Sunday, November 27, 2011

Be my guest

Your fingers tear along the seal of an envelope and pull out a card decorated with tiny autumn leaves and looping cursive handwriting. "You're invited to..." Carol's 5th birthday party, Andrew's bar mitzvah, the Randall's Thanksgiving dinner. The letter beckons you to "be our guest," to put our service to the test - like a dinner scene from Beauty and the Beast ... minus the dancing plates and silverware. The idea is that you're invited. Someone wants you to be part of their celebration.

For the past four years, I've always been the one invited to Thanksgiving dinner. It feels wonderful to be asked to share such a special holiday with people that I care about, but I'm looking forward to the day when I will be the one asking friends and family to my place and eat around my table. At the risk of sounding sappy, there's just something special about opening up your space as home-base for the holidays. It's your turn to give back to those who have offered their homes to you over the years, your chance to treat them to something that shows your thankfulness and care.

This Thanksgiving, my cousin Collier, along with his wife, Julie, invited me and 27 other family members to their beautiful, spacious home in northwest Arkansas. I walked up to their doorway armed with a silver serving dish full of sweet potato casserole and my pancetta Brussels sprouts. When Collier opened the door, my gaze instantly floated to the table, mesmerised by the plates and chargers arranged around a Christmas centerpiece. Red and white tool was woven with green garland, strung from the balcony that overlooked the bustling kitchen, filled with Thanksgiving dishes. Their house smelled like cinnamon and sage, evidence of the stuffing, turkey and pies that were waiting to be devoured by hungry guests. While I was excited to be part of the celebration, I couldn't help but think what Collier and Julie must have felt like, having all this merriment that was about to take place in their home.

The whole afternoon, we mingled, munched and marveled at the feast that everyone had so thoughtfully prepared. Collier and Julie hosted us to a meal where we could relax, enjoy and catch up with those who we haven't seen in months, and in my case, years! Their house encapsulated a moment of family togetherness that I will always associate with this holiday. Their graciousness to provide their family table as the place for this lively, quirky bunch to gather, allowed me to experience the magic of a big family, something that I always think about and am now starting to feel apart of.

Yes, it feels great to be the one who's invited, but to offer your home as the place of togetherness - that's where the heart of the family table truly subsides.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Bake because you're needed

It feels good to be needed - to have someone that recognizes the space you fill in their world. A child that asks you to tie their shoelaces; a son that asks his father how to fasten a corsage on his date's wrist; a girl that asks for her former teacher to help arrange a song for her harp recital. Being needed makes us feel wanted, and being wanted gives us meaning.

This is why I think people love to bake, because they want to feel needed... in a good way! When you spend two hours making that pumpkin pie - sifting flour and sugar, rolling out the dough for the flaky crust recipe you researched online, taking the whisk to a homemade batch of silky whipped cream to dollop on top of the slice you'll serve your boyfriend - it all comes down to that moment when you pass the plate and fork, zoom in on his face and watch the grin that follows as he takes the first bite, a sure sign of bliss.

While that might be a more idyllic moment in baking - because there are definitely times when the bread doesn't rise, the cake doesn't cook all the way through and the cookies come out black as tar - the reason why we bake is to give, to use our talents in ways that are tangible, comforting and satisfying.

In Bill Buford's book Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany, (title says it all) he mentions a pastry chef named Gina who would walk around the kitchen asking the staff to try her creations, constantly asking if they liked it, if the cookies have too many almonds, not enough almonds? He began to notice the satisfaction Gina received when she watched someone eat her food. In her mind, she was giving people something that just might have brought an extra bit of joy to their day. And that's important. Baking made Gina feel needed, and for all those who enjoyed her pastries, her offerings were welcomed.

