ingredients have usually returned to their spots in the back of the pantry: In the U.S., aspic and gelatin-based meals that dominated the postwar ’50s faded off menus over time. After the Great Depression, variations of cake made without milk, egg, and butter—known as “wacky cake” or “Depression cake”—met the same fate. “If there is a limitation, there’s an inventiveness, there’s a creativity that is spurred by those limitations, but once you remove those limitations, people just don’t find it necessary,” Carlson pointed out to me. “Why would you eat, you know, this very limited cake?”
Food innovations that last tend to involve specific ingredients or methods of cooking rather than individual dishes; they’re more open to adaptation. Take artificial sweeteners, for instance, which became popular when sugar rations during World War I necessitated their use. They remained popular because they were devoid of calories—and as weight-loss diets became trendy, artificial sweeteners continued flying off shelves. They weren’t seen as a limitation, but as an asset. In a way, longevity happens by chance: It’s simply the right food served at the right time, when novelty can transition into the norm.
So what of the trends of today? Recipes like dalgona coffee, sourdough starters, and banana bread aren’t being associated with limitation or hardship, but with relieving stress and removing uncertainty. In that sense, maybe they’re meant to last. People will always seek comfort, even if life returns to pre-pandemic “normal.”
It’s still too early to tell what the pandemic’s long-term effects on food culture will be, as Carlson warned, but for now, these trends could signal a return to making things from scratch or even, she pointed out, “an emphasis away from processed food.” Rather than buying bread, people have found delight in baking it themselves. Rather than ordering a fancy coffee to be delivered, they’ve learned to enjoy whipping one up on their own.
Young agreed. “For the first time, for those who are at home and have the time and have the money, they’re experimenting,” she explained. But like Carlson, she’s not sure if it’ll last. “I’m curious to know, will they want to continue that when social restrictions are lifted?” she said. “Will [cooking] somehow become a part of their everyday lives? The bigger question for me is, are we going to see, in the next five to 10 years, a shift toward home cooking and more people investing in home cooking?”
It could happen, depending on one key ingredient: time. If social-distancing restrictions lift in phases, restaurants may take time to return to serving the same volume of patrons they did before the pandemic—which may inspire more people to host dinner parties at home, especially after months of working on their skills. Ward told me she’s been tinkering more in her kitchen now that she doesn’t have an hour-long commute; she even made Easter dinner from scratch. And Young just made her first goat tagine and has been working on improving her seafood-cooking repertoire. “I think you will see some of these home-cooking trends stick around,” Johnson said. “But if everyone is frantic to go back to the way things were, then I’m not sure they will.” For now, a dalgona coffee recipe can feel like a necessity. Even if, unlike food novelties from previous crises, it serves up little more than sugary comfort.