It can't be argued: food equals sustenance. As Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, epicure and gastronomic philosopher, once famously asserted, "The universe would be nothing were it not for life, and all that lives must be fed."
But food is so much more than fodder. Some, particularly the puzzled health-conscious sort, find comfort in treating food as nothing more than an exchange of calories for energy. It's a necessity, to be sure, but not as bodily nourishment alone. And while there's much to be said about food as a means to an end, I prefer to think of it as a sort of bridge. After all, one can't hope to find much pleasure by reading a list of ingredients and their nutrient values off an FDA regulation food label.
Food links culture and its varied splendor of traditions, both time honored and reinvented. Who doesn't remember sitting in the warm womb-like comfort of a kitchen as a small childeyes as big as saucerswatching mom, dad or grandma prepare a favorite recipe from scratch? There's an alchemy that occurs inside a room where food is prepared, and it's not just the magic of transforming a liquid to solid, or a few ingredients into elaborate dishes.
The narratives that spice the act of foraging, cooking and baking often contain some of the greatest lessons life has to offer. And the senses that play key roles during this processtaste, smell and touchare some of the strongest memory cues. An afternoon of my mother's cinnamon roll baking, tinged with its tales of Midwestern farm life and sweet cream butter, became a lesson in patience and gratitude for simple pleasures.
Tortilla rolling with Abuela Juanita, my Spanish-flecked and salted grandmother with a larger-than-life personality, was a primer in artistic flair and my family's ethnicity as well as cooking. I still carry and apply these recipes and lessons.
From picnics to potlucks, weekday work lunches to Sunday breakfasts, haute cuisine and street vendor snacks, roadhouses and dinersfood manages to bring us closer together in ways few others can. When one sits down to share in a meal, something undeniable happens: People come together.
Sure, there might be tension between one guest and another, or it might be peppered with banter. But sit long enough at a table to eat, and the walls eventually fall down in between savory bites and each lingering sip.
The food consumed during a meal might make up its foundation, but its reach extends much farther than the table. The collective of personal stories and shared experiences often leads to insights about one's customs and worldviews. Meal taking, then, is a vehicle to spread ideas, give and receive kindness, share resources and nurture one another's souls.
With the final leg of the holiday season fast upon us, it's easy to turn the preparation of food and entertaining guests into stress-inducers. It need not be. With minimal effort, one can make a variety of dishes and host a staggering array of personalities without going crazy.
Look back on your time as a child or young adult with the family. Recall your experiences during your first years away from home, while traveling, going to school or working. And then reflect on this as you begin your own family. Chances are, many of the fondest memories you have regarding these times involve cooking and eating.
Don't obsess over grocery lists and head counts. Forget about the cleanup. The true reward will come when every one of your guests sits down, takes their first bite and for several minutes there's nothing but silence in this shared experience, and the universal conversation that can only happen by eating at the common table, commences.
Feeding Your Mind
Foodies take note: There's an abundance of food writing (hybrid kitchen memoirs that are often also fused with travelogue, history, sociology and philosophy) waiting on your local library and bookstore shelves. Here are a few classics to get you started:
"Tender at the Bone: Growing up at the Table," Ruth Reichl (Broadway Books, $15.95,1999)
"A Cook's Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines," (Anthony Bourdain (HarperCollins, $14.99, 2002)
"Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously," Julie Powell (Little, Brown & Company, $14.99, 2009)
"Bread Alone: A Novel," Judith R. Hendricks (HarperCollins, $13.95, 2002)
"Like Water for Chocolate," Laura Esquivel (Knopf Doubleday, $13.95,1989)
"French Lessons: Adventures with Knife, Fork, and Corkscrew," Peter Mayle (Knopf Doubleday, $13.95, 2009)
"Physiology of Taste: or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy," Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (Knopf Doubleday, $25.00, 2009)
DIY: CREATING KITCHEN MEMORIES
This holiday season, why not take advantage of your extended time in the kitchen by preserving a few food memories? Take pictures the next time you cook with little ones (whether your own children, nieces and nephews, or even students), make sure to share the family stories connected to each traditional recipe. When you're done, craft the photos and recipes into small books for each child to keep and come back to every holiday season.
Invite over a small group of friends and teach them how to prepare a cherished recipe, and ask everyone to bring paper copies (one for each guest) of their own favorite family recipes. At the end of the gathering, each guest will get to take home a bit of the bounty, and will leave with a collection of new recipes to share with their own families.