Think about food and you think, sooner or later, about circles. About cycles, and roundness.
Whether we ever consciously know and acknowledge it or not, by being born on this round globe we sign a contract. We initial it with every drop of our blood, and renew it with every breath: I will participate in the circle; I will eat while I am here, and eventually be eaten. For as long as we live, if we are among the fortunate ones who have enough to eat, we will round our bellies as we grow hungry and then sate that hunger, again and again and again (often, in the developed countries, with bellies that are, or seem to us to be, too round).
We do this, all of us, until we leave physical life. The poet Wislawa Szymborksa, in the poem Nothing’s a Gift, expresses this:
“… I’ll have to pay for myself
with my self,
give up my life for my life…
I move about the planet
in a crush of other debtors.
Some are saddled with the burden
of paying off their wings.
Others must, willy-nilly,
account for every leaf.
Every tissue in us lies
on the debit side.”
But the solemn, sobering circle drawn by the tissue of physical being is just one circle.
We human beings also form a circle with each other, around the table. Around the food on the table. Around the flat circular moons of plates, the rounded bowls. Each meal is a twist of the kaleidoscope, the design of our human circle changing continually yet composed of the same basic pieces. This is, in the old phrase, breaking bread together. This shared nourishment is both physical and social.
That table we’re around: It might be covered with starched white linen (which arrived at the back of the restaurant earlier that day, from Peerless Commercial Laundry Service, a neat, paper-wrapped, string-tied package, a transaction to which, as restaurant-goers, we probably give less than no thought). The “we” who are seated around that table might be friends, or business associates; we might be gathering to make plans, make a deal, propose marriage, celebrate the birth of a child or grandchild, remember an absent friend.
Here, another person, perhaps several others, come and go, attending our needs. They are waiters; they “wait” on our pleasure. At a time when few people have servants, they “serve” us. They are both part and not part of our circle, usually considered only nominally more than the linen. “How much dill is in the cucumber sauce that comes with the poached salmon? “ we might ask them earnestly. “And is that salmon wild-caught or farmed?” Also outside the circle of the table and our consideration, but truly with us: the chef, in the kitchen, who is poaching that salmon, the farmer who grew the cucumber or dill, the person who caught that salmon, and countless others.
There are many other tables, of course.
There is dinner at home, in the “eat-in kitchen”, at least for those families fortunate enough (in our fast food discombobulated over-scheduled world), to eat together sometimes. This table’s bare wood, possibly covered with oilcloth; we ourselves will sponge it clean later. Or, perhaps we use place-mats, the ones we bought in Cape Cod that summer. Paper napkins, likely. There may be juice glasses if it is morning, wine glasses if it is evening, Sippycups if there are young children. The mashed potatoes (or rice or pasta), the sliced beef (or tofu-vegetable stir-fry), the salad and condiments, each in their own round bowl or platter, the round basket of bread — whatever’s being served is probably passed hand to hand. We freely help ourselves to seconds, an option we would not dream of at a restaurant table.
We may be eating in our pajamas at this second table. And there, too, more than eating takes place at other times: homework or bill-paying may be done, tearful conversations late at night with voices kept down so the children won’t hear. As we eat, the black-and-white tuxedo cat may wander into the kitchen and try to jump on the counter. “NO!” Down she jumps, and skulks away. The golden retriever may sit, patiently, longingly, by the person most likely to palm a sliver of roast to him. “How was your day?” “What did you learn in school?” “Could you pass the corn?” The kaleidoscope has turned. Bread is broken again. Another circle is formed.
The original circle of our forebears was not, of course, around a table, but a fire. Over it roasted a joint of yesterday’s hunt, if that hunt were successful. Food, shelter, story, as I always remind students when I teach a Deep Feast Workshop: human beings went out and killed the mastodon, gathered the roots, nuts and berries (food); dragged it back to the cave (shelter); and then painted what had happened on the ceiling of the cave (story).
Human beings are meaning-making animals. It is that need for meaning, for story, that separates us from the rest of the animals.
