When my older daughter emailed me from Israel to tell me she was coming home I wrote something as well– a grocery list. Then I put up a big pot of lentil soup. Only then did I call her and verbally express my delight. And she squealed when she received a photo of my freezer shelf lined with Mason jars filled with the lentil soup that will be here for her when she arrives. I just close my eyes and see it going down: her flight will be delayed, we’ll hit traffic, the weather will be treacherous and the wear and tear will make us both cranky. But once we get home and heat up the soup, crisp up the semolina bread, boil up those Ditalini (little thimbles pasta) and sprinkle a heaping tablespoon of freshly grated Romano cheese, she will close her eyes and feel, “I’m home.” And my message will be clear to her, “I am so happy to have you back.”
Reflecting on the above, I realize that food communicates. It doesn’t speak, but it certainly transmits feelings and thoughts. And the way we select, preserve and edit our recipes are choices we make from year to year articulating our evolving sentiments and ideas. Last fall when I observed my annual ritual of harvesting my potted herbs before the first frost, I made pesto as usual. However, I did not use just basil; I modified my recipe to replace half the basil with sage. I gleaned that from the pesto my daughter and I shared in Tuscany last summer. It was a very different texture, color and flavor than any pesto I had ever eaten in America and it was served tossed with pasta we’d never seen before. We talked quite a bit about how we could replicate the flavors at home and with every draft of the family pesto recipe we relived our trip together and took our pride in our Italian heritage to a new level. Altogether it provided a clear interpretation of my behavior for my now adult children—from why I grow my own herbs to why I only buy the cheapest generic toilet paper but spring for extra virgin olive oil imported from a specific region in Italy that costs more than a dollar an ounce! Toilet paper is temporary. Food leaves a footprint. You can use it to trace back or guide you forward. That pesto “translated” my behavior into terms my family now understands including why my herb garden will be larger and more varied in this New Year. And when I showed up at my younger daughter’s dormitory with jars of the coveted frozen green sauce it spoke volumes to her about the transcendence of tradition across time and place.
It fascinates me that food can be less ambiguous than most other nonverbal messages. If I rub my hands together one may interpret this as me having just applied hand lotion while another may think I am nervous. Yet another might assume I am cold. But food sends clear signals. Kids attest to this. They are the keenest observers of signals long before they use words to order their world. “Out of the mouths of babes” as they say when my then ten year old came into the kitchen one morning and said, “It’s fall; you’re making oatmeal in the mornings again!” And on Fridays when they inhaled the aromas from the simmering chicken soup, roast chicken and fresh-baked challah they would dash into the kitchen, smile wide and exclaim, “It’s almost Shabbat!” No calendar required. And like word choice and tone of voice, food can transmit respect and affection. I catered my daughter’s college graduation party with a menu that was nut-free, kosher, in full Mediterranean fare and with vegetarian and vegan plates. Every guest was considered and had a tasty and thematic option that included them in this key part of the celebration and acknowledged their individual needs and preferences.
I am learning that food is a language that evolves alongside the relationships it attends. I am reminded of the changes in our meal preparation when my younger daughter was diagnosed with potentially fatal food allergies. Having almost lost her to an almond cookie seventeen years ago, I cleared our kitchen and every recipe of poppy seeds, peanuts and nuts (not to mention my bar of Amaretto and Frangelico). The table is where one finds community and sanctuary and her safe place had narrowed considerably. So then did my ingredient list. But the message she got from the safe zone I provided was large: “your well-being matters.” There was another message communicated by our abandonment of lemon-poppy seed pound cake, PB&J and cranberry-pistachio biscotti: “this is not a handicap but an inspiration!” That’s because each New Year since she was first diagnosed has yielded fresh innovations in our favorite family recipes that actually give our food its own “dialect.” When she was first diagnosed in 1996 there were few laws for labeling of foodstuffs and fewer chefs and wait-staff trained to insure “nut-free” dishes, so we ate-in for nearly ten years. We cooked and seasoned in our own unique way and all that experimentation with foods to mimic the textures and flavors of nuts and seeds not only yielded three creative cooks in the family but a rather idiomatic menu as well. Come for a meal here and we’ll share our interpretations with items we call by slang names like “salad dressing chicken” or “cheese toast.”
Set aside cooking for a moment and think about eating itself. With food so connected to relationships I wonder how many have fizzled or bloomed based on how we eat together. How we eat provides all sorts of information about our backgrounds and personalities and by extension our compatibility with others. I had a date with a man who claimed he was from New York. When he ate his sushi with a fork I seriously doubted that. Turns out, in culinary terms, he was full of baloney. He won’t be around in the New Year. On the other hand, when I walked into a random bagel shop in Fairfield, Connecticut and ordered a bagel with a schmear and the gal behind the counter didn’t bat an eye, I didn’t need to hear a New York accent to know she was indeed my home-girl from the Big Apple. That nosh and her demeanor were delicious and I will be back there in the New Year—and with my friends. Now that’s word of mouth advertising!
Bar none, my dearest memory of food-handling as a measure of creativity and commitment dates back to when my daughter with the food allergies was sitting in a diner beside her best buddy from the fifth grade. We were ordering lunch and she really had a hankering for a big juicy American burger but was concerned that the bun might have stray seeds that she must avoid. She was debating out loud and lamenting that usually the bottom half of the bun is where the errant poppy seed appears. It took him a nanosecond to accommodate her wishes and allay her fears. Eyes wide open he volunteered, “When the burgers come, I’ll give you my top and take your bottom!” Clearly, that man is one we took from past years into last year and into this New Year for sure.
This is certainly not an exact science but close enough for conversation: Tell me what you put in your eggs this morning and I’ll tell you your roots and a bit about your journey. You see, food doesn’t fib. It narrates your story just as it happened. Today, I sautéed onions and sweet red peppers in olive oil and when they were soft I added three leaves of sage I had grown last summer and froze for this purpose. I cracked in three egg whites beat with freshly ground black pepper and a dash of grated Parmesan cheese. As it gelled in the pan, I added some cubed fresh mozzarella. That went alongside a toasted slice of sesame-encrusted semolina bread with fig jam. That’s what my Italian grandparents ate, plus the egg yolks and with basil instead of sage. Those healthy and culinary changes were my own revisions from new years back. What will I bring into 2014? Nearby, there is an authentic new Middle Eastern café that prepares a variety of hummus and pita breads alongside time-honored fresh falafel. I am in the process of tasting them all so that when both my daughters are home we can pool all our finds—from nut-free dishes prepared on one’s college campus to the vegetarian delights from the salad room at the kibbutz where another works. Perhaps we’ll call it “The Cutting Board.”
Lisa Bernard retired this New Year from twenty-plus years as Principal at Lisa Bernard’s Word of Mouth, Inc. She continues to publish via http://www.CueCardCommunications.com, teach at the college level and consult for people and firms with compelling communication challenges.