In the gamut of human experience, there’s nothing that whisks us together like food. We eat it, we cook it, and we gather around it. It’s there for us during the good and the bad. The break-ups and the weddings. The funerals and the birthday celebrations. The in-between snacks and family dinners.
It’s food that unified us, keeping the grocery stores open, even when Covid-19 brought the rest of the world to a grinding halt. But how are people supposed to commune with one another when social gatherings are on a temporary pause?
Look no further than the Quarantine Cook Off group on Facebook.
“That’s what I love the most about it,” says group founder Kimberley Beer. “The one thing we can’t do right now is entertain, so this allows us to do it virtually.”
The Quarantine Cook Off is just that: a virtual dinner table.
Over the last year it has grown from a small community of mostly Santa Cruzans to an international smorgasbord boasting over 6,000 members hailing from every part of the globe, from Taiwan, to Israel, Greece, South Africa and more.
Beyond tasty meals, when people share their cuisines they are sharing their cultures. That’s one aspect not wasted on Beer.
“They are sharing their family,” she says. “A lot of the things our people cook are often from their great-great-grandmother.”
But the mirepoix of this worldwide hit is actually much more humble—and organic—than its current status will lead aspiring chefs to believe.
It all started at the beginning of the first quarantine back in March 2020, when nobody knew what was happening, what to expect and what the grocery stores would have in stock. Beer says the idea came to her—like so many good ideas—while joking with a friend.
“I said, ‘You know, we could make a contest. Create a Facebook page, invite a bunch of people, and see who can come up with the best stuff from their freezer and pantry,” Beer says.
Its members’ love has proved to be the yeast of the page, rising it to so much more. Apart from just another social media group, the Quarantine Cook Off is about helping people cope during an unprecedented time through their love of food.
Every day there is a new post of someone sharing their family recipes, asking for advice on troublesome meals or what to do with new ingredients, even swapping new techniques and tricks. Timid newcomers are encouraged by the community instead of shunned or laughed at. Just as food ties a community together, the Quarantine Cook Off has a way of trussing its members.
“There’s one member who drank a Pepsi with every meal and he finally got off the soda,” remembers Tabitha Stroup, one of the page’s five admins. “You would think there were a thousand people who knew him for twenty years congratulating him.”
A good chef knows the first step to make a great meal is to start with its mise en place, or prepped organization, and the Quarantine Cook Off is no different.
Every post must be original in content, which means no links to other sites or recipes. That means no blogs, no YouTube videos and no articles. While some of the members are professional chefs or have businesses selling prepared treats, self-promotion is not allowed.
“We wanted to create a model that we didn’t see on Facebook,” Stroup says. “We want people to use their words and actually communicate with each other instead of lazily popping in a link that—odds are—they didn’t even look at themselves.”
With its one year anniversary around the corner, the Quarantine Cook Off is far from finishing its courses. Beer and Stroup both tell Good Times they have no plans to end the page and, quite the opposite, many of its members are now discussing regional get-togethers and barbecues when such gatherings are safe once more.
And for dessert, they have even discussed the idea of a quarantine cookbook with some of their members’ favorite recipes.
As Beer tastefully summarizes, “I see no reason to stop gathering at that table.”