This podcast episode features an interview with Nicholas Bascuñan-Wiley, Ph. D candidate in Sociology at Northwestern University. In this episode, we talk about Nicholas’s research on zoom dining and how he dealt with pandemic loneliness.

Podcast episode host: Lalla Maiga

Interviewee: Nicholas Bascuñan-Wiley

Podcast theme music: Laura Bruno

Script editor: Kathy Dobson

Script editor & project manager: Myriam Durocher


LM: Hello Everyone!

You’re listening to Food Matters’ podcast series, brought to you by Carleton University. My name is Lalla Maiga, and I’ll be your host for this episode.

I recently had the opportunity to meet with Nicholas Bascunan-Wiley. He’s a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at Northwestern University, who presented at the Food Matters and Materialities Conference. Here is what came out of this interesting conversation!

LM: I want you to take a second and think back to what life was like a year and a half ago. You were probably walking into a restaurant for a meal, going over to a friend’s dinner party at night or on the weekend. Maybe you were going for happy hour at the end of a long day at work.

This all changed pretty fast with the COVID-19 pandemic. Our homes became full-service bars, doormats became warming ovens for our take-out, and our dinner reservations became scheduled video calls with friends and family.

Nicholas’ presentation at the conference, which was entitled ‘Eating Apart Together: Online Foodways in a Time of Social Distancing’, takes us on a journey, a journey of how people’s eating behaviours changed in light of the pandemic.

During that presentation, he discussed the interviews he conducted for his research with Americans, using zoom and other platforms. He also got the chance to sit in on virtual happy hours and dinner parties. I first asked Nicholas why he got interested in researching how Americans ate together on Zoom during the pandemic.

NBW: You know, before getting into academia, cooking was an important language for me as a kid. Growing up to communicate with my mom’s side of the family, my mother’s side is from Chile, in South America, and I didn’t speak Spanish for a long time. I refused to learn Spanish as a kid growing up in the US. And so food was really the only form of communication I had with my mom’s family because they only spoke Spanish. Food was always a form of communication for me. And going into academia, as I started getting interested in undergrad in cultural connections across long distances, I continue to see food as one of the central ways that people maintain connections and created connections.

And then the reason that I got into the project that I presented at the conference was during the pandemic, when everything kind of shut down, and people started really taking social distance seriously, you know, in March, April, May, I noticed the similarities that migrants face when they are, you know, distanced from their families across many miles and can’t see them for legal or economic logistical reasons. The tensions and the communications were re-emerging in the same way or in similar ways during the pandemic. So, I decided to start looking into pandemic foodways and how people were eating together online.

LM: As a newbie to the realm of food studies, I needed a refresher from Nicholas on what was understood as foodways. I thought I’d ask Nicholas to define the term for us. Here is what he had to say:

NBW: Foodways is an interesting term, I think, generally, in the most basic way, it is our culinary and gastronomic practices, or how we eat and prepare food. I like to think of foodways, as well as food ways. And by that, I mean, thinking of ways as movement or direction. And not seeing our culinary practices, or our gastronomic practices as stagnant or seeing them as ever, you know, ever iterative and ongoing. And, and so I think within my work that kind of emerges by asking participants about traditions and how they’ve changed, you know, when you work with migrant communities, and there are multiple generations of migrant communities that have different practices from their grandparents or different practices from their children. And I think you can get it as the kind of always growing, changing nature of foodways.

LM: I loved that response Nicholas gave. It made me think of the generations of family recipes about to make their appearance during the upcoming Christmas season. Aside from me drooling over a juicy turkey drizzled with cranberry sauce at the family dinner table, my conversation with Nicholas reminded me that we were not able to share a meal in-person with our loved ones just a year ago. Our dining tables that were once filled with our long-lost cousin twice removed now became replaced with a screen.

Nicholas then shared what happens to us when we replace our dinner table with a screen. He shows us a new normal emerged out of the social distancing restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

NBW:  The digital is the infrastructure that allows for long-distance communication, in this case, communication through technologies such as tablets and phones and computers, the digital over platforms like Zoom, WhatsApp, FaceTime. And so, bringing those two together was at the heart of my project, trying to understand how if we don’t typically eat together digitally what happens to the digital when we eat together, right? What happens when all of a sudden, you’re trying to cook near a stove? And, you know, there’s sprays of olive oil getting on your computer and vice versa? You know when we can’t be together at a table? What happens to our foodways? Do we still hold on to some traditions? Do we change them? And so that was kind of the conclusion I came to was that it’s reciprocal. So that you know, because of this moment of crisis, or this moment of unsettlement, we are finding ways to repurpose our technologies and repurpose our foods in our foodways.

