There’s something about tables, big, little, or bare – and those bare ones in particular – that make me want to festoon them with food I’ve cooked, like floral garlands at a grand wedding. I feel an urge, too, to seat people on the equally vacant chairs, saying, “Come on now, sit down a spell, and let your worries fade away like the mist on a hot summer morning.”
Well, maybe I wouldn’t say it exactly that way, but the truth of the matter is that putting food in front of hungry people and watching them eat goes a long way in brightening my day. And hopefully theirs as well.
When faced with an empty table, like an artist standing in front of a blank canvas, I start thinking about what would alleviate some of that barrenness.
Something colorful, yes. Something not too chewy but with enough texture to give the jaw a bit of a workout. Something spicy, for the taste buds to sigh over, but not so hot that tears well up. Something soft and soothing, to bring back memories of pudding and whipped cream and mashed potatoes topped with a pat of butter swimming in thick gravy.
Although communal meals might not always be soothing – think of all those tension-fraught holiday-turkey dinners, the frazzled grandmothers and aunts with their hair sweat-stuck to their temples – when you can choose whom to feed, and when, you then take on the role of artist, controlling who sits at your right and who sits across from you, now that’s the way it ought to be. And unless each of your guests requires a special diet (heaven forbid!), you also determine what’s on the menu. Just as the artist holds the brushes and squeezes the paint tubes the way she wants to, as a cook with the unadorned table you call the shots.
Even if all you can afford is a small loaf of day-old bread and some about-to-expire-and-on-sale cheese, and your tablecloth serves as a sheet at night, while the boxy chairs you acquired only yesterday held ripe peaches and apples – and still emit their fragrance every time you sit down – you have all the ingredients for a superb feast. And for a sense of transcendence, albeit brief. In a world filled with constant and unexpected challenges, eating with others still brings with it the awareness of our common humanity.
If that’s not freedom, I don’t know what is.
An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace, by Tamar Adler (2011)
How to Cook a Wolf, by M. F. K. Fisher (1942, available in reprinted editions)
A Cookbook for Poor Poets and Others, by Ann Rogers (1966)
© 2013 C. Bertelsen