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COVID-19 robbed me of a beloved annual holiday. Here’s how I took it back

My friends and I pulled off a version of our annual guacamole and margarita crawl. It wasn’t the same, or even close to it, but it was something.

COVID-19 robbed me of a beloved annual holiday. Here’s how I took it back
[Photos: Raj Rana, Dollar Gill/Unsplash; Ivan Samkov, cottonbro/Pexels; rawpixel]

When the tinny phone speakers began to blare the rollicking piano of “Rock the Casbah,” the mood in the room soured.

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It’s probably not the response Joe Strummer and company intended, nor the one this song has historically extracted. The pronounced sudden chill, though, filled not only this particular room, which contained me and my wife, Gabi, but also two other faraway rooms and a backyard, each connected by the now-ubiquitous Zoom interface. All eight of us deflated a little upon hearing the Clash song that inspired the name of our made-up holiday, as its garbled melody underlined how far away we were from each other—and how far away we were from normal life.

“This honestly makes me so sad,” Zoë said from one of the little squares on my laptop screen.

“Me too,” Gabi said, from the couch cushion right next to mine.

Everyone somberly popped the lids off their Styrofoam molcajetes of guacamole, and dipped in an inaugural chip. The seventh annual Guac the Casbah had officially commenced.

The analog version of this holiday initially came about on an impulsive summer day in 2014, when my future wife and I had a disagreement about the best guacamole in New York City. She swore it came from a tiny kiosk of a restaurant in SoHo called Calexico; I was sure it belonged to El Paso Taqueria, tucked away in Spanish Harlem. We decided to visit each of our respective contenders, order their guacamole and margaritas, and determine once and for all which one was better, throwing a third neutral spot into the mix as a kind of control group.

By the end of the day, we were buzzed, stuffed, and zonked out, and I was triumphant in victory. All that was missing, we decided, were our friends, whom we agreed to invite along next time.

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The following year marked the first true Guac the Casbah. It was a slow cantina crawl up the west side of Manhattan, with 10 or so friends in tow. Gabi and I passed out score cards and pens to the assembled horde at our first stop, Fonda in Chelsea, so everyone could rank each of this year’s fresh contenders in the categories of Flavor, Freshness, Mouthfeel, and Chips. At every stop along the way, as the margaritas bloomed in our bloodstreams, the guacamole analysis got looser and the conversation drifted to whatever friends talk about when they’re having fun together.

The event was an unequivocal success, and a new tradition was born.

Over the next five years, Guac the Casbah evolved into one of my most anticipated events of the year. It was a carefree day in the dead of summer to eat and drink irresponsibly in the company of friends old and new. Some of the people who showed up that first year gradually drifted out of our lives; some of the people we only met in time for the second or third year ended up in our wedding. Our pride around inventing a beloved annual holiday for a revolving coterie of pals was only exceeded by our enjoyment of pulling it off each year. Considering how many fantastic Mexican restaurants were spread across New York’s five teeming boroughs, it seemed like a holiday that never had to end.

When COVID-19 first struck America’s shores, the cancellations came in a slow trickle. So long, South by Southwest! Farewell, NBA season! Best of luck, Coachella! Only after a few weeks of quarantine had passed did it dawn on me that all events for at least the rest of the year would be canceled. For Gabi and me, that didn’t just mean all ticketed events—like the Bauhaus concert that would never be—but even just casual social gatherings. We had fled New York in late March, to stay at a travel-stranded relative’s empty house in Vermont, and for many complicated reasons, we decided we wouldn’t be returning.

The interminable months that followed were sufficiently bleak that I didn’t even realize until mid-July that Guac the Casbah was no longer possible.

Unless it was.

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By that point, we had traded Vermont for Denver as the next temporary stop on the path to a new home, keeping in regular touch with our New York friends over Zoom. It was during one of these calls that I lamented there didn’t seem to be any non-sad way to conduct Guac the Casbah this year. We were no longer in the same city as the friends we’d invite, for one thing, and the idea of everyone either making their own guacamole and margs or picking those items up from the closest restaurant seemed not very festive. However, Rafael, one half of the engaged couple on the other end of the call, thought he might have a solution.

“What if we all ordered guac and margaritas to each other’s apartments, like a surprise?” he said.

The Secret Santa factor seemed to negate the dreariness I’d pictured when imagining how a virtual version might play out. We at least had to try it.

On a Thursday afternoon in mid-August, separated by thousands of miles, eight friends logged on to discuss the edible bounty deposited at each of our doorsteps in exchange for a hefty tip. Gabi and I even printed T-shirts for the occasion—colored guacamole green, of course.

Early on, when I played the namesake Clash song, everyone buckled under the weight of nostalgia. This song would ordinarily precede us on the sidewalk, fizzling out of my phone, as we wandered from one restaurant to the next, other pedestrians snickering at our theme music. This year, the song traveled through my laptop microphone to everyone else’s speakers in their separate homes; an audio Xerox and a pale imitation of our usual conviviality.

But the pall cast by what we had lost cleared away almost immediately.

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Once I jettisoned the music, we began parsing the differences in each other’s dips. Lauren’s was too spicy. Jess and Ravi’s wasn’t spicy enough. Ours had chips dusted in chili powder. Shawn and Rafael’s had chickpeas in it, which seemed like a fascinating mistake.

There was no way to determine which restaurant’s guacamole “won,” since only the socially distanced trio in Lauren’s backyard could actually sample each other’s dishes, and we soon drifted away from the topic of food to whatever it is friends talk about when they’re having fun together.

And it did feel like we were together, or as close to it as we could be.

Occasionally, the spell broke, like when Zoë revealed that Fonda, winner of the first true Guac the Casbah, had just permanently closed one of its three locations—joining the heartbreaking list of New York City restaurants to fall during the brutal COVID-19 summer. Mostly, though, the mood was playful and ebullient.

Our virtual holiday culminated in everyone raising a dipped tortilla chip to the screen and toasting the fact that we did it! It had taken some creativity and actively not thinking too hard about the world beyond our individual dwellings for 90 minutes, but we’d guac’d the casbah, defiantly crossing time zones to keep a tradition alive when the world had pulled us apart.

Nobody knew if we would be able to celebrate our goofy holiday in person next summer, or if we’d even be able to celebrate Shawn and Rafael’s impending nuptials in person next fall. But we had managed to prevent the pandemic from robbing us of one annual event in a year full of cancellations, and that in itself seemed worth celebrating.

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