Years ago I heard a random radio-program about families and relationships, where one of the stories told was of a family in the US where the mother was unable to care for her children, who were subsequently taken away from her. In the years that followed, the only contact she had with her children was to invite them once a year to a splendid, multi-course gourmet meal, which the mother would spend a week preparing. Although it’s far removed from the minute to minute challenges of good parenting, there is something about that flamboyant meal that really appeals to me. Food is way more than calories, more than mere fuel for the engine, more than a basic biological necessity. Food is culture, comfort, caring. Food is love.
My oldest daughter doesn’t live at home anymore but comes home most weekends. After the weekend I send her back to her student-apartment with lots of plastic boxes filled with food. This young woman is a fiercely independent person with a strong sense of justice who makes her own decisions and pays her own expenses. The fact that she lets me feed her makes me very happy. It’s nice of me to cook for her, particularly since she’s a vegetarian and we’re not. It’s nicer yet of her to let me interfere in her life and decide what she has for lunch. I’ll happily send boxes to all my kids. Hopefully none of them will become vegan. And hopefully they’ll remember to bring back the damn empty boxes.
A dear friend described how she participated in an interfaith conference and was concerned that the participating Christians would not understand her Kosher dietary quirks. Until she realized that most of the other faiths, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Rastafarians and Jainists all have dietary restrictions which they consider an expression of their religion. As a matter of fact, Protestants are maybe the only denomination who barely have any food-based dialogue with god.
Food lends itself to symbolism. Just look at the display when you enter your regular supermarket to teach you what time of the year it is and what holiday is approaching. In ancient times, and till this day in parts of the Far East, humans sacrifice food as an expression of their devotion to a greater being. If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, maybe that works for god too.
Jewish holidays, I assume the same goes for non-Jewish holidays, center on food. There are particular dishes that symbolize, well, stuff, and other than the fast-days, there is always a large meal as part of the celebration. Fasting in the religious context doesn’t actually make you lose weight. Both Jews and Muslims compensate by eating more than enough both before and after they fast. In secular Europe, the only Christmas tradition that has survived, other than the tree and the gifts, is the meal. Religious content is long gone, you will not see a crèche in most homes but the table remains unchanged. Humans crave their childhood dishes, in a most concrete way the foods we knew as children bring us to our senses. Nothing can make you feel at home like the smells and tastes of traditional food. I once heard of a family that served Chinese food at their Passover (Jewish Easter) Seder-table, the most traditional of all meals in Jewish tradition. Uh, uh, I love Chinese food, but that is seriously weird.
Since many years I’m involved with a non-profit organization called Yad Elie, http://www.yadelie.org that provides meals for school-children in Jerusalem. We are a small organization who work individually with schools in both the Muslim and the Jewish parts of Jerusalem to help populations that have a hard time providing appropriate food for pupils during school. The hope is that the kids will do better in school, and therefore better in life, if they get the nourishment their growing bodies need. Collecting the means to pay for the food is an act of love. My above mentioned daughter studies at the Rubin Music Academy in Jerusalem. She and some 80 of her friends from the Academy have volunteered to put on a show this spring (March 9, if you happen to be in Jerusalem) an evening of songs from Broadway, as a benefit for Yad Elie. Students raising money to feed school-kids. I am so grateful.
We have a lot of guests and I spend more than a crumble of my time in the kitchen. My choice, I love it. In the past few years I’ve taken to asking my guests beforehand if they have any allergies or food issues. It can sometimes be a bit of a challenge to put together a menu for the vegans with the gluten-free with the no night-shades with the nut allergies with the plain nutty. But I don’t think anybody has ever left the table hungry. Some guests are clearly allergic to some substance but many refrain from wheat or cheese because they choose to. Those abstentions tend to not stick in the long run. It’s really hard to know what is actually good for you and what is not, other than not eating sugar. Which is unfortunate, since it’s really yummy. Different people have different opinions, agendas, irrational believes or well thought through theories about food. And about other things. So I sign off with these words of wisdom. We don’t really know all that much about anything. Everything should be enjoyed in moderation. Too much of a good thing will make you really fat.
Happy Moderate (not at all a political statement) New Year!
This was Noomi Stahl’s farewell blogg for Renew Magazine. We thank her for her great blog and wish her good luck on her continuing journey.