Thursday, July 12, 2012

I Love to Cook

I love to cook. Since moving to North Carolina, I watch a ton of Food Network shows. So many, in fact, that my family jokes that our TV has only one station. Before we had cable, I watched PBS cooking shows. I read recipes. I create recipes. I have, in the past, reviewed cookbooks and written recipes for “Home Cooking” and the now-defunct “Amateur Chef”.  In 2001 my husband and I were lucky enough to go the races at Bristol to research and write an article for them about how NASCAR drivers eat on race day.
My whole extended family likes to cook to one degree or another. From modest cooks who deliver their special dishes to family reunions to several professional cooks and chefs, we have competitive grillers, food carving artists, meat specialists, food stylists, salad makers, casserole creators, and bakers. Bakers galore. While we each have our weak points, there isn’t a one among us who can’t follow a recipe to produce delicious baked goods. 

Gee, does that sound like a community of sweet teeth? Sweet tooths?

In addition, we like to provide an abundant amount of food. If we aren’t sending food back with someone or eating on it for a week after, well, we just haven’t done things right.

On the one hand, today, we have people like us, who just adore cooking and dining. We have the people who love to explore new ways and new foods to cook. We have people who share love by sharing food. However, we also have school bake sales under fire, rampaging obesity, and restaurants competing to serve you the largest, hottest, baddest plate of food you can find.

What is food? Is it sustenance? Fuel to run our bodies? An emotional crutch? A way to love?

There are those who think food’s sole function is to fuel our bodies. Among them are athletes and others concerned about health who urge us to eat in moderation only those foods that benefit our bodies. That’s not a bad thing. I’m all for eating healthy foods. And I agree that we should be careful about putting balanced combinations of food into our bodies. Yet, I think there is more to the picture than filling up at the table like cars at a gas station.

Practically every culture and society attaches more to food than the simple task of fueling the body. Meals are events, opportunities to gather for fellowship or celebration. Meals are exercises in diplomacy. be it familial or international. Meals are a way to show welcome and love.

This point of view does not dictate relying on food high in fat, sugars, and calories. It does imply making people feel comfortable, which in turns mean having things that are satisfying and fun and having enough to eat. I think it also suggests serving a variety of foods, well-prepared, in moderate portions and allowing guests to enjoy everything they eat.

I didn’t grow up Southern, and my family’s parties were primarily for family, not outside guests.  I didn’t get the early hospitality training that so many Southerners get at mama’s knee – or from the air they breathe, I’m not sure which. However, there was a story I read a long time ago about a rabbi who went to dinner that influenced my thinking greatly.

Now, the rabbi was the guest, not the hostess, but he was aware of a unique kind of ‘hospitality’, the desire to above all else, make the other person comfortable. As the dinner guest, he received a plate of matzo ball soup. This soup is made with chicken broth heavily laden with fat, often referred to as ‘schmaltz’. To his dismay, when he was served, there was a fly in his soup. Now, not being in a restaurant, he couldn’t exactly fuss at the waiter and ask for a fresh plate. And he didn’t want to make the hostess feel bad. While he might have been able to overlook personal squeamishness and down the soup anyway, consuming a fly broke his faith’s dietary rules. So, his dilemma: which was worse, eating something his religion said he shouldn’t, or mortifying his hostess by exposing her culinary and sanitary faux pas? The rabbi was sorely conflicted, but the thought won out that it was far worse to inflict pain on his hostess than to break a dietary rule. So, cleverly, he used a chunk of matzo and fat to pin the fly to the side of his dish. At least now his food was only tainted by the bug’s presence, and his hostess’s  reputation and serenity was intact. Imagine his consternation later when, on handing his hostess the empty dish, he discovered the fly was gone – with only one route by which it could have left.

This, to me, represents the true spirit of hospitality: to make the other person feel comfortable and at ease.  To make them feel both secure and trusted in your presence. Inviting someone to share food at your table is indeed a statement of trust. Serving them food that you prepare (or even purchase) is a commitment to concern about their state of being. Sharing food that you enjoy, that provides pleasure as well as sustenance, is a gift that can build relationships and strengthen bonds. Food becomes celebration.

                                                                 photo (c)  courtesy kaminnick 2011

Yes, we need to use the gift of food resources God has provided wisely. But, wise use does not have to mean stoic, constrained use. It can mean joyful, thoughtful use that provides as much pleasure as it does nutrition. I think that is using the resource in an abundant way, taking full advantage of it. I think perhaps that is part of what it means to live the abundant life.

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