This I believe
The other night, I was thunderstruck by the smell of garlic and onions cooking in olive oil on my stovetop. As I stood there, making a simple pot of black beans for my three year old son, I realized again that this was one of life’s sacred tasks, and that when the Divine reaches out and perceptibly brushes her finger along my spine, it most often happens at the table or in the kitchen.
I believe in the power of food. I came to my career because of an intense infatuation with fancy restaurants that I acquired when my best friend turned 13 and her father took us to dinner. I remember the chocolate soufflé, defying gravity and rising up inches out of its ramekin. I don’t remember what it tasted like, but I remember what it felt like to have the privilege to taste it. Delicious.
Growing up flat broke did not make my romance with high end restaurants easy to consummate. But I came from a family of amazing cooks, and by the time I left home my tastes were broad and varied. In my early 20’s, I would throw dinner parties for 25 people, proud to see my deadbeat friends swoon over the first real food they had consumed in months. But I longed for those hushed rooms, those big plates with just a smear of sauce placed ever so jauntily along one side.
So I worked in restaurants. It was there that I learned what a savior food can be. Really good kitchens are filled with men and women who have been rescued, from depression, from drugs, from poverty, by the kitchen’s relentless pursuit of perfection.
After years of straddling the two worlds of words and restaurants, I became a food writer, and then a restaurant critic. Finally, the world of restaurants was wide open to me, I could eat where and what I pleased. It was a thrill. It still is.
But it deprived me of something that I had come to take for granted – the pleasure of cooking a simple meal for people that I love. That revelatory pot of beans was made in the midst of a particularly busy time – I had only just moved to Atlanta, but as the critic for my newspaper, I had to award Best Of awards in 60 categories. I was eating out every night and every day. One night I rebelled, came home, and made that simple meal for my family. More and more now, I believe that the simple act of preparing a meal for loved ones, or of eating at a table from bowls that were cooked by the hand of someone you know, that is the real luxury.
Recently, I have heard people who think and care about food talking about meals as a medium to heal bigger wounds than those of a spoiled restaurant critic. If we could arrange meals, between Israelis and Palestinians, between Muslims and Christians, between Shiites and Sunnis, if we could engineer for these people to sit together, with each other’s grandmothers and grandchildren, and have them eat one another’s traditional foods, wouldn’t that force a kind of understanding impossible to bring about via diplomatic negotiations? Our eating rituals are so gentle, so human, so based in family and love, and so much less divisive than our religious or political rituals.
I believe in the power of food, to thrill, to redeem, to comfort, and to heal.
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