Over the past couple months, I’ve found myself returning to a lovely New Yorker piece by the author Karl Taro Greenfeld, “When SARS Ended,” about the particular realities of living in Hong Kong during the 2002 to 2004 SARS outbreak. Greenfeld has written fiction, journalism, and screenplays; in 2006 he published a nonfiction book, China Syndrome, partially based on his experiences as the editor of Time magazine’s Asia edition during the fight against SARS. He’s not a food writer, but I noticed that, in “When SARS Ended,” Greenfeld repeatedly marked the phases of his personal path through SARS via the food that he ate.
This passage, in particular, stuck with me: “My lunch each day consisted of Chicken McNuggets. I concluded that, from slaughter to preparation, the McNugget process was such that no nugget risked contact with potentially virus-bearing human flesh.”
There’s been lots of talk about the positive effects that a lockdown can have on a person’s relationship with food — learning new recipes and cuisines, spending more time cooking for family — but I personally hadn’t read as much about the particular stress that Greenfeld was defining. It may be irrational, but it’s one I’ve certainty felt. It’s the stress that, during a pandemic, we might poison ourselves through our food.
I called Greenfeld at his home in L.A. to speak about the early days of the SARS pandemic in Hong Kong. “SARS was burning through the hospital system, and there were big outbreaks in residential complexes,” Greenfeld says. “Nobody knew what the means of transmission was. There’s the overzealous worry of, ‘Oh, it’s everywhere.’” In those early days of that acute worry, he recalled having a work dinner at Vong, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s upscale restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental hotel. “The place was completely empty — that restaurant was never empty. That may be the last dinner I had out.”
Unlike in the U.S. under COVID-19, in Hong Kong under SARS, restaurants weren’t shut down via government diktat. Instead, officials allowed restaurants to stay open under the strict sanitizing guidelines of a government task force called Team Clean. “McDonald’s,” Greenfeld says, “stayed open through the whole thing.”
Out of an abundance of caution, his wife and two daughters left Hong Kong for Sri Lanka. Due to his work obligations, he stayed. Breakfast and dinner, Greenfeld could have at home alone. But he still had to have his lunch out. “We didn’t have the capability to work remotely then,” he explains. “So I was trying to figure out what I could eat every day safely. And there was a McDonald’s near my office.”
He takes me through his thinking: “Generally, it’s one of the most sanitary dining establishments, and particularly so in Hong Kong. But the Chicken McNuggets in particular, if you look at the whole way by which they go from factory farms to table, so to speak: It’s pretty much antibiotic.” Greenfeld breaks it down further: “The chickens have to pass inspection by the Hong Kong Department of Agriculture and Fishery; and then they’re slaughtered, chopped, breaded, and bagged on mechanized assembly lines; and then they’re delivered to the franchise; and then they’re deep-fried in oil that is heated over 350 degrees, which is enough to kill any active virus. And also the McDonald’s staff has to wear rubber gloves and masks. I ate a nine-piece Chicken McNugget and a Diet Coke. I began to call that the SARS diet.”
When I ask him how long the diet lasted, he responds, “I don’t remember,” audibly confused as to my passion for the subject. “I’m sure I got sick of it at some point.”
In “When SARS Ended,” Greenfeld marks his acclimation to a SARS life with the initiation of his McNuggets diet. He also uses food to mark his pivot out of the pandemic. He writes, “One day, I found myself sitting in a steamy chicken-and-rice place full of other customers. Oh, I thought. This is what life is.”
It’s a small moment of bliss, delicately rendered. How many of us are, right now, pining for just that kind of experience? “To sit and have a meal and not feel like I was somehow in grave danger,” Greenfeld says. “That was the return to normalcy.”
In 2020, this is a type of meal that Greenfeld hasn’t yet had the chance to enjoy. “I’m not ready to go back to restaurant dining,” he tells me. “Having a nice meal out with your family has always been a kind of a bellwether for life being pleasantly normal,” he continues. “Meeting my daughters at a restaurant — just that slight change in psychic space that it creates — it’s really important. I mean, I don’t have any special insight on this. It’s not a sign of a special occasion. It’s just that things are normal. That the rhythms of life are in sync. Unremarkably so. When restaurants are gone, you notice.”
And when the rhythms of life aren’t in sync, that, of course, is reflected in our food as well. Before Greenfeld hangs up, I ask him if he still eats McNuggets. He recalls that in March 2020, right at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., he actually did happen to stop by a McDonald’s. He was in New York, working in the writers’ room for See, the Apple+ show starring Jason Momoa. “Ironically,” he explains with a laugh, “it’s a show about a virus outbreak.” (One big difference: The outbreak on See makes everyone go blind.)
That writers’ room would be suspended due to the pandemic, and Greenfeld would leave New York for L.A. But “right before I had to fly back, and I don’t really know why, I stopped into McDonald’s, and I got an order of McNuggets and a barbecue sauce. Pretty much anywhere in the world you go, McDonald’s guarantees all its food is going to taste the same. And they tasted exactly the same way as I remember.”
Is there a chance that, as COVID-19 spread, he leaned back on an assuring tradition from an earlier pandemic?
“Ahh,” he says, his dubiousness almost palpable. “Sure, why not? If it helps.” He pauses. “What’s this piece about again?”
I tell him I’ll note his skepticism as to my line of questioning. And I explain the piece is about eating during a pandemic, how we don’t really know what’s dangerous and what isn’t. How we won’t really know for a while. So we just pick a set of rules and we stick to them. For some people, the stringency of the food decisions we make end up gathering their own small force of superstitious protection. While the decisions are informed and calculated, they are unavoidably a bit arbitrary too.
Greenfeld humors me a bit more. “When you’re going through one of these things, in the initial phase, everything seems potentially infectious,” he says. “So you start to take these pretty extreme measures. And I think the Chicken McNuggets, the SARS diet, it’s just an example of that.” He puts it another way. “I don’t go to McDonald’s a lot. So, yeah, deciding to go to McDonald’s in the middle of the day — that could be my pandemic-dining mindset. That could have been a return.”
This post has been updated to correct the publication date of China Syndrome.