Of all the things I could point to that have had the biggest rule over my life, the second would be food. The first is my Mum who is all the things I am, want to be when I grow up, and fear to be. But, food, as many say, is love. Food is adventure. Food can be both comfort and enemy.
Sharing a meal is a form of bonding, and a form used so, so, SO much over my years of life. My Mum and Da started it all. I remember sitting at a table in a flat in Germany while my Da shared his love of fermented food with me. We had the tiniest refrigerator and Mum would shop often. We lived off Base, so we had access to all the actual German groceries we could want. I learned the best mustard comes in glass jars that look like mugs. Also, those mugs are the best for drinking beer, cider (slightly hard), and Glühwein from. The best sausages are white and snap when you bite them in the most satisfying way (weisswurst!).
We moved to Japan and more people joined my family. When their men or women were deployed with my Da, the military spouses came to my Mum for comfort and for a feeling of family. I had many older “brothers” and “sisters” who joined us for meals and holidays over the ten glorious years we spent in Misawa. My Mum would make foods she learned while she and Da (both newlyweds) were stationed in Aviano, Italy. She show jumped horses for local families and they, in turn, taught her family recipes that are now ours. Many nights the table would be resplendent with cured meats and cheeses along with a grand bowl of pasta (perfectly sauced…no goop oozing anywhere unnecessarily!) and crusty bread. Other nights, it was a “hot dish”…a meal perfected by thousands of American housewives with pennies that had to stretch and large families to feed. A meal made of humble ingredients that never the less let you know that someone cared. Someone had said “Come over and be fed. Be cared for.”
Even when everyone was on Base (no one off in Iraq or elsewhere), my Da would hold court with Korean or Japanese meals. Meals involving many little sides, soups, and one big ta-da of a dish–a whole fish who watched you with a morose eye as you speared his cheek (the best bit, really!) or a flaming Hot Pot. He was most proud of the most communal of the dishes, Sukiyaki. A large pan would be heated on a burner in the middle of the table and, after he had done the initial cooking of the first ingredients to set the seasonings, everyone could add whatever raw item they wished to the pot and watch it cook before plucking it out again. Fermented foods came back in the form of quick pickles of carrot, cabbage, or cucumber and fiery kimchi.
I remember long dinners where a bottle of wine turned into many as the hours passed and everyone talked and talked and talked. How precious those memories are to me.
When I went away to college and then started my life away from home, I naturally thought I could bring this with me. Everyone is like this. Everyone lives this way.
They don’t (surprise, I know). In fact, I spent so many years having no one interested in sharing food with me, that I abandoned it for a time. Going out to a restaurant, while lovely in its own way, can never take the place of preparing a meal. Of saying without speaking “Here is your value to me. I have created this to share with you, to nourish you, to make a peace with you, to show my love for you…” So many thoughts and feelings can be conveyed in this manner. And, a meal when cooked together? That can only bring those unspoken things out louder once the finished dish is shared.
I am reclaiming this thing I and my family do. I am reclaiming it and the feelings it gives me. I will share it with the small family I have created here and the friends that visit. I will grab items with wanton abandon at tiny groceries and make them into meals to show my love and care. I will tailor things to various diets and desires, not because I want to and it is easy, but because it is a duty and that is how you nourish a person and sometimes a soul. I will bring back calm times, sitting and talking with people who are well loved and thought of, and perhaps a piece of me will come back too.