Not Giddy, Not Glum: Food Writing During Covid-19

In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, as states all over the country were issuing “shelter in place” orders, our grocery clients paused their social media feeds. Like all of us, they needed to take a moment to acknowledge the seriousness and sadness of the pandemic. As supermarkets, they were also busy figuring out how to protect their employees, how to work with a rapidly shifting food supply chain, and how to keep feeding America — as we bought every bag of flour (and every roll of toilet paper) they had to sell.

As a partner, we couldn’t help them with those issues, but we could use the pause to help them figure out how to talk about food authentically during the pandemic.

Of course, we’re food writers and content developers, and this is what we do. But what made this situation unusual is that, in a rare turnabout, we were also our clients’ audience. We too were living through the pandemic and, along with all the other mayhem Covid-19 caused in our lives, experiencing a giant shift in our grocery shopping, cooking, and eating habits — and our perspectives on all of it.

This meant that, in addition to looking at market data and listening to our client’s audiences, we could also talk to our families, our community, and really, to ourselves.

During a pandemic, cooking is a fun project — until it’s not

Remember how hard and weird it was to shop for groceries in the early days of Covid-19? Suddenly, we were all buying loads of staples — flour, beans, rice — so we could shop every other week. That is, when you could find staples: a lot of grocery store shelves were empty because of supply chain issues and because, let’s be honest, everyone (you, me, we) was hoarding in case supplies really did run out.

At first, cooking projects were a fun distraction. You had to do something with all that time and flour, why not bake bread, right? Better yet, we’d get the kids baking for an hour after school — one hour of 15, nailed!

But, even a couple weeks into it, we were all exhausted by Covid-19, by fear about the economy and our jobs, by being parents, teachers, and babysitters — and by cooking and cleaning up every single meal of every day. We loved leftovers; we hated leftovers. We wanted our restaurants, bakeries, bars, and coffee shops back.

So how does that impact the way we talk about food?

Before the pandemic, we created food content that included the workaday but teetered toward aspirational. Our copy themes were all the events you cook for — a big birthday, game day, or your highly contentious, slightly drunken book group. Sometimes the events were cozy: a chatty drink under the stars with your new S.O., a Sunday supper with the kiddos, or a night on the couch with Netflix.

Whatever the occasion or the recipe, the tone was warm and encouraging, and the voice was knowledgeable, helpful, witty, enthusiastic (giddy even, if the recipe deserved it). Our food descriptions were lush and full of playful words. We dropped into French. We did revelatory things in the kitchen; we were experts.

Covid-19 caused a tonal shift for all of us — so writing about food in a giddy and celebrational way didn’t feel right. And yet, neither did somber: we wanted both to reflect the pandemic unfolding all around us and to provide a respite from it.

We’re in it with you — the new voice of food content

In theater, people talk about “the fourth wall,” or the invisible barrier that exists between the actors and the audience — when an actor acknowledges the audience, they’re breaking the fourth wall. During Covid-19, we realized that our food content needed to break social media’s fourth wall and talk more directly to our clients’ communities.

We leaned into the warmth of our clients’ voices, making them even more approachable, comforting, and real. (Read: fewer exclamation points and rarefied words.) We created a more human “we” — an us, if you will. And we openly acknowledged Covid-19, and what we were all experiencing, with honesty, empathy, and a little bit of conspiratorial humor.

This new voice and tone communicated what we were all feeling: we’re all in this together, and we’re going to get through it together.

With that came a new set of content themes, or ways of talking about the food content we created for our clients, that directly addressed the overwhelm, exhaustion, ennui, and tiny joys of pandemical life:

  • We highlighted that recipes were quick and easy, made with stuff that was in all of our pantries, would be fantastic leftovers — and didn’t destroy the kitchen or create a million dishes.
  • We acknowledged the fun projects too: long-winded baking projects for the bored, easy kid projects for the beleaguered parents, and fancy cocktails, coffee, and DIY restaurant and take-out faves for the folks missing, well, the outside world.
  • We made it all a little less precious by emphasizing the fact that it’s just food: trust your instincts, sub in whatever ingredients you got, go off-road with recipes — it’ll all turn out great.
  • Cheese, cheese, cheese!

As time went on, our collective mood shifted, and so did our voice and themes. After a month or so at home, we were all ready for spring and hope; our food and our tone shifted into a more cheerful range. We opened our doors and found canned pickles on the stoop, so our content noted opportunities for home-cooked porch gifts — the next best thing to a hug. And, when it was finally safe to sit in the backyard with a friend, we slowly began to add socially distant happy hours and meals.

It’s important to note what we didn’t include too. Although we were living through a public health crisis, statistics showed that folks were gravitating toward basic comfort food. For example, according to Google Trends, the most popular recipe searches from early March to the end of April, were banana bread, pancakes, chicken, pizza dough, and brownies. So while we definitely included healthy food in our content mix, we didn’t talk about staying healthy or call out a food’s immune-boosting properties per se.

In the end, it’s all about connection

Consumers have always been loyal to their neighborhood grocery stores, but it has been heartening to see how much love and appreciation our grocery clients have received throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

Food is one of life’s essential joys. People come to food content to be comforted, cheered, nurtured, and inspired, perhaps even more so during a pandemic. We saw organic impressions double from February to March on both Facebook and Instagram as people looked for and shared our grocery clients’ content. And, numbers aside, the comments our clients have received throughout this period have reflected a desire to connect more directly with their supermarket — there’s a deep gratitude in them.

As an agency, it’s been gratifying to help our clients commune with their customers during this hard, shared experience. We’re thankful too, and to see the warmth our words, recipes, and imagery have generated reflected in strong community support is as good as it gets.

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