The Power of a Good Meal

Jean - New York, New York
Entered on October 15, 2009
Themes: family
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I believe that food brings people together. It doesn’t have to be local or organic or even gourmet— but real food, made with love, works a subtle, everyday, magic.

I learned this lesson from my grandmother Meme. Standing barely four feet eleven inches, she was born in rural France and spent much of her young life hungry. She left her farm at just fourteen in search of a better life in Paris, where she found work as a domestic. Eventually, her brother sent for her to join him in New York. There she met and fell in love with my grandfather, a waiter from the same French province. After my mother was born, my grandparents moved to Los Angeles, where Meme became the personal chef for wealthy expatriates.

It surprised me that after a lifetime of serving others Meme was so keen to cook for family and friends. Between shopping and prepping, her elaborate dinner parties were days in the making. On these evenings it was clear that she had transformed her childhood hunger into a passion for feeding others. Starting with appetizers like homemade pate and rumaki, guests were invited to sit down for multiple courses, ending with delicate handmade pastries and a glass or two of good cognac. Even when meal went bad––I remember one regretful night in the eighties when my sister and father went to war over “No Nukes”––they imbued my childhood with a sense of tenderness and belonging that was otherwise missing.

Although she has been gone for over a decade, Meme’s belief in the power of a good meal has stayed with me. When I started to feel isolated raising two boys small boys and working from home, I did the only thing I could think of: I started cooking. Nothing fancy (unlike Meme, I am not a professional), just fresh food prepared simply and with love. First for our family––roasted chicken, some salad, a bottle of wine––then for people I knew. I learned to not be perfect––every one loves a home-cooked meal, even if the floors need cleaning and the plates don’t match. In the process of throwing regular dinner parties, I’ve made several dear friends. Now they invite our family over to their house for dinner. Around tables in various New York flats, an intimacy has grown. By sharing meals our little group has become a community. Sure, the dishes don’t always match and the meals aren’t so elaborate, but we are still engaged in the age-old ritual of breaking bread together.

I finally understand why Meme worked so hard to feed us. I feel it every time my family sits down to dinner together. The four year old sometimes refuses to eat, the six year may pout, but at the end of everyday, we come together as a family, with all our faults and weaknesses, and reaffirm that we do indeed love each other. And on a good day, that itself is enough.