More than Meets the Mouth: How Food Conveys Messages and Memories

Elyse's apple kuchen

Two years ago at secular New Year I mused about my observation that food does, in fact, communicate. In this Jewish New Year of 5776, I was struck by how food communicates. Like any responsible modern pundit, I googled “communication” as a point of departure of sorts and my license to proceed popped up as definition #2: a “means of connection between people or places, in particular.” Bingo. Food provides a “means of connection between people or places” –geographically, and across time.

For instance, when I pulled out my late friend Elyse’s mouth-watering and family favorite recipe for apple kuchen (cake) to prepare it for Jewish New Year, that handwritten recipe transported me back to her tiny kitchen in Israel where she dictated it to me from memory. I treasure it now—the physical notes I wrote with the pen she handed me. The lined 5” x 4” pad on which I wrote her every word and which is now stained with the coffee we drank that day and the oils from the margarine that I cream together with sugar and cinnamon each New Year as I remember her and commemorate her culinary skills. Actually, it’s not her skills but rather the unabashed love with which she cooked for her family and friends. Her apple kuchen is an “oral tribute” of sorts – not a speech, not a eulogy, but something much more visceral and eternal– aromas and tastes that rejoin us year after year.  And my friend Deborah and her family are part of that now as well. Their enjoyment of her recipe occasions me to tell them about Elyse, to “introduce” her to them, in essence, posthumously.

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Interesting that this year as I was trucking through the tedium of washing, peeling, coring and chopping the half dozen apples that Elyse’s recipe requires I realized that my dislike of those processes is also a message of love. You couldn’t pay me to do it. But I did it, and I do it, because to prepare delicious holiday food for those we love is to connect them to our rituals and our faith and our bonds as human beings. Even—and maybe especially—the unpleasantries of food prep, dare I say, facilitate connection. I think about Elyse doubling and tripling her recipes for her large family.   And when my daughter saw me grimacing as I cored the apples, she learned that her culinary pleasure comes at a cost.   She said as much. And, we chuckled together reminiscing about her phone call to me the first—and last—time she prepared herself a roast chicken for dinner. She had just finished cleaning it when she rang me and said, “That was the most disgusting thing I have ever done! I can’t believe you did that each Friday night for twenty-plus years for Shabbat dinner!” I can. The labors of love and connection echo in food preparation. That traditional meal connected me to my faith, my children, their late father, and our faith’s rituals. The meal whispered, “We know who we are.”

As I write this on the eve of a ritual fast for Yom Kippur, I realize, too that the absence of food facilitates connections as well. The escape from food shopping, preparation, consumption and cleanup leave me free to devote my thoughts and feelings to G-d and my atonement. I know that from years of fasting. As well, I know that hunger—the deprivation of food as physical sustenance—is a painful and uncomfortable experience. I get a headache. My maladies are more pronounced. Thirst, in particular, challenges me on my walk to synagogue, then distracts me and later preoccupies me.   So as I write on the eve of the Yom Kippur fast I expect that both my empathy and my sympathy for hungry people—the homeless, refugees fleeing violence on foot or by boat, farm workers and migrants denied the predictable daily meals someone like myself can take for granted—will multiply and my “micro-charity” will increase.  They commit me to bring the sandwich and beverage to the farmhand who delivers grain and water to my horse and to make the extra effort to drop off food at the local men’s shelter—as an equal priority in my regular, busy “first-world” schedule.   The debilitation of my fast will remind me of how human food—with its need to be transported and washed and cooked and presented—requires us to invest so much more time and resources in it than other mammals need to do. I see my horse accessing his forage so effortlessly; I open the gate, he exits and sniffs the ground and greenery and flora and assesses what is safe and nutritious at his “all you can eat buffet.” And then he eats. It’s that simple.  Whereas for me, a complicated “human” – Oy! My lunch must be shopped for, prepared, packed on ice, wrapped up and eaten “safely” or at least “cleanly” with utensils. The least I can do is double my effort and feed the human being who fills the trough while my horse grazes. That sandwich and bottle of water connects us. And, they say “a lot,” I hear. They say, “I notice you, I care about your well-being, I can alleviate or help avoid your discomfort.”

Food is an impressive communicator in my book. It is multilingual, speaking the languages of love, memory, tradition, faith, family, friendship and compassion through the dialects of hard work, sharing and repetition—all in all, connecting us to one another—past and present—and across the globe.

Lisa Bernard has prepared and represented people from all walks of life to speak publicly at meetings, on panels and as keynoters. She has addressed audiences as large as 2000 and designed and delivered over 500 workshops, seminars and college courses on oral communication.  She has slowed down fast-talkers, turned “uhmers” into smooth-speakers and moderated accents from Brooklyn to Beijing – all to develop confident communicators.  Lisa has a Masters Degree in International Affairs from Columbia University and today manages Lisa Bernard’s SecuritySpeak, LLC, a consulting firm that makes available experts on national, global and cyber-security for distinguished lectures worldwide.  You can reach her at (203) 293-4741 or LisaBernard@SecuritySpeak.net and like her firm at www.Facebook.com/PodiumTime.

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