The careful choreography of hosting a socially distanced barbecue

Weary of virtual quarantinis on Zoom and with restrictions easing, Melissa Clark was determined to find a way to entertain safely – and in person. Here she goes through the planning and how it was done

Guests can take a piping-hot serving off the fire with their own utensils
Guests can take a piping-hot serving off the fire with their own utensils

Here’s a maxim for entertaining in the age of Covid-19: the only way to bring people together is to figure out how to keep them apart.

So on a recent blue-skied afternoon, I stretched a tape measure to six feet while my husband, Daniel, arranged chairs and folding TV tables in our narrow backyard. We had just enough room for seven people in a distanced oval: four guests, plus our family of three. I was positively giddy at the prospect of cooking for friends for the first time since the pandemic began.

Back in rainy March, as we entered lockdown and were huddled in place, my family and I tried to become self-sufficient by stocking up on beans and pasta and what we thought were far too many cases of wine. (They weren’t.) We felt uncertain about grocery shopping and receiving packages, and were becoming anxious about what lurked in every human interaction. But after a few weeks, we realised it was the human interaction we craved the most. Not beans, not wine.

Every Zoom cocktail hour with friends and family had an edge of sadness, and each virtual quarantini seemed to intensify the pangs of disconnection as much as quell them.

We were determined to find a way to entertain safely – and in person.

Depending on where you live, guidance from your local authorities and your comfort level, it may be possible to get together outside in small, physically distanced groups. Even as we texted our invitations, we knew there was no way to have people over that was 100 per cent safe. But there were ways to reduce the risks.

Our goals were to be as careful as we could, given our knowledge of the virus, and to use the comfort threshold of the most anxious person in the group as our guide. Because while pandemic etiquette was new to all of us, making guests feel at ease and welcome in our home is not.

Although most experts agree that the chances of catching the coronavirus from touching objects is low, studies have shown that, under ideal conditions, the virus can live on a surface for up to 72 hours. Quarantining the items for three days and unpacking them with gloved hands would lower the risk to a point acceptable to everyone in attendance.

The first step was to quarantine the tableware.

I put a set of plates, silverware, glasses and napkins on a separate tray for each group, then wrapped each tray in a bag. I also wrapped up cans of seltzer and individual bags of fancy potato chips.

We also had the slightly awkward experience of sending out pre-party group emails to strategise about the bathroom.

All involved agreed that they felt fine about sharing it – as long as only one masked person went into the house at a time, and as long as everyone promised to close the lid before flushing. (What’s normally TMI becomes essential knowledge during a pandemic.) We left paper towels and plenty of hand soap on the sink, along with disinfecting wipes and a spray bottle filled with 70 per cent isopropyl alcohol for misting handles and knobs.

The day of the party, Daniel and I snapped on gloves and packed an ice-filled cooler with the fizzy water spaced apart for easy grabbing. (We also set disinfecting wipes next to the cooler.) Each group had a separate folding TV table next to carefully spaced chairs, and on the table we set bags of potato chips next to a canape-size hand sanitiser. This wasn’t the abundant hors d’oeuvres spread I was used to, but chips and Purell is surely the snack combo of 2020.

As everyone settled in, six feet apart, wine glasses in hand, we gradually eased out of the awkwardness and remembered what it was like to eat and drink with loved ones

After all the planning and logistical arrangements, cooking itself was a snap. We served the food directly off the grill, and each guest pulled a piping-hot serving off the fire with their own utensils. Minimal risk, minimal fuss.

Grilled chicken thighs were an easy choice. I could marinate them in a gingery balsamic glaze ahead of time. And unlike a big, thick steak or leg of lamb, they didn’t need to be carved or handled after cooking. Fish fillets, hot dogs and burgers (made with real meat or vegan meat), and individual chops are also suitable choices.

Just be wary of garnishes and condiments; the fewer, the better. If you can’t imagine grilling without ketchup, mustard or Sriracha, give each group its own bottle or jar, use gloved hands to put small servings in small pots or ask people to bring their own condiments. This holds true for things like olive oil, salt and pepper, too. At the very least, be sure to have plenty of serving spoons at the ready, one for each group, as well as paper towels and wipes on hand, so everyone can clean as needed.

A few menu items could be made in advance, and, for those items, we again followed the three-day quarantine rule, leaving everything covered in the fridge and pulling out items with gloved hands only just before serving.

As a seasoning for grilled corn, I made jalapeno-feta butter, wrapping individual portions in parchment paper and twisting the ends as if each held a giant, chilli-studded confection. The butter would also work equally well sliced on top of other grilled vegetables – peppers, aubergine, mushrooms, courgette – melting into a creamy, salty, lightly spicy sauce.

I whipped up personal pots of no-bake butterscotch custards three days ahead. They were dense and ultra-creamy, with a dash of molasses to accentuate the bittersweet brown sugar.

And finally, when it came to pouring wine and batched cocktails, we instructed our guests to leave a glass on a table, then take a few steps back while Daniel or I refilled it without touching.

The planning took a lot more thought than parties before this new normal, and we all needed to stick to a conscious choreography to make sure we kept our distance.

When our friends showed up, it was hard at first to remember every rule, and it felt downright strange not to hug and kiss hello.

But as everyone settled in, six feet apart, wine glasses in hand, we gradually eased out of the awkwardness and remembered what it was like to eat and drink with loved ones on a warm summer night. That feeling, it turns out, hadn’t changed a bit.

© The New York Times

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