Natalie Babbitt’s timeless children’s classic The Search for Delicious, published in 1969, is set in a distant magical past. Its hero is Gaylen, a 12-year-old boy sent to poll the kingdom to settle a dispute started unwittingly by the man who raised him, Prime Minister DeCree. Endeavoring to write a dictionary, DeCree has become stuck on one simple word: delicious.
The problem is that everybody has their own definition. The king likes apples; the queen prefers Christmas pudding; the prime minister himself swears by cold fried fish. The antagonist of the story, who may or may not think nuts are the answer, stirs the pot, and a civil war ensues, with the villain damming a lake and depriving the kingdom of its fresh water. After many encounters with mortals, dwarfs, tree-dwelling sages, and a lonely mermaid, the boy gets everyone to agree that delicious is a cold sip of water taken when one is thirsty.
I think about deliciousness a lot and have pursued it all my life. Yet, in pandemic times, the pure joy of eating something delicious—preferably a delicious surprise, rather than something I have had to orchestrate myself—has been absent. A viennoiserie here, a mound of Burmese noodles there, a few vegetables pulled right out of the earth: These all have cheered me. But, by and large, I have been pretty morose about food I normally love. I still know the difference between what is well-prepared and what is sloppy, but the silliness of having to drive across town to experience a lonely meal in uncomfortable circumstances has gotten to me. Nothing tastes as good as it used to.
Even now that vaccination has given me a little more freedom, my enthusiasm has been slow to return. I am still taking crazy lonesome drives, gliding past businesses whose food I normally crave and not stopping at any. In the past, I dined happily by myself, all over the world. But today, I feel that cramming a cheeseburger into my face without a good human to converse with is piggish, borderline abhorrent. Restaurants are social spaces, borrowed salons to convene in with friends and family instead of exposing them to the slovenliness of your own home.
They also, in the best of circumstances, offer the possibility of that elusive element: surprise. But the logistics of researching and ordering food over the internet are destroying the spontaneity that was the best part of my restaurant ramblings. Instead of vagabonding like Gaylen to find answers, I now have to participate in the kind of ecommerce I despise. Ultimately, I don’t want the food to come to me; I want to go to it and share it in the physical world.
Hardship—a pandemic, the would-be takeover of an imaginary kingdom—can help us clarify the meaning of delicious. One day, I will step into a dining room. The tinkling of glasses, the happy hum of normal business being conducted without fear will envelop me in a delicious feeling that things are as they should be, curing me of a malady I didn’t get in my body but in my soul. I have to believe that joy is just around the corner.
This article appears in our July 2021 issue.