Since mid-March of 2020, I have written a weekly piece for this magazine featuring food stories and recipes. Motivated by a suspicion that some sort of isolation was going to be the norm for an uncertain period of time, this task served as an antidote to boredom. Then, I began to realize that this was much more: an opportunity to learn and to share knowledge without even a whisper of pessimism.
Inclusion and diversity are the bedrock of food and wine writing. I’m not a chef and my cooking skills with the possible exception of the patio grill are pedestrian. The palate is another matter. Like learning another language, it becomes more advanced with practice: eating food, consuming beverages and asking questions. Each dinner along the way continues to be a new experience. Travel still means learning about more cooking styles, different dishes, exciting spices and seasonings. An ongoing education to the glories of America’s living culinary heritage.
Literature has contributed mightily to a growing storehouse of food lore. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ delightful account of her preparation of a meal to entertain guests remains one of my favorite food stories. Cross Creek Cookery, her acclaimed tribute to Florida Cracker life revealed an industrious woman, living alone in central rural Florida who not only could produce a Pulitzer Prize novel (The Yearling), but knew how to hunt Mallards for an elegant dinner served with French wines in her modest home.
Ernest Hemingway’s clean writing style mirrors his bon vivant lifestyle, his love for good food and exceptional knowledge of fine wines. It’s a rare chapter in his books that don’t reveal these passions. Here are some of his most famous quotes:
“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
“Wine is the most civilized thing in the world. In Europe we thought of wine as something as healthy and normal as food and also a great giver of happiness and well being and delight. Drinking wine was not a snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary.” From “A Moveable Feast,” 1964.
I prepared Paella for Thanksgiving according to a recipe in “The Ernest Hemingway Cookbook.” The result was lovely and well-received. My accompanying story about the origin of the recipe added to the enjoyment as did the bottle of Albariño from Spain.
Food is powerfully connective. We build bonds with friends and family over dinner, we go to restaurants on dates, we prepare food for others and with others. Even when we’re cooking and eating alone, food still connects us to the world. Whether it’s a particular meal that reminds us of home comforts, or simply sustenance to get us through the day, food is never meaningless.
Like music and literature, food finds a way into our lives. Preferences are shaped by our early experiences and the world around us, and our feelings and experiences help us build our connections with others. Food evokes memories and associations that are just as powerful as other cultural products, if not more so due to the fact that they stimulate all the senses.
The aromas of a prime rib roast in the oven reminds me of Sunday dinner during baby days with all my family gathered at the table, anticipating the delicious creations from mother’s magic kitchen.
We were never disappointed.
The sacred ritual of dining together affirms the power of relationships. Love can begin. Enemies lower their rhetoric and speak in tones that hint at good possibilities. Milestones like marriage, birthdays, anniversaries and of course friendships are magnified by the miracles served on plates and in stemware.
One of the great feasts is the gathering at a home after a funeral. My father, a World War II decorated soldier, loved sharing good food with family and friends. The array of food, wines, beverages enjoyed at home after final tributes helped sooth the pain of loss. Everything served was prepared by someone who knew him. The desserts, to no one’s surprise, were gone in minutes.
Something old and something new. That’s a bit of wisdom that I’ve found helpful. Recipes aren’t really invented, said Julia Child, they are bits and pieces of a creation modified by others for whatever reason they choose. There is a kinship, an inherited spiritual DNA that evolves over generations.
2021 is destined to be loaded with good hopes. Make each meal a celebration of ourselves. We have preferences, flavor favorites, a respect for traditions and just enough daring to welcome that exciting entree or bottle of wine from a faraway land that electrifies the soul. Sharing is an important part of the dining ritual. When the opportunity arises, invite someone to join your table, at home or in a pleasant café.
Engaging in conversation about food will invariably stimulate light-hearted conversation. It’s like planting a seed where something spectacular soon sprouts.