Poet and playwright Drew Pisarra reflects on a period of food panic and conflicting advice during COVID-19.
Pushing a grocery cart with gloves on
Credit: Jordan Siemens / Getty Images

They warned us that boxes could be coated with death, that residual virus might survive on the package (as well as the plastic bags in which they came). Surrogate shoppers were the wisest way to shop, the surefire safest way to get food. These were their recommendations: Retreat from the crowd. Recoil from the frontlines. Refuse to touch cans without cleaning them first. Some of us listened; some of us, not. Sales of yams and nuts and whatnot went up.

Then they told us they’d overreacted, that maybe we need not Windex the hell out of every damned product, that maybe it was enough to soap-sud our hands a la Howard Hughes, to cruise through wrecked aisles like dystopic bandits, to mumble through repurposed fabric, to rubberize fingers, to rubberize thumbs, to safeguard our eyes from a germ that the sun could kill but chose not to. How we winced at exposed lips! How we hated those exhaling nostrils! They sniffed out cremation. We savored our grief.

They invited us into the cafes and bistros to pick up our entrées and coffee to go, then we sat outside where our wide-open pie-holes threatened a harried waitstaff in ill-fitting face-shields (probably bought from the back of a black-market truck). Once we’d overstayed our unwelcome, we hurried back home to down strong cocktails, cook our own chickens, grow our own yeast, smoke prescribed ganja, and self-diagnose our day based on symptoms unsettling and sometimes expanding like a cruelly tantalizing plague du jour. 

They said that this new flu could quickly consume you, that it could eat away at your lungs without mercy, nibble at your heart, heat up your body with temperatures capable of cooking your innards and scrambling your brain. Sometimes, you might have it and not even know it. Did you burp it? Did you breathe it? Did you catch it? Did you sneeze it? Do you taste it? It’s the taste of the end, an intimate taste, the taste of a lifetime, a distasteful taste of what’s wrong. Oh Death, what is thy flavor? Who delivered thy cruelty out of thin air? What is the expiration date? For it, my friend, not me.

Drew Pisarra is one half (with Molly Gross) of the ongoing poetry activation project Saint Flashlight, and author of the poetry collection Infinity Standing Up.