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Coronavirus Has Us Doing Chain Letters for Recipes Like It’s the Damn ’90s

We didn’t want to do them before, and we certainly don’t want to be doing them now

Colorful retro browser screen that reads “Send this to 10 other people or else!!!”

Imagine you could get 36 recipes for free. I mean, you can, by going to literally any recipe website. But imagine they were slightly more curated than that, given to you by a like-minded person or someone like-minded to that like-minded person, recipes that are “quick, easy, and without rare ingredients.” All you have to do is email a recipe to the person in slot 1 at the end of the email that has shown up in your inbox, and then move the person in slot 2 to slot 1, and then forward that email to 20 friends within five days. Easy, peasy.

As Bijan Stephen wrote for The Verge, chain letters are the cockroaches of human communication. They will never die, as long as we have 5th graders and gullible people on the internet. You may have even had an ironic one show up in your text messages in the past few years, or maybe you never stopped getting them. But as people continue to stay at home as much as possible, the chain letter is emerging in full force again, with one iteration asking recipients to share recipes. Which is proving to be a pretty divisive way to get casserole tips.

I have to admit I balked when the “Quarantine Recipe Exchange!” email showed up in my inbox, sent to me by one of my oldest and best friends. I was irked by the specification the recipe had to exclude “rare ingredients,” which, as someone who cooks a lot of Indian food, read as a plea to exclude any of the spices that are actually quite common in my kitchen. Alana, who lives in Boston, felt the same frustration (her name has been changed because she fears the ire of her friends). “In this time where buying necessities is becoming an issue what the heck is a ‘rare’ ingredient?,” she asks, noting that one of her go-to recipes — pumpkin pie cookies — uses ingredients like canned pumpkin and oats that under normal circumstances may be easy to find — but now, who knows?

Aside from that, it seemed like a chore, and chores are not what I want to be doing right now. “Why must the most extroverted of our society force social homework on the rest of us during this time?,” asked Alana. Betsy, who got the chain email from her coworker over her work email, says what turns the project from fun to anxiety-inducing is that there are too many things to consider to make a good suggestion. “Recipes are so personal, and I have no idea if [the recipient] has dietary restrictions,” she says.

Another issue is that some of the recipe chain emails explicitly name the COVID-19 epidemic as the reason for their existence, and it’s become increasingly difficult to not consume news about it. “I almost feel that socializing is getting less helpful as the crisis deepens and every Zoom/FaceTime/HouseParty ends up a commiserating/depressing conversation,” Alana says. The email that’s supposed to herald a fun project is just another bummer.

But the main complaint is that the chain emails overly complicate the extraordinarily easy task of finding a recipe online. What they’re implicitly asking of their recipients is to do a lot of busy work, or endure the awkwardness of telling a friend or coworker that you don’t think this project is very fun at all. “I just can’t imagine why someone would think getting emails from random co-workers or friends of co-workers is a better way to get recipe ideas than readily accessible resources online,” Betsy says. “I don’t want to know what a stranger’s aunt does with cream of mushroom soup.”

Shibani Faehnle also says she deleted the chain as soon as she got it, mostly because it seemed redundant. “The internet and Instagram exist for a reason,” she says. “There’s absolutely no need for this chain email when you can follow one of the many hundreds of thousands of foodstagrams,” who probably have slightly more expertise than a random relative of a friend. But now, if you say “no,” you’re a spoilsport. Peer pressure always drove the spread of chain letters — the risk of not sending everyone in your elementary school a list of your 10 best friends wasn’t actually that you’ll be plagued with bad luck, it was that you’d be caught going against the social flow. Email chain letters sent by adults come with all the pressure and none of the fun of a risk of a lifetime curse.

Of course, the people sending these emails aren’t stupid. They know the New York Times’s Cooking section exists if they want to know how to make eggplant parm. The point isn’t really the recipes, but the entire process. When I asked my friend, Deborah, why she sent the email, her responses highlighted her desire for connection and fun (and, by contrast, what a cynical asshole I was being). Deborah loves cooking, but says she’s indecisive and trusts her friends’s tastes, so hoped the chain would get her some successful recipes. But also, she enjoys the social component, and getting to talk to acquaintances or even strangers. “I got to hand-pick a recipe for a dear old friend of my sister’s, who I remember well from childhood, but only see on occasion as an adult (funerals, bar mitzvahs),” she says. “It was cool to have an excuse to interact with her when I’d otherwise have no reason to.” Through a different chain, she was put in contact with a local writer she admires.

Fran Hoepfner also says the desire for socializing in a novel way is what has her deep in chain letters, which apparently have overwhelmingly recommended her this Smitten Kitchen black pepper tofu with eggplant. “It’s been fun to spin off emails onto a new thread and talk back and forth about food and mundanities,” she says. “I moved away from home about two years ago, so this has put me back in touch with a lot of folks I haven’t seen since then.” The impetus of the email might be the specter of Cooking In The Time Of Coronavirus, but it’s just a smokescreen for craving interaction, especially the kind that doesn’t require a Zoom login.

The different reactions highlight general personality differences: the tendency to view interactions with strangers with excitement or with wariness, thinking projects are fun versus... projects. So of course we’re getting recipe chain letters. We’re limiting social interaction and pushing the boundaries of just how many things we know how to cook. A lot of us could probably use some advice and some conversation. And if you don’t, just pretend it went to spam.

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