We need narrative, for human beings are filled with uneasy questions: who are we? why are we here? how do we fit in? why did what happened, happen? What becomes of us or those we love when we die? The attempt to answer these questions makes narrative. And narrative, I believe, created and continues to create) not just philosophy, but art, literature. And religion. And the holidays and meals that celebrate all these, as year after year cycles again and again, around and around.
Each holiday meal is also a circle, with elements both unique (to the holiday, the family, the religion) and universal.
The circle at the Thanksgiving table: traditional harvest foods which express gratitude and thanks, in the contradictory face of family love and tension. The need for connection and autonomy. For history, and for forgetting history; looking forward and backward yet being in the somewhat messy right here, right now.
The circle at the Passover table: ritual, reenacted bite by bite and page by page with food and story, commemorating liberation and survival; again in the contradictory face of family love and tension, connection and autonomy, past, present, future.
Christmas, He is born; Easter, He is risen — death and resurrection. And ham, crisscrossed with knife cuts, crucified with cloves. Sun-yellow round rings of cored canned pineapple slices. Unnatural cherries, red as blood. (And then there is the cake, remember? That Mrs. Nichols used to send over every Easter? Baked in a special mold, it was shaped like a lamb, with white icing and coconut to look like wool, and a bell tied around its neck with a pale blue ribbon? We still call that “the Nichols house” even though five or six families have lived there, have bought and sold that house, since the days the days when the Nicholses lived there…) Again: the contradictory faces, love and tension, connection, autonomy. History, and its opposite, forgetting.
The kaleidoscope turns and turns, “sailing in and out of days and over a year,” in the words of Maurice Sendak, “to the land where the wild things are.” Family love and tension; are we the wild things? Or is it life itself which is untamable?
The know-it-all uncle, such a pain in the ass, who picks all the cashews out of the dish of mixed nuts; the brother who borders on sociopathy, sowing dissent by barbed word and glower every Easter; the cousin who drinks too much and, with each emptied glass, tells us more and more about an ominous “they” who are trying to take away our rights. The one who will only eat cranberry jelly; the one who will only eat cranberry sauce. The one who will only eat pecan pie; the one who says, “Thanksgiving wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without mincemeat pie,” even though she’s the only one who likes it.
I think, as you can tell, that ceremonial family feasts are usually ambivalent at best, the tensions of every day amped up by the increased expectation of Joyous Noel (or whatever). I think almost anyone who is honest would admit that holidays are rarely as perfect as the food photographs in Bon Appetit or the table-settings in Oprah Magazine.
Yet could today’s pain-in-the-ass become, in absence, a pain in the heart? Maybe. Maybe not.
Given that such difficulties, familial and otherwise, are almost always part of the circle, we usually do not ask the large questions: who, of those present here this year, will be here next year, and who will not? Perhaps this is because they’re not ours to answer; according to Jewish tradition, it’s already recorded in The Book of Life, presumably authored by God. “On Rosh Hashana it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. How many shall leave this world and how many shall be born into it, who shall live and who shall die.”
But I think it is worth asking questions we cannot answer.
And again and again and again, food gently suggests that we do, if only within ourselves. For food is always (even for vegetarians) about life, death, and how we participate in both. I called this participation, earlier, a contract. And it is. But it is also a sacrament, a deep feast, each bite of which confirms our connection to each other and the earth, our partaking, hungrily, of the mysteries which we cannot understand.
And dinner, which we can.
In Part 2, we’ll look at how the circle of particular foods and foodways lets some in and keeps some out, and why.
Dinner with Dragonwagon: random meals from a life
Sometimes I do a "status update" on Facebook that's just what I made for dinner. My FB companeros almost always ask me about it: where to find ingredients, or a recipe. Or, they say it's making them hungry... Or, they tell me about something similar that they make, or mention when and where they had it... This box, a P.S. to each post, is a semi-formalized version of same, with links and sometimes a few cooking notes at the bottom. Plus, you'll get to drop in on the dear people I'm eating with, and sit at many tables in many places with us.
|Date:||Mar. 30, 2011|
|Place:||Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, home of Charlotte Zolotow|
|At the table with:||