It’s a snowy day in February 2021. I am complaining. January 2020 was the beginning of a year that I could never have imagined.
At the end of that month, I was sharing a home-baked, red velvet birthday cake with friends. I had just turned 72, and the celebration deserved one of my friend Bob’s elegant cakes.
“Oh my God!”
Vinny checked his cell phone and put his beverage down. The helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and their friends, had fallen out of the sky. Bryant had been a beloved local personality, and it felt like the air was sucked out of the room. As we pivoted from celebration to sorrow, I could hardly believe that, once again, we were looking at the sudden death of a vibrant man known for his devoted support of young people, while some of the meanest, vilest politicians in our country seemed impervious to death.
Bryant’s death began a traumatizing year, one that would test the heartiest among us. A month later, as the stories about a new virus began to dominate the media, people hunched their shoulders and started wearing masks. My friends and I were asking, “How can we elect a new president?” because we were sure he’d caused the problem in the States. To answer this question, I participated in activities to get people out to vote.
I released my home health aide after she told me I was “overthinking” the virus, and fretted for a bit about all the tasks I would have to take on. Now alone, with no one visiting my home, I did what it made sense to do when humanity seems out of control: I turned to nature, to the trees in the forest across the road.
While the television droned in the background and I chopped celery and onions into cubes, maybe for a salad, or mashed potatoes, or perhaps, a lentil shepherd’s pie, I wondered out loud to the trees: Is it self-indulgent to write food stories?
Colorful bowls overflowing with fruit were testimony to the beauty of living in a global world: oranges from South Africa. Apples from New Zealand. