One of the statements I frequently encounter when someone serves me food frequently resembles “I hope my cooking is good enough for you.” Usually there is some follow up with a remark about my occupation as a chef. And more often that not my response is always the same. It usually entails something like “I am just thankful that you would invite me to eat.” Sometimes I jest that its nice to enjoy a meal just sitting down, other times I say I’m grateful to not be eating it off a tasting spoon or directly out of a saute pan. While these statements are true, there is more behind it. Enjoying a meal with friends or even with strangers is something that I have come to recognize as sacred. Anytime someone offers to share food with me I’m honored that I have been chosen to participate. It takes a lot of courage to make a meal for someone, whether they are someone you are trying to impress, a casual friend or even a customer. It’s not something that I take lightly. So when I make these statements, in partial jest and out of consideration, I really am expressing gratitude.
Much of this is because the majority of the “meals” I have eaten over the past few years have taken place in the little stairwell at work. I relished the few minutes I had to simply sit down, let alone cram food into my mouth, simply so I could return to my work. I want to stress that this wasn’t a product of my environment, even worse, it was something that I chose. Some days, I would even forego the meal just to ensure that everything was setup for service. Often receiving flak from my manager to “Go eat!” I have had my fair share of real dining. In fact my friend Chris and I frequently enjoyed extravagant weekend meals to compensate, and my credit card can attest.
But even still, anytime I get to enjoy a formal meal I am overwhelmed by a multitude of emotions indescribable through words. This is compounded further if I am the one providing it. I personally believe that cooking, even sharing food, requires more than courage. It needs passion, precision and attention which if often summed up as “love” for the food. Just yesterday I was granted the privilege of making a meal. Nothing fancy: vegetarian chili and corn bread. I was joined by David, Birte, our new intern arrival here at Pepperfield, and one of David’s friends, Korbin. The meal started with a few light hors d’oeuvres prepared by David. Some homemade brie, a beautiful bleu goat cheese, olives, crackers and some local summer sausage. We spent the first part of the evening snacking and chatting over David’s homemade wine and grape juice. The conversation mostly involved catching up as we spent turns filling each other in on our history as well as how we were connected to Pepperfield.
The meal casually transitioned to the dinner table. I heated the the chili, prepared some garnishes and sliced the corn bread. Within moments of serving our small group descended into light mumbles, of which I thought were satisfaction, and the light clanking of spoons against porcelain. Everyone finished their plates and went for a second helping, some even thirds, on the chili and the corn bread was decimated. I felt pretty good. My personal critiques, which I later shared were that the beans were lightly under-cooked. And much to my surprise I was met with disagreement. Both David and Korbin noted that the texture in the beans was perfect because acted as a nice contrast against the backdrop of the chili. I’m gonna chalk up Birte’s silence as agreement. As our appetites began to subside we returned back to casual conversation. Korbin began to
talk about part of her day at work. She had spent much of it on the phone as customer service for the Seed Saver’s Exchange. One of her calls, from what she referred to as a “Doomsday Lady”, involved an hour long exchange. Most of which was spent listening and answering general questions about sorghum – this is mostly due to a recent news segment on China’s new tax on the grain. Although the conversation slowly devolved into abstract questions like: which crop can I grow to feed the nation? David went on to reminisce about the time he spent with his first wife out in California, where the two of them were regarded as Mr. and Mrs. Naturalist. This set the two of them up, David in particular, for a wide variety of similar phone calls that would come in all hours of the night. Two of which David remembers quite well: “Um, hello. I have this turtle and hes sick, should I brush his teeth” and after a fit of hysteria from myself and all gathered
at the table “I found a snake in my bedroom, can you tell me what it is?” “Sure”, David replied, “Can you describe it for me?” “Sure, it looks like a shoelace.” Again we all roared with laughter. The only time I’ve shared that same level of laughter was over meals with my family.
We shared great food and many laughs all among strangers. (Sure I have been around David for a few weeks, which really is no time at all, but I just met Birte and Korbin within the last 24 hours.) Nonetheless, this was one of the greatest meals I have had the fortune of enjoying and sharing. I was proud of the great flavors and judging by everyone’s consumption, I had every right. But the laughter, the kind where you’re stomach aches and you cant breathe, that’s what i loved the most. It made me realize, that the food is almost irrelevant. Sure it helps that it tasted good, but we all genuinely enjoyed the experience of each other, even if the beans were under-cooked. For probably the first time in my life, I took a step back and let myself enjoy what the food provided, rather than the food itself. Sustenance, yes, but fabulous stories and the joy of hysterical laughter shared among almost complete strangers.
Next time you cook, for a chef, for your friends and family or just a stranger remember that food is only the medium for sharing a great experience. It doesn’t define the experience of a meal, it only enhances it.