As the banner reads for this blog, I love food and I love to cook. I suppose that I was indoctrinated early: having large family dinners with my Polish grandmother meant lots of food, and at holiday time, days spent in preparation. The longstanding family joke was that we wouldn't be halfway through the meal we were eating before my grandmother would say, "Now, what should we have for _____________ (insert breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, etc.)?" My grandmother was always thinking about food and her life revolved around cooking for her family. She pleased them well.
In fact, her tireless efforts to please her family produced a lot of good-natured joking from my uncles. One Easter dinner, while the family was passing a platter of my grandmother's legendary garlic-roasted leg of lamb with apricot sauce, she got up from the table to get something else to serve. When she came back, bearing yet another bowl of something delicious to devour, my Uncle Phillip said, "Sit down and eat, Mama, or you'll be too tired to do the dishes later." We all laughed, knowing that yet another enjoyable part of being together was gathering in the kitchen for clean-up while my grandmother relaxed, exhausted and happy, in her rocking chair in the breakfast nook nearby.
My grandmother was a wonderful intuitive cook, as I've mentioned in a previous post. Her food was delicious, it was uncomplicated, and there was a lot of it. She was very committed to feeding her family and she always did so out of great love. I recall a time in my early 20's that I traveled by bus across New York State to northwestern Pennsylvania to visit my grandparents. I mentioned to my grandmother in the ride from the bus terminal to their home that I was craving her baked custard. The next day, at midday meal, there was the baked custard, sparkling like an opaque, satiny jewel, drenched in liquified caramelized sugar, waiting to be eaten. I cannot recall a baked custard that has tasted so good as that one.
I have countless memories of my grandmother's cooking and just as many of the family gatherings, holidays and picnics we enjoyed, even long after the time that both of my grandparents were gone and it was up to their children to carry on the tradition of lovingly preparing food for family reunions. So I learned well, and I saw how food was used and presented as an act of love and caring. Family meals meant being together. To this day, I am very conscious that preparing meals for those held close and dear in my heart is an act of love and caring modeled by my beautiful and very much missed grandmother.
This is one of the chief motivations underlying why I take time to cook. The emotional rewards for preparing food are so reinforcingly pleasant that I want to cook as often as possible. I want to recreate the experiences I have enjoyed all of my life. And when guests are in my home, I want to treat them as though they were my family, and to allow them to experience, if for just a short time, what it means to be part of a loving circle of warmth and welcome. I want both their bodies and their spirits to be nourished.
I realize that some of you reading this blog will not have enjoyed the kinds of experiences with food and family that I have been privileged with. I realize, too, that some of you have had not only indifferent, unpleasant experiences, but perhaps even upsetting or traumatic experiences at family meal times. I further realize that some of you may not even like to cook, but you do like to eat good food. I would ask you to consider that allowing yourself to have a fresh experience with food preparation might help you activate your "reset button." If you are not ready to cook for yourself, I encourage you to find a friend or friends who do like to cook and make it a point to spend time with them in their kitchens and as a guest at their table.
Be bold, invite yourself. Tell your friends you want to have a meal with them. Tell them that it would be really meaningful to you to spend time with them in this way. Create a surrogate family of friends that will nourish and care for you in the way that you would have wanted your own family to do. And if you are ready to provide a more intensive level of caring for yourself, read Daniel Halpern's "How to Eat Alone" and get into the habit of honoring yourself, perhaps in just a small, purposeful way. You don't have to roast yourself a leg of lamb to do this. You can celebrate with crackers and cheese on a paper plate if you wish. The point is to be intentional, purposeful, and mindful about how you nourish yourself and allow yourself to be nourished and cared for by others.
Peter Kaminsky, in his forthcoming book Culinary Intelligence, states that although he regards cooking as one of life's great pleasures, it is viewed by many as an onerous chore. "Any recipe that takes more than 30 minutes implies that you are being robbed of time to watch television/friend new people on Facebook/do yoga" (Food and Wine, March 2011, p 65). Without climbing on my soapbox of "and this is what is fundamentally wrong with our society," I want to encourage you to really think about the priorities that we set that interfere with our ability to not only nourish and sustain ourselves in healthy, life-affirming ways, but also how those same priorities disallow intimacy, presence, and authenticity in our relationships with others. For me, food and sharing food with others is the primary vehicle that drives my desire to connect with my loved ones on a very deep and meaningful level. Few things please me more than to look at a gathering of friends or family across the table, knowing that I have yet another memory to cherish. I think to myself, "Now, this is real." I always feel intensely grateful for these opportunities, whether they take place in my home, or in the homes of my friends and family.
I plan to continue to take time to cook, to connect, to nourish, to sustain. Can you imagine what our world would look like if we all made a committment to do this as often as possible? I hope you will continue to cook, to connect, to nourish and to sustain. Do this for yourself first. Then pay it forward.
May your tastebuds (and your spirit) dance.