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We can’t fly; we can’t hug; at least let us grin

Alinea’s coronavirus-shaped canapé isn’t offensive. It’s cute, funny, and maybe even necessary.

The coronavirus-themed snack served at Alinea’s West Loop pop-up eatery.
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.
Provided by Alinea

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 freeze-dried 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 by name, complaining on Instagram.

“This isn’t ok ... this isn’t ‘cute.’ This is shameful,” wrote the irked individual, whose identity we’ve decided to shield, out of an excess of kindness.

No, what’s shameful is Donald Trump insisting America’s schools reopen in the fall, pandemic be damned. As are 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 offered 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 Sun-Times 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-in-the-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 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.

Charles Voigt’s comic strip, “Petey Dink” poked fun at the Spanish flu for two weeks in October of 1918.

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.