Monday, December 19, 2011

Pearl at the table

"There are two pearls," my dad told me. "Well, two that I've found so far."

Pearls? My eyes widened and I craned my neck forward, waiting to hear about where these little white pearls were and why they were so special. My younger 13-year-old self didn't realize at first that my dad wasn't referring to the elegant stone produced from the soft tissue inside a mollusk. He was talking about the pearls of wisdom - the insightful statements that provide advice and guidance; the words that ring in our ears when we're making a difficult decision; the mantras that keep us anchored when the rough seas of life are crashing around us.

When I understood what these metaphorical pearls were, I was curious as to what pearls my dad thought were so important and why he remembered these two. Surely these statements had to be the secrets to a happy life, or at least wisdom to keeping your head held high come Monday morning.

"The first pearl is that there are pearls of wisdom and that you need to be looking out for them," he said. I thought this was pretty straight forward, but I could tell by the way his hands were clasped and how he looked at me with such a steady gaze that his first pearl was a good reminder to be aware of the knowledge we gain from our experiences.

He moved his hand across the width of our knotted oak table, gripping the corner as his finger tips rounded the curved edge. "The second pearl," he said, "is to keep relationships alive."

I wrinkled my nose. 'Keep relationships alive,' I repeated in my head. I looked down at his big hands that were still holding the table. I needed a little more explanation. He began to talk about his days of backpacking through Europe. It was the late 60s and he had just graduated from Indiana University. On his journey, he befriended countless people, from shepherds to Spanish flamenco dancers. While he carried little with him, the people he met graciously shared, inviting him into their homes to enjoy a cup or English tea or a meal of cheese and sausage. Even when my dad came back to the States, he kept correspondence with his new friends through letters. While he never went back to visit any of them, his memories of them remained vivid, even some 30 years later.

As we sat at the table that night, talking about these pearls of wisdom, I imagined that he would have loved to have shared another meal with the families he met, or better yet, have invited them to our house in Portland, Oregon for a taste of the Northwest.

While I try to listen for other pearls of wisdom that come across my path, I have really held on to the idea of keeping relationships alive. After graduating from high school, I moved to Indiana, not knowing anyone else at IU and leaving all my high school friends back in Oregon. Despite the distance, I have stayed close with a few of these girls; I'd even venture to say that I have become closer to them since our high school days. It's during times of the year like Christmas that we reunite and catch up on all the details of our lives that we've been dying to tell each other since we last visited in August. Nine times out of ten, we get together around the same familiar place: the table.

Last Friday, a group of us gathered to savor our favorite winter comfort foods - puffy vegetable pot pie, roasted squash, cinnamon apple crumble and velvety, thick hot chocolate. As we raised our glasses of Soave in a toast to our friendship, which has been going strong for the last seven years, I couldn't help but think about that pearl of wisdom and picture my dad sitting at the table, his mind drifting back to his memories of sharing food with his European friends. Even if my friends and I are only separated by 2,000 miles, instead of 5,000, the few times a year we can be together are secured in our love of the family table, a place that will always be there to house our reunions, whether we haven't see each other for four weeks or four months.

Today, I'm passing on my dad's pearls of wisdom to you. I encourage you to make relationships a priority in your life, even if you think you have little time and far too much work still left to do. It doesn't take too much effort to invite your close friends over for a night of cheese and wine, an afternoon of chewy ginger cookies or a morning cup of coffee.

Keep the friendships going; keep the family table alive.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Tradition, tradition!

Photo Courtesy of

A man with leathery skin, wearing a well-worn tweed vest and a prayer cloth, ladles fresh milk into a dull tin canister. His name is Tevye, a father of five daughters and a humble milkman by trade. His town is bustling with activity: men are sawing beams and sheering wool, Papa is butchering meat, Mama is baking fresh challah. As Tevye delivers milk to a woman in a small, wooden house, he says, "And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word... Tradition."

Sound familiar? This scene from "Fiddler on the Roof" is a perfect illustration of the pride we have for our traditions. While most of us may not burst into song when we think about them (unless your tradition is performing musical theater), deep inside, we attach them to strong emotions and memories.

The word "tradition" has become somewhat synonymous with the holiday season. Whether your family has always burned a yule log in the fireplace for Christmas, or the Mexican hot chocolate you drink every Christmas Eve while watching "It's a Wonderful Life," your traditions mark the season with moments of bliss. And it just wouldn't feel right if you neglected them. The table would seem empty if you didn't make your great grandma Alice's Christmas jello salad. The magic would be missing if you didn't put piles of chocolate coins on the table when the kids were playing spin-the-dreidel.

In the last week, I attended two Christmas events where the theme was "traditions." I reminisced about my Mom's German pancake that we ate each year on Christmas morning. Once placed inside the oven, the golden pancake curled up the sides of the cast iron pan, beckoning to be filled with a steaming serving of spiced apples or doused with lemon juice and a dusting of powdered sugar. It's a sweet tradition - one that I hope to continue in the years to come.

But when someone posed the question as to what traditional foods would be on my table for a holiday spread, besides the German pancake, I couldn't think of any dishes that would be absolute essentials. At first, I was worried. Is it odd that I don't have any Christmas foods that I can't live without?

I listened to the others share their foods. One family eats summer sausages and cheddar cheese after Christmas morning service. Another girl said her mom lives to make her family's recipes that were brought over from Syria. They all sounded great, but there weren't any threads that linked the dishes together. The common denominator was that these people ate them year after year with those they loved.

Then, it hit me. At a "traditional" Christmas dinner, the food is arbitrary. Sound blasphemous? Maybe not. While it may not feel the same if you substitute Chinese takeout for the honey-glazed ham, as long as you're sitting around the table, visiting with those you care about, what difference does the food make? I believe the tradition is not as much in the specific foods as it is in the practice of sharing it in a communal setting.

So this year, whether you plan on making your family's time-tested eggnog recipe or creating a new dish you saw on the Barefoot Contessa, as long as you're sharing it with family and friends, you are most surely carrying on the tradition.