Whether it's baking a cake for your co-worker's birthday, bringing in a tray of homemade granola bars to your group meeting, or making apple dumplings for your roommate one evening, (thanks Amy!) bake to give. Try to keep in mind that what you're baking is more than a sweet or savory treat; it's something that shows your love and care for those you offer it to. And on the receiving end, the next time someone asks you to try their baked goods, do it. Let them know that their gifts are appreciated.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Shape matters

Photo Credit:

While some may get a rouse out of the saying, "size matters," I'd like to argue that it's shape that matters most. Maybe I should provide some context so you don't think I'm eluding to childish innuendos.

A conversation this weekend had me thinking about the effectiveness of the table in fostering an environment for dinnertimes where we engage in worldly discussions - what on earth was Berlusconi doing while he was in power, whether or not you agree with your city's never-ending road construction and about the bullying your child witnessed in the school cafeteria. The table itself holds a lot of potential, which can be enhanced or diminished by one key factor... shape.

Think about this: square and rectangular tables have corners. They cut people off. It's hard to pull up an extra chair without being left outside the set perimeter. In the back left corner, aunt Suzy and cousin Jimmy are talking about the newest Adam Sandler movie; on the right side, Tim and Larry are placing bets on how long the NBA lockout will last; Dad, at the head, stares bewildered at the number of conversations spurting all around him, yet he can't connect with any group because he's isolated at his end of the table!

Now switch to this concept: round tables have no nooks or crannies in which to hide. They invite people in. Want to pull up a seat? You're more than welcome. We're glad to sacrifice a little elbow room to let you enter the conversation. The long, curvaceous circumference beckons aunt Suzy, cousin Jimmy, Tim and Larry to answer Dad's question about Grandma's depression. No one is isolated. You can see everyone's face - so you better be looking your best. Just kidding. At round tables, I envision more acceptance rather than judgment. Why? I'm not sure - maybe it's just because round tables seem to want you there.

Now, I grew up with a rectangular table and I remember dinners very fondly. Yet, there were usually three of us, and then two. The conversation was all in that little bubble. All of our faces were exposed and in a way, we had a small enough group that it operated like that round table I'm advocating for.

In the case of bigger families, dinner parties, or groups with odd numbers, I think round is the way to go. When it comes to dinnertime, I'm serious about conversation. Someday, I'll have the choice between buying a round table or a rectangular table for my future home and I can guarantee you that I'll be choosing the circle. From the wise words of a childhood song, "A circle is round. It has no end." I choose the option of wanting my dinnertime to be full of "endless possibility."

The next time you sit around a table, see what you notice about the interactions. Does shape really matter? You be the judge.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

In Favor of Free and Reduced

Free and Reduced Lunch. You've probably heard the term before. Thinking back to lunchtime in grade school, you waited - probably not patiently - for your tray filled with some type of reconstituted, re-hydrated, reheated foods that would satisfy your groaning stomach until the hunger pangs hit again after your last class.

And while it may have been a long time since you last had a school lunch, were you ever aware that your fellow classmates might have been part of the free and reduced lunch program? While it may be an unpleasant thought - a family who cannot afford to pay for their child's lunch at school - it's a reality that many American families face.

In Monroe County, where I attend school at Indiana University, the Department of Education's data from 2001 shows that nearly 26 percent of their elementary through high school population received a free or reduced lunch. And I can assure you that this number has only grown as more families struggle with the difficult economic times we're facing.

With all of the school programs that seem to be getting cut right and left, it is a blessing that we continue to have free and reduced lunch programs.

Lunch programs are extremely beneficial to schools. Eating a healthy lunch - coupled with a nutritious breakfast and snacks - helps students to stay focused in class and turn their attention towards learning rather than feeling fatigue caused by a lack of eating healthy foods.

And while the aforementioned benefits fulfill the base of one's personal needs, being able to eat lunch at school typically involves sitting around a cafeteria table where students talk, laugh and share stories. Lunchtime is when they can vent, express their emotions and work through problems. It's when they can be silly, talk about whatever they want and just be kids!

Thank goodness for free and reduced lunch programs. As they help kids learn the values of community mealtime, it is hope that they will carry this practice into their future - better understanding the magic that occurs when we eat together around the table.