Sunday, November 28, 2010

Bring your offering to the table

There was a distinct difference between my Thanksgiving dinner in 2005 and this year in 2010.

Five years ago, the tension bottled up inside of me felt like the pressure bursting through the top of Mt. Saint Helens. That year, I made every dish: the popovers, cranberry sauce, stuffing, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, the pie, even the halfway cooked turkey... don't ask. While there was some slight guidance from my Dad, he was too distracted to focus his attention towards the kitchen, so I was left to master the dinner at 15 years old. While I wanted to tackle the full smorgasbord of culinary delights, I was quickly drown in the stress of not enough oven space, ingredients spilling over the counter and trying to have all the dishes ready by 5 p.m.

My ambitions may have been noble, but I was missing the spirit of Thanksgiving: the magic of each guest bringing to the table dishes that they made - traditions, childhood favorites and new creations. Thanksgiving fosters the ability for a group of people to share part of their past and present through the offering of food prepared with their unique love and care. Focused attention on one or two dishes allows for a more effective display of their dedication and personality. Aunt Marge brings her orange-cranberry relish she makes every year, cousin Carol tried Ina Garten's new rosemary mashed potato recipe and your neighbor Jack baked two succulent, golden apple pies. As each guest places their dish on the table, you're reminded how the meal is made special by the contributions of all those who join, not by the stress and sweat one person slaving to making the entire feast - so much so that they are not able to enjoy the experience.

This year, I had the privilege of sharing Thanksgiving dinner with my godparents, their children, grandchildren, family and friends. It was a group of 15 with plenty of laughs and clinking wine glasses to fill the night with cheer and merriment. When each couple arrived, they set their contribution on the kitchen counter, and soon it was covered with the traditional Thanksgiving dishes and then some. No one person was burdened with supplying too many things and each dish was made with the attention and care it deserved. If there was any stress, it was impossible to detect, all aided by the simple act of sharing the creation of what can seem to be a daunting culinary extravaganza.

Five years later and I finally understand the lesson ... let everyone take part in the magic of Thanksgiving! Dishes shared from a variety of people cultivate a memorable and heartfelt meal... and who wouldn't want a taste of that?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Share the invitation

Daily, I committed this personal sin for the past week. Every time I did it, I shook my head, because I promised myself that I won't be in this predicament night after night. When I sat down, I was confronted with my fears and then allowed them to toy with my mind, because deep down, I knew better.

I used to get teary eyed when I thought of my Dad sitting alone at the kitchen table or at a restaurant, uttering the sad syllables that compose the request "Table for one." This image cultivated my fear of him being alone, and after his death, it turned into my fear of isolation. As much as a I didn't want to acknowledge it, eating with someone was the strongest way for me to feel connected and at peace with life's swells of chaos and sheer beauty. Yet as a college student, outside the realm of my hometown friends and family, focus on togetherness at mealtime was placed on the back burner. Then, when I confronted my desire for togetherness and companionship, meals were restored to their prominent status in my hierarchy of priorities.

For me, eating a meal is never an individual activity, it's an action that involves sharing with someone - someone you love, someone you want to know more, someone you respect. It's a chance to show your care for one another, an opportunity to get to know someone on a deeper level. My heart begins to beat faster when I think about how amazing it is that there is an event where such a beautiful connection can be made! ... That's why I feel is it a sin to keep dinnertime to ourselves - to let loneliness win, to let bitterness become of the victor.

With Thanksgiving this Thursday, we prepare for an evening where sharing a home-cooked meal with others and hours of conversation are the centerpiece of the day. In the spirit of this holiday, I am truly thankful that a day exists where Americans retreat from their fast paced lifestyles and unite around the family table. And even though the Thanksgiving meal is usually more elaborate and time consuming, couldn't we devote more evenings to meals like this?

In church today, the pastor finished with this verse, which I took to be as an answer to my question: "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me." Revelation 3:20

Sunday, November 14, 2010

What your food says about you

I am a Bananas Foster. I am served splendidly in a variety of occasions, whether delivered aflame by a waiter in coattails or savored within the comforts of a cozy leather couch. I am exotic - the tastes of tropical banana caramelized with brown sugar and a hint of spicy cinnamon; yet I am also homely - mingled by the flavors of a mother's homemade vanilla ice cream. I am stable, my foundations, composed of fluffy yet slightly toasted pound cake, assuring that every drop of oozing goodness will be absorbed and savored. I am awaited in anticipation, inspiring the eager gaze of guests and the curiosity of children. I am the reminder of a college student's family tradition. I am the part of the day that makes life fun and joyful while being a subtle whisper to relish each moment in the present.

When you eat something, be aware of what it is that you put into your body. Be proud of what flavors excite your tongue. Be adventurous when scouring a menu. Be appreciative of the abundant harvest and hard work that graces your plate. While the concept of eating may have turned into a scientific analysis by leading dietitians and doctors, don't ever let the magic of food turn into something that causes anxiety. Take joy in the fact that you can delight in the wonder of new flavors and preserve traditions through the practice of cooking, eating and sharing this communion.

The next time you flip through a cookbook, scan the grocery isles or visit a local restaurant, ask yourself what the food you're about to eat says about you. I hope it tells a story and I hope that it is a happy one.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Slow and steady wins the race

Walking into a supermarket today can be a scary sight. It's like entering a mass produced, techno-color, "10 for $10!" frenzy! Many grocery stores possess endless isles of products that seem capable of sitting on shelves for eons ... does that raise any red flags to you? So much of the store is composed of "foods" that are pumped full of preservatives and chemicals, so much so, that it raises the question of whether or not it still classifies as food.

As I've increased my awareness of real, fresh produce, I've slowly started to migrate away from the isles and stick to the periphery where I can trust to find substantial, nourishing food. Yet after shopping at supermarkets in Bloomington for the past 3 years, I'm beginning to lose my trust in what I'm purchasing. I don't know who I would turn to when asking about the quality and history of the products they carry. Can you even use the term "grocer" in a supermarket these days? If I were to ask which farm the eggplants came from or if the farmer ethically treats his dairy cows, I can almost guarantee that the clerk would be speechless.

If you are not familiar with the "Slow Food Movement", it is well worth a little research. As the organization Slow Food International says on their website, "Slow Food is an idea, a way of living, a way of eating [...] that links the pleasure of food with a commitment to the community and the environment." The movement stands for local pride, tradition and culture. Slow food encourages using local foods, interacting with farmers and providing the community with care and nourishment.

Last night, I took my aunt and uncle to a restaurant called "FARMbloomington" where head chef Daniel Orr uses seasonal, local ingredients to make culinary creations that leave your taste buds singing and dancing with delight. I literally drooled when my vegetable plate arrived, covered with seven different samples ranging from teriyaki portobello mushrooms to butternut squash topped with a pumpkin puree and goat cheese. Everything tasted absolutely wonderful. As we closed out the restaurant at 11 p.m., polishing off a piece of pumpkin pie drizzled with caramel sauce, the essence of "slow food" captured the moment - appreciating the local bounty with the people you love. This is something that should happen every day. Why settle for chemically infused dressing and hormone injected poultry? And those plastic coated zucchini? I think you can see where this is going.

The message: Eat real food with authentic respect.

A little bit of my inspiration. Watch it and let me know what you think: