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On Potlucks and Picnics and the Poetry of Food featured img
Category: Family Capital

On Potlucks and Picnics and the Poetry of Food

June 29, 2022

The cookbook is old, the spine broken in places, pages faded and stained, dotted with water from being left too close to sinks and glasses, smudged with the remnants of flour and egg and flecks of batter from enthusiastic beaters, corners crinkled and folded to mark recipes that have been made over and over again, marking birthdays and anniversaries and holidays, measurements crossed out and corrected over years of experimentation and practice and play. The cover is missing, pages held tight with a rubber band, carefully slipped into a plastic bag between uses to avoid losing pages to time and carelessness. It is an artifact. A testament to years of family dinners and celebrations and meals prepared with love and enthusiasm. A record of the meals I have chosen to turn to time and time again when the question inevitably arises, what are we making for dinner? 

 This is one thing that I love about cooking. Every time you make a dish it can be something different. There is no perfect product, but only a general idea of what it should be. You can hand a dozen people the same recipe, and they will return distinctly unique products, the result of individual experiences, choices, and personal creativity. Some people follow the recipe exactly, others use it as a guideline, making substitutions and alternatives that create delightful surprises and unexpected flavors. Some people go completely off road and do their own thing. Cooking is an art, after all.

Recipes can be pages long, or just a line or two. They can be complicated and time consuming, or simple—easy. They usually have a list of ingredients, bullet points to explain the process, sometimes a thought or two on what kind of event the dish is best prepared for. Recipes have their own vocabulary, filled with words like sift and simmer and steep and scald and sear. But a recipe doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. Humble dishes are often the most filling. 

Some recipes are exact—scientific formulas that need to be executed precisely in order to turn out. Others are mere suggestions, like the recipe for French toast my mother gave me when I went to college, which read simply, “Dip bread in egg and cook on both sides in a fry pan until it smells done. Serve.” It took me a while to figure out what ‘smelled done’ looked like, how long it took. The part of this recipe I like the most is the note scrawled at the bottom in two different types of handwriting. First my own messy scrawl, noting “It is nice to serve with jam, or honey instead of syrup, although I prefer peanut butter.” And then an addition in someone else’s neatly curving script, “even better with a tangy lemon curd if you are feeling less jello and more creme brulee.” 

This is another thing I love about cooking. There is something so elemental in the act of cooking for others—something ancient and satisfying in serving others food you have prepared, not only in the food itself, which is frequently delicious and filling, but in the way cooking is entertainment and pastime and caretaking, in how food itself becomes a culmination of a series of decisions that mean love and service and time, devotion made material as we shape our meals and our experiences with one another. 

The chef Samin Rostrat said that cooking requires three P’s: Patience, Presence, and Practice. All of these are things I feel the need to incorporate more fully into my life. To apply myself to being more fully in the moment. To try something new, to choose uncertainty, to gain experience. To think about what it means to feed myself and others. To make something. To create. But also, to fail. To pull a cake out of the oven, carefully prepared and eagerly awaited, and to watch it fall, or crumble, or break. To laugh over inedible mistakes or unappealing experiments. 

To follow a recipe involves a certain amount of risk. An opportunity for missteps, but also masterpieces. It is all in what you decide to do with your time and your ingredients and your dedication.

Last night my daughter made french toast. 

Breakfast for dinner.

It is one of my favorite meals, in part because it is unexpected, and in part because there never seem to be any moments in the middle of the messy mornings to linger over a meal, to take our time, to enjoy sitting next to one another and savor the experience of just being together. So for dinner she made french toast, the way she has seen her father make french toast, the way I have made french toast, the way her grandparents have made french toast. Dip bread in egg and cook on both sides until it smells done. Serve.

We had family in town, and friends who dropped by, and four adult children at home, and suddenly someone was cutting fruit, and someone was getting out butter and syrup and jam, and someone was setting out plates and forks and knives, and the air was loud with laughter and talking and the sound of bread frying in a pan and water running in the sink and music, a dissonant din that spoke family and affection and fun. It felt like a symphony, a story, a poem. 

This is one more thing I love about cooking. 

I love the mess and humanity of it—the way every choice we make brings us closer to one another, for if I have learned nothing over the years of my life, I have learned that everything good happens over a good meal, some of the bad things too, but mostly the good. I have learned that if we do nothing else together, we eat—in celebration and in mourning and in joyful abundance. I have learned that the impact of cooking for one another far outweighs the inconvenience of it. 

Cooking can be a way to bring together families and neighborhoods and communities, to show affection and concern and love, to woo and nurture and care for others. It can be a plate of cookies dropped off by a blushing teenager, or a loaf of banana bread at the door of a new neighbor, or a meal to comfort after births or deaths or illnesses—a picnic spread in the park while the children play, a neighborhood potluck where every dish is different from the one before, and that is the beauty of it, isn’t it? 

Everyone comes to the table with their own recipes, their own likes and dislikes and experiments and traditions and out of all of those gorgeous and strange and tasty dishes that are sometimes beautiful and fairly delicious and sometimes burnt and a little lumpy there is something for everyone. As we feed not only ourselves but each other we are bound more closely, through the better days and the worse, through the good things and the bad, through the casseroles and the soups and the salads and the stews.

Now, what should we make for dinner?