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In late March I received an online invitation to join a Facebook Group called “Eating at your desk? What’s for lunch?” Initially, I was reluctant to join another group. One would think that a midday meal would be nonpolitical, innocuous subject matter, but social media conversations take really weird turns and I just wasn’t up for that.

My lunch game was also definitely lacking. I mean, can you really call a handful of Swedish fish and a bag of microwave popcorn lunch? As the chief cook and bottle washer at the Caristi household—something I love doing—planning, cooking and serving meals had started to feel like an overwhelming task. My lunch was an afterthought.

Still, I decided one of my favorite culinary experts, Edward Bear—aka Winnie the Pooh—might be onto something. “It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like ‘What about lunch?’” So, I accepted more out of curiosity than a desire to engage. I’m glad I did.

Page founder Daniel Button has managed to create a space where people bond virtually over a shared love of food. A former cooking teacher, Daniel started his group after leaving another where he saw novice participants being mocked for their submissions. He wanted to build a supportive, nonjudgmental community where people would be comfortable sharing, regardless of abilities.

What he has created from here on Cape Cod is a group that has grown to 350 members from around the country. Some of the meals may be heavy, but the conversation stays light. Vegans, vegetarians and omnivores peacefully coexist and support each other and their culinary creations. What was a lonely, solitary time of day has become communal and even revealed some perks of eating alone.

Taboo fare like egg salad and fish that would elicit death glares in the company break room are welcome. In a virtual lunch crowd, there is no need to worry about masticating on crunchy croutons or taco shells. There is no one on the other side of a cubicle to bother, so anything goes!

But since we can’t taste or smell each other’s creations, visual presentation is important. It allows participants to feast with their eyes. And the page has revealed a remarkable amount of talented food stylists. Plating and presentation have become part of the fun with members inquiring as much about the cuisine as they do about linens, flatware and dinnerware in the photos. Also in the mix are some fun, tongue-in-cheek pictures that reveal the kind of day some of us might be having. An acknowledgement that while sometimes we enjoy and savor, other times food is sustenance, and often, especially in these times, stress relief. Those photos often get just as many reactions as the impeccably presented.

Like many groups, the lunch page has morphed and grown. Since changing from a lunch only to food anytime, anywhere forum, Daniel decided on a new name to reflect that. It’s now called, “I’m hungry! What are you having?”

Members were asked to weigh in on the idea that is another anomaly of a social media group—the moderator doesn’t rule with an iron skillet but rather a velvet potholder. Cover photos are chosen by a weekly poll and membership is driven by invitation, which keeps the atmosphere amicable.

All of which has seemed to have exploded the level of participation. So much so that the group has given way to a spinoff on Sandwich Community Television. Executive director Paula Johnson has asked members to take footage of themselves preparing some of their favorite recipes that she will edit and upload to SCTV in a series of cooking videos. The first is Daniel baking one of his now-famous and coveted loaves of Oatmeal Bread.

When I asked him about all this he said he never expected it to be as popular as it has become, but I’m not surprised. Another favorite giant of gastronomy, Julia Child, said it long ago: “People who love to eat are always the best people.”

Ms. Caristi is a small business owner, currently moonlighting as a boarding house matron. She, her husband Jason, displaced twin sons and attention-seeking, spoiled rotten yellow Lab Mojo live in East Sandwich.

Filling A Void Through Virtual Victuals | Columns
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