Restau­rant’s virus-shaped dessert is cute, funny and hardly in bad taste

Chicago Sun-Times - - FRONT PAGE - NEIL STEIN­BERG nstein­berg@sun­ | @NeilStein­berg

When my boss asked me to gather thoughts on Alinea’s new novel coronaviru­s-shaped canapé, con­sci­en­tious news­man that I am, I sug­gested head­ing over right away to try the tid­bit. To com­ment in­tel­li­gently, I had to first sam­ple the pur­plish sphere of co­conut cus­tard with Szechuan pep­per­corn, dot­ted with freezedrie­d rasp­ber­ries that caused some on In­sta­gram to grouse that lives lost to COVID-19 are be­ing mocked by a con­fec­tion.

Shoe-leather re­port­ing. Di­rect ex­pe­ri­ence. Can’t beat it.

Alas, time is of the essence. So all I could do is ac­quaint my­self with the thor­ough treat­ment by Block Club Chicago, which sadly chose to quote one, count ’em, one dis­grun­tled per­son, com­plain­ing on In­sta­gram.

“This isn’t ok ... this isn’t ‘cute.’ This is shame­ful,” wrote the irked in­di­vid­ual.

No, what’s shame­ful is Don­ald Trump in­sist­ing Amer­ica’s schools re­open in the fall, pan­demic be damned. As is the same peo­ple who are will­ing to sac­ri­fice Grandma to stay be­hind him now toss­ing Ju­nior onto the pyre as well. Our na­tion mar­i­nates in hu­mil­i­a­tion like Hawai­ian chicken.

This is ... well, wry. Artsy. Maybe a lit­tle deca­dent. Much like Alinea it­self, though I has­ten to note that the cus­tard with the con­tro­ver­sial shape was not served at Grant Achatz’s 3-Miche­lin-star Lin­coln Park shrine, but at AIR — Alinea in Res­i­dence — a West Loop rooftop pop-up. It’s given af­ter prospec­tive din­ers have had their tem­per­a­ture checked and are given a mask: if any­thing, the treat is a commentary on where we are at this awk­ward mo­ment.

“We did it in a somber man­ner, not a joke,” said Alinea CEO Nick Kokonas.

(The critic on In­sta­gram told the Sun­Times they had been sous chef at a dif­fer­ent

Alinea Group restau­rant, leav­ing 19 months ago on “very good terms.” So sour grapes — I’d like to taste Achatz’s take on those — are ap­par­ently not a fac­tor.)

If you’re fa­mil­iar with Achatz, you know he is no stranger to med­i­cal suf­fer­ing — he nearly lost his tongue to can­cer. You also know these dishes aren’t tossed off ac­ci­den­tally either but are the prod­uct of much thought, plan­ning, con­sid­er­a­tion and dis­cus­sion. The ten­der sen­si­bil­i­ties of the In­sta­gram Gripers of the world, like jack-inthe-boxes, wait­ing to pop out, com­plain­ing, af­ter a few bars of “Pop Goes the Weasel,” were no doubt taken into con­sid­er­a­tion. And re­jected. The COVID-19 co­mestible wasn’t a mis­take, as I like to say, it was a de­ci­sion.

As some­thing of a con­nois­seur of com­plaint, let me of­fer an ob­ser­va­tion about peo­ple who vent in these sit­u­a­tions. The guy on In­sta­gram, whose name we de­cided to shield, out of kind­ness, isn’t talk­ing about his own loss — many peo­ple, even four months into the pan­demic, don’t per­son­ally know some­one who has died of COVID-19. Rather he is pro­ject­ing, of­fer­ing him­self as a spokesman for any­one who lost a loved one to COVID, imag­in­ing what they might feel, as­sum­ing they no­tice or care about a COVID-themed snack.

Which of course they don’t. If you suf­fer that kind of tragedy, the last thing in the world you want to do is go carp­ing to a chef about a blanc­mange. These are the worst, these self-ap­pointed guardians of what is ac­cept­able and what is not.

Lighten up, Mr. In­sta­gram Gate­keeper, and all the whin­ers out there. The briefest glimpse at the cul­tural his­tory of the 1918 in­fluenza epi­demic shows they had no prob­lem treat­ing the ill­ness lightly, even pok­ing fun at it — in the comics, for ex­am­ple. It’s scary to think we’re more grim and self-im­por­tant now than peo­ple were at the end of World War I. Hu­mor is es­sen­tial. We may not be able to fly on air­planes, or go to school, or hug each other, or many things. But we are al­lowed to smile, no mat­ter how dire the cir­cum­stances. In­mates told jokes in Auschwitz. We sure as heck can punc­ture to­day’s end­less un­ease with a whim­si­cal pud­ding.


The coronaviru­s-themed snack served at Alinea’s West Loop pop-up eatery caused crit­i­cism on so­cial me­dia from peo­ple wor­ried that grief-stricken rel­a­tives of those killed by the virus will feel ridiculed by a pud­ding.

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