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2021 in food: Cicadas, TikTok pasta and a rough return to restaurants

(Illustrations by Lukasz Goledzinowski for The Washington Post)
(Illustrations by Lukasz Goledzinowski for The Washington Post)

2021 was a year like any other — only in the sense that it, too, spanned 365 days and four seasons. Allegedly, anyway: It felt more like double that number of days and a single season that we might charitably refer to as “sprummter.”

Yes, it was basically garbage. But we had to eat to survive it, didn’t we? And so we did. Many of us gave up on the kind of hobbyist cooking that had gotten us through 2020′s quarantines and shutdowns, so this wasn’t a year for perfecting our focaccia landscapes or nurturing sourdough starters like they were budding child prodigies. With the spread of vaccines, grocery shopping became less problematic, and many of us finally were able to return to restaurants. But neither were as we remembered them, exactly. Then again, we weren’t the same either.

Here is a look back at the year in food.

We ate cicadas!

Looking back at the blur of the last year and a half, a few moments jump out as so strange and yet so emblematic of our pandemic experience. Remember at the start of it all when we were all wiping down our groceries with bleach? Yeah, that happened. The arrival of the 17-year cicadas in May is another such memory. It felt bizarre and yet perfectly expected — sure, why not a plague of insects on top of all this [gestures around helplessly]?

So we didn’t all eat cicadas, but whether you could or should, and if you did, how, was a talking point at a time when we were tired of talking about whatever it was that we were talking about then — probably “Mare of Easttown”? The very idea of cicadas as food was terribly polarizing. My colleague Kari Sonde, who explored popcorn-frying the little buggers, recalled that after the recipe was published, one reader submitted a limerick suggesting she be fired.

We made that TikTok pasta.

People — including our own staff — found loads of food inspiration on the video-sharing platform this year. Not all of it was good (fried pasta “chips” are a gummy mess, apparently, and the banana-peel “bacon” I made was decidedly not a hit in my household). But amid the dubious hacks and dizzying soundtracks, there was the glorious juggernaut that was Baked Feta Pasta. The dish was everywhere, and so my colleague Aaron Hutcherson set about trying it. “At first I was skeptical, as I am with most things that come from TikTok,” he told me. “But after making it, I understood the appeal: It’s low effort with high reward.”

Since he published the recipe, it ranked at or near the top of our most-read posts every week, for months, and it still cracks the list many weeks. It’s the Buffy Summers of recipes: It simply will not die. With good reason. I tried it; it’s delicious. If you haven’t (by some miracle), maybe you should? It’s so zeitgeisty, you might wonder in the future if you really lived through 2021 without making it.

We still like fried chicken.

Our love affair with crispy chicken was no flash in the frying pan. Sure, we declared 2019 to be the Year of the Chicken Sandwich, since that was when the fire behind the fast-food craze was lit (thanks to Popeyes and its viral, spicy menu item). But the birds kept flying well into 2021. Taco Bell fired its salvo, introducing a chicken taco. Burger King made a royal debut in the game. And McDonald’s finally came out with its long-awaited contender.

That latter development occasioned one of my more memorable days on the job this year, in which I enlisted Aaron and our colleague Tim Carman to join me in an epic tasting of the most popular fried chicken sandwiches. Geography and the pandemic necessitated a remote setup, and so we planned like generals drawing up battle plans, deciding to tackle it in two tranches. We did drive-throughs, we ordered delivery. Aaron took the subway to score one final sandwich. In the end, we Zoomed our way through a massive pile of patties and buns, cracking each other up all the while — and ultimately agreeing that none of the new entrants could put Popeyes in the corner.

But some nuggets were plant-based.

While our collective love affair with fried chicken showed no sign of ending, plant-based alternatives were turning our heads. Impossible Foods, the company that brought us a game-changing vegan burger dupe, debuted its first foray into alt-poultry with a chicken nugget. This launch prompted another fun tasting session, albeit smaller than the massive sandwich sampling, this one with my colleague Olga Massov’s 6-year-old son, Avi, who gave the product a thumbs-up.

The Impossible nuggs were just one plot point in the story of the continued rise of vegan and vegetarian dining. Animal-free cuisine went hauteur than ever this year, with the famed Eleven Madison Park — once known for meaty masterpieces such as honey-glazed duck, butter-poached lobster and foie gras — dropping nearly all animal products from its menu. Elsewhere, popular food website Epicurious announced it wasn’t publishing any new recipes for beef, citing the environmental toll of cattle farming.

We returned to restaurants.

It was a big moment when restaurants around the country reopened to indoor diners, after more than a year of shutdowns and takeout. I worried, like many others, that I wouldn’t remember how to act — it wasn’t just that I feared I’d use the wrong fork, it was just that the familiar rituals of dining out had become foreign, not to mention the fact that I’d spent more than a year in soft pants. And then on the first evening that Washington eateries were permitted to seat patrons, I was perched on a stool at the Old Ebbitt Grill’s big bar watching the restaurant’s workers prepare like it was opening night of a new Broadway show. It felt exciting, like things were maybe going to be okay again. Restaurant owners were relieved to get back to doing what they had always done and to finally see their cratering bottom lines stabilize.

But it wasn’t smooth sailing.

After the initial rush that came with reopening, it quickly became clear that restaurants’ covid-related woes weren’t going away. Varying mask and other public health mandates created confusion for diners, and sometimes turned hosts and waitstaff into bouncers. Stories of angry patrons and worker shortages kept coming. Then the delta variant of the virus made many people rethink their dining-out strategies.

And we’re ending the year with a trend that’s making me feel like its 2020 all over again: Restaurants around the country are again closing temporarily because members of their staffs have tested positive for the coronavirus or been exposed to it. Restaurant owners are losing much-needed business and some workers their wages just before the holidays. It’s a reminder of how vulnerable the folks who cook your food and bring it to your table really are.

Some restaurants we loved closed.

Some beloved restaurants couldn’t survive the covid crisis — some folded right away, while others shuttered during the shutdowns of 2020 but still hoped to reopen when things were better. This year, many confronted the reality that they just couldn’t, like Sergio Ristorante Italiano in Silver Spring, Md. For 37 years, Sergio Toni and his son, Luigi, served their devoted customers zuppa ai frutti di mare and ravioli stuffed with asparagus and ricotta in the little basement restaurant. Couples got engaged there, and eventually so did their children. They celebrated birthdays and anniversaries and retirements. But the hotel above the restaurant closed, and the Tonis couldn’t stay open, even for takeout, without access to the restrooms.

The loss, like that of many other restaurants around the country, left a hole in the lives of its owners, longtime workers and loyal patrons. As one of the people who loved going there told me, “when a place like that closes, you lose something special that isn’t coming back.”

Things aren’t getting back to normal.

“Supply chain problems” might be the most-used phrase of 2021 (although “abundance of caution” is giving it a run for its money), and the phenomenon of jammed-up ports and idling trucks hit the food and restaurant industry particularly hard. People had to plan for Thanksgiving dinners where they worried they might not be able to score a turkey, or afford the usual fixings. Restaurants cut wings from their menus as their prices soared.

And the rapid spread of the omicron variant is leading to closures and canceled reservations. Which means that restaurants can’t yet retire another expression that they would rather leave behind in the dust of 2021: the dreaded “pivot.” In the words of one restaurateur I spoke to in the closing days of this year. “I’ve pivoted so many times, I’m dizzy.”

More from Voraciously:

Our top 10 baking recipes of the year include cakes, muffins, cookies, tarts and more

Our 10 most popular recipes of 2021

A guide to black-eyed peas, those lucky little legumes