LM: Nicholas’s reflection shows how more than ever, our devices entwine into our daily eating habits. Since we have been cut off from everyday social interactions, eating and video calls have become the next best thing to fill the void of loneliness.

I asked Nicholas how he dealt with loneliness during the strict lockdown restrictions.

NBW: I actually live, you know, distanced from my immediate family and from my, you know, larger family. And so, even before the pandemic, we did a lot of calls. But once the pandemic hit, there was a kind of more of a sense of urgency to be touching base. And so yeah, I did that. I reconnected with some childhood friends in Chile and across the world. And I, you know, actually got to know some of my partner’s friends a lot better, you know, because we had done some online cooking or just hanging out together.

LM: Nicholas also found his research participants engaged in the same kind of socialization during the strict lockdown measures. Here are some of the discoveries Nicholas found from his interviews:

NBW: One of my favourite findings was that people were connecting with friends that they wouldn’t have connected had the pandemic not happened, you know, old college buddies or childhood friends. And I think that’s kind of an interesting direction to go because the circumstances were different, but the onus to do that emerged kind of organically in the early months, and I think that was partially to check in on people to see how they were doing. But also, because, you know, we had newfound free time and a lot of instances or, you know, a kind of anxiety being by ourselves and wanting to connect.

LM: It seems from Nicholas’s research, separation made the heart grow founder for those lucky enough to have a good circle of friends before lockdown.

Covid may have kept us physically at a distance, but it’s proving oddly suited for reconnection. With us still living in a pandemic and certain countries around the world…such as Australia… only now coming out of lockdown, I asked Nicholas to share what he thinks is in store for our newly developed habits of video calls and virtual shared meals.

NBW: Yeah, I think, you know, personally, I’d like to say zoom dining won’t be necessary in the future, because we’ll all be harmoniously back in person, and it’ll be a thing of the past. I think for some, with the vaccine and kind of people’s just growing tiredness of that kind of communication, that they have moved back to in-person, and it has become a thing of the past.

But I think I mentioned this in the talk too – a couple of my participants actually preferred online eating to in-person dining for a variety of reasons and mentioned that they wanted to continue and, you know, we’re kind of dependent on whether or not their friends wanted to continue because, you know, they only had control over their side of the story. I foresee that there will be some online eating and, you know, I think it will become more ubiquitous, right, where it’s not as much of the kind of special, you know, every 40 family members in one zoom call, or, you know, having a happy birthday celebration, as much as it’ll be the kind of happy hours and the ‘oh, I’m eating, you’re eating, let’s chat or, you know, let’s, let’s make us the same recipe.’ I think that becoming ubiquitous as a form of social interaction is inevitable; I think it’s going to happen. And, you know, we already had that foundation before that pandemic, but we’ve really settled into it. And I think that going forward, participants will continue to do that kind of work. So yeah, I think it’ll, it’ll become more ubiquitous, it’ll become part of our daily lives, but in varied ways, you know, for some more than others, and, and I’m eager to kind of keep my, my eyes open for, for how that looks like, you know, a lot of this started with social media, with, you know, pictures of celebrities doing this kind of thing. And, you know, a lot of that online sharing, so I think I’ll keep my eyes open to see if people have more creative ways of doing that.

LM: With the gradual return to pre-pandemic normalcy, I noticed Nicholas had a unique perspective on how the new normal of eating in front of a screen is here to stay. You would think that with COVID being a thing of the past, so would our newfound ways of social interaction too.

Alas, what Nicholas has shown us today with his research, is that it is not that easy to unlearn a social behaviour that permeates our entire social lives. Nicholas’ research made me realize how food is central to our social life as it allows to maintain meaningful connections. A little bit of planning for a virtual hangout goes a long way in staying connected with friends and family who are far and wide. Nicholas’ research—and maybe the COVID-19 pandemic itself—makes us more aware of our dependence on eating communally in society.

Thank you, Nicholas, for this enlightened discussion.

I would like to thank each and everyone who listened to today’s episode.

This podcast was brought to you by Carleton University. My name is Lalla Maiga, and I was your host for today’s episode. Thank you to Kathy Dobson and Myriam Durocher, project managers and editors, for this show, as well as to Laura Bruno for the creation of the theme music. You can find more of Food Matters’ podcasts on the Food Matters website.