I was reading a friend’s blog this morning (http://www.1morespoon.com . Fantastic!) While perusing his recipes, including some of his native Nigerian foods, it struck me how many of the recipes were similar to my own down-home vittles. Opposite corners of the Earth, our roots, and yet so much is the same. The spices change, some of the ingredients, but home recipes are all so much more than just nutrients for our body. All of us crave the emotions of food. The memories of food. The satisfaction of food. Food is familiar. It is necessary. It is story. It is family. It is love. It is comfort.
Comfort foods. We all have them… Those recipes that immediately bring back the warmth and love of home. The ones that make your throat emit those undefinable sounds of gastronomic ecstasy and happiness. Usually, it is some sort of peasant food, since most of us weren’t raised as millionaires. And peasant food usually means cheap ingredients: rice, beans, vegetable ends, pasta. If there is meat, it is the skids: the tail, the toes, the ears, the shins. We take these bits and pieces and we turn them into belly love.
I think food is an underrated educational tool. If you want to teach someone about your culture, make them your comfort food and explain to them why it is what it is. Like a Jewish Passover Seder, each ritual meal tells a story. Our story. And the flavors of that story will stick with our guests long after the meal is over. They will remember the flavor of that unusual spice… What was it again? They will recall the family argument over whether cannellini beans or red beans were more authentic. They will remark to their own family how your people prefer fluffy rice instead of sticky like they do. The similarities and differences between your meal and theirs will make a connection that no Geography book can duplicate.
My cousin and her husband just adopted two beautiful girls from Poland. One of the highlights of the adventure for us observers was the pictures of the art her youngest daughter would make with the contents of her breakfast. As Americans, we are used to breakfasts of cereals, eggs, bacon, etc. The Polish breakfast plate consisted of meats and cheeses and fruits (On a side note, this is also my usual Saturday evening repast… How humorous and heartwarming that i was copying my new cousins’ breakfast!). The smiling faces composed of hams and berries are sweet and intriguing. And yummy. By posting the pictures, we got to see into the world of a girl we have never met. Like all other children her age, the food is a source of amusement as much as sustenance, even if the paint is gouda as opposed to french toast. And i would assume, also like other children her age, there were things that never made it from plate to mouth. A preteen girl is still a preteen girl, regardless of her birthplace, after all.
I have been blessed in my gastronomic life. I have no food allergies, and all of my family are great cooks. And i have had the opportunity to dine in more places and ethnicities than most. I have had all-night meals in beautiful surroundings on the coast of Italy, and i have shared a pot of lentils with other moms and a slew of their weedlings in a dirt lot in Bahrain. I have sipped fine French wines and homemade moonshine. I have tasted expensive caviar and pickled pigs’ feet. I have enjoyed decadent picnics and dubious paper bags of deep fried sea life. And i have savored every experience.
That is not to say that all those things tasted good to me, or even that i would try them again. I would not be the least disheartened if i were told i could never again have cow tongue. Or locust. Or sweetbreads. Or oysters. But the fact that i tried them… That for a moment, i was sharing a a visceral experience with a fellow being… THAT i would not give up for anything. The intimacy of a shared meal is a sacred thing, and it brings us closer to each other in a singular way.
I wonder what the world would be like if we all were made to sit around a family supper table with our enemies before we were allowed to war with them. Even if the experience didn’t convert the hatred, it certainly would be harder to annihilate them. It’s emotionally difficult to shoot someone who just gave you some of their dessert. – Tho one could argue it is easy to want to shoot someone who reached over and took your dessert. Especially if it was your favorite cheesecake. – But assuming we each gave freely, how could we then kill each other? How could i reach across the table with a forkful of my Aunt’s broccoli salad, saying, “Oh my Lord, you MUST try this! It is amazing!”, and then set your home on fire? How could i take my spoon, laden with fresh blackberry-basil sorbet, and raise it to your lips so you could taste heaven, too, and then steal your children? It would require a complete disconnect with humanity. Perhaps that disconnect exists, but i truly hope not.
I wonder if the U.N. has potluck suppers. And if they do, how could i snag an invite? That would be a solid component in my idea of heaven. People of all walks bringing their belly love to each other. Hundreds of versions of beans and rice. Bowls upon bowls of custards and stews. Meat pies galore. And cakes! Just the thought of it makes my heart and soul smile.
As one of my favorite parables goes… In hell, we are all around a supper table resplendent with magnificent food, and 6 foot forks too long to reach our mouths. In heaven, we are under those same conditions, but use those forks to feed each other.