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The Last Pho: Eating in Budapest in the Time of Coronavirus

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Lehel Market’s Pho Hanoi, my favorite Vietnamese restaurant in Budapest, is usually busy enough that free seats are scarce. But yesterday it was empty, and as I walked by, the owner smiled and waved to me from where she was sitting. I was hungry, but I guiltily kept walking, on my way to stock up on cleaning supplies. I am sure I’m not the only one who has performed this kind of quick calculation: weighing the options between supporting a beloved small business and keeping yourself as safe as possible. It’s a particularly hard choice when you work in the food or tourism industry. This unease is compounded by the dumbfounding realization that something so harmless as sitting down for pho could be life threatening.

That’s our new reality, and nobody knows for how long it will last. But still, one has to live, and living requires food. Two weeks of emergency groceries may be stocked in the pantry and freezer, but one still has to eat daily. On some days, trips to the market are the only time I go out. A bright glimmer of hope came along with the resolution to eat healthier, both for the immune system and for all around well-being. This was a plan that couldn’t last long, and lately frozen pizzas have snuck onto the menu. The emergency stockpile gets raided for pasta, because little is more comforting than carbs. Chicken, which we rarely cook at home, gets slow roasted for its nostalgia-inducing aroma. Comfort food is now defined by that which is cooked at home. So, in my apartment, we pivot between the super healthy—broccoli soup, oatmeal, vegetable curry—and last-meal decadence of duck breast or lasagna, followed by anything chocolate.

Takeout is now what my partner and I do for dates. It is not terribly exciting, but it is low-risk. Even so, interacting with strangers feels taboo these days, and irresponsible. Making somebody expose themselves to open air for the sake of your tikka masala. The risk of infection is now out-sourced. It is small compensation, but gig workers (who have little choice) have been elevated to heroes on the level of foot soldiers. Nobody needs to order takeout, but small indulgences like this return a modicum of normalcy to life, and that is something to cheer.

But it’s not just how we eat that is affected. An afternoon coffee out at my regular cafes Kisüzem or Massolit is now a thing of the past. I managed a final espresso at Massolit, though even with the protocol of mandatory hand washing the staff were clearly ill at ease. But that was a few weeks back, and both businesses are now indefinitely shuttered. With few other options, an old, ugly habit of buying coffee from automatic coffee machines has re-emerged. But what could be better than a machine brewing your coffee during this contact-vigilant period? You can even use hand sanitizer after pressing the button for hosszú kávé tejjel (long coffee with milk), and again after handling the plastic cup.

Drinking habits have by necessity turned anti-social. For the first time ever, my partner brought home a bottle of hard alcohol. I now know if put under pressure she’s a gin drinker. Despite losing most of my income in what is set to be a long financial strain, I have been buying more expensive red wine: good bottles by Orsolya Pince, Gál Tibor, from my corner wine shop, and an Austrian blauburger from Tasting Table’s selection. When it comes down to it, a few thousand forints extra won’t matter, but they matter very much in the quality of wine you get. And now I am drinking for pure enjoyment, as opposed to the daily ritual that was easily serviced by beer or inexpensive Syrah from Tesco.

I did eventually sit down for a pho, which I am hesitant to admit. I couldn’t get the thought of walking by like a criminal out of my mind, so I went back. But it’s hard to enjoy eating when somebody is coughing nearby, and when you know, to a degree, you are trying only to delude yourself into a sense of stability. When you sanitize your hands after pouring fish sauce from a bottle, and become paranoid about putting a paper napkin to your nose when the chili in the hot sauce makes it run. Plus, I didn’t need to be told it was irresponsible. But the chicken broth had never been more fortifying, and the simple act of sitting down and eating more filled with joy. That will be my last pho, the last restaurant meal that’s not take-out for a very long time, and like so many other things, I can only hope Pho Hanoi will be around when this whole crisis is over.