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A field guide to the quarantine birthday meal

My wife, Julia, turned 29 on April 3, approximately three or four weeks into the national nightmare that is the COVID-19 pandemic. Everyone’s sticking close to home, practicing social distancing (or ought to be), and businesses have been shut down for weeks. It’s a time of stress and uncertainty, and for the two of us, weathering her birthday holed up at home like any other day was disappointing.

Before the pandemic, we were planning on visiting Walt Disney World and seeing Julia’s best friend, who works as an Imagineer there. Now, we weren’t just staying in Chicago, we were staying in our own living room. Not only that, but our grocery pickup order, which had included some New York strips and a few other fancy ingredients to make dinner at home feel special, had to be delayed. This meant there was even less food in our house than normal—a development that twinged some already frayed quarantine nerves.

But being the adaptable creatures we are, many of us have found ways to celebrate amid quarantine: Zoom group calls, drive-by birthday parties, and so on. But for Julia and me, birthday celebrations always center around the birthday meal. We like to go all out, whether that means a fancy dinner at home or reservations at an upscale restaurant. Naturally, the latter option was out of the question, but we thought we could at least plan out a modest feast. In so doing, we happened upon a few useful rules of thumb for not just making the most of your quarantine birthday meal, but clinging to your sanity while you do it.

Eat from your favorite restaurant, just at home

The most obvious course of action is to order in. It’s more than just an easy, convenient way to get the restaurant-quality meal you want on your birthday—you’re also supporting local businesses that could use your help. Restaurants and fast-food joints are leaning even harder on takeout and delivery orders to survive in a time when they’re closed for the public good. They’re still finding ways to deliver a top-tier product, and are thankful for the orders they do get.

Accept that things will go wrong and adapt

As the pandemic stretches into its third month, any number of circumstances can get in the way of that perfect birthday delivery. Your favorite restaurant might be out of their star dish, or (most tragically) might have permanently closed amid the economic fallout. A lot of fancier places are pivoting to casual takeout to cut down on food costs, which might be disappointing if you’ve got a specific meal in mind that’s too costly for beleaguered eateries to keep in stock.

In our case, our main meal fell through, which left us hangrily scrolling through Grubhub to find a replacement. After some de-stressing and brainstorming, we landed on Hub’s, a great Greek place in Chicago that serves gyros, burgers, you name it. A few clicks and 50 minutes later, we were blessed with some greasy but satisfying double cheeseburgers and fries. It wasn’t coq au vin, but boy did it hit the spot.

Raid your pantry for a backup meal

If you wish to avoid carry-out altogether (times are tough and budgets are tight), you can still zhuzh up a tasty pantry meal to make it nearly restaurant-quality, with the right time and care. Build an al limone sauce for your favorite pasta, or bulk out a mac and cheese with hot sauce, bacon, and breadcrumbs. Build a fancy salad on your nice plates with whatever produce you have handy. Got ramen? Make a hard-boiled egg and some chili oil, and serve it in the fanciest, widest bowl you got.

It’s a good idea right now to have the pantry staples on hand for at least one or two nice meals; it’ll come in handy on special days where other plans fall through, or when an unexpectedly rough day needs a pick-me-up.

Focus on the atmosphere as much as the meal

As tempting as it will be to just focus on a nice meal, it’ll still feel just a little less special if you eat it on the couch watching The Office. Granted, we’re not going to chastise anyone for working from home in sweatpants every day, but the two of us found that dressing up (for once) helped set the day apart. That counts for a lot when the days all start running together.

Get your apartment spotless. Don’t give your gaze the opportunity to settle on dirty floors, tossed laundry, or a pile of dishes in the kitchen. Clear the table; it’s not just for bills and Amazon boxes anymore. Set out a couple of candles, even! Break out the best glassware. Dim the lights a bit (for us, that means just turning on the lamps and turning off the overhead lights).

If you’re by yourself, plan a Zoom dinner and plop the laptop in front of your plate. Or, if the prospect of making people watch you eat over the internet isn’t your particular cup of tea, you can always put them on speakerphone and chat the way we used to use phones for. Or, just take some nice pictures of the meal and show people your handiwork later.

It’s the little things that will make it seem less like you’re in Day 55 of vegging in the same place together and more like you’re marking an occasion.

Don’t skimp on the dessert, even if you make it yourself

While we adored our burger birthday feast from Hub’s, we decided to put in the effort of a nice homemade dessert to cap the night off. A quick search through our pantry revealed the ingredients for a simple, tasty two-layer chocolate cake. I frosted it with some canned frosting we had in the pantry and sprinkled it with some rainbow sanding sugar. It wasn’t perfect (or even all that presentable; I’m not much of a food stylist), but it was a nice way to fancify the night’s diner-food aesthetic at the end.

Even if your meal ends up not being the elaborate smorgasbord you planned for, ending the night with something homemade and sweet can be deeply calming for your cabin fever. There’s nothing wrong with tacking a professionally made dessert or two (or three!) onto your delivery order—by all means, you get that tiramisu and you enjoy it. But there’s something about making at least one part of the meal from scratch that makes you feel like you put in some effort on that special day. If not a dessert, maybe some sort of post-dinner cocktail.

Julia’s birthday meal was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster, one in which the isolation and confinement of quarantine collided with the personal pressures to make her special day actually feel special. But we came out the other side of it calmer, thankful for what we had, and immensely more adaptive to one of the most destabilizing times of our lives, culinarily and otherwise. If you’re hoping to make the most of your celebration in quarantine, just remember that no matter what, this will be one of the most unique birthdays of your life.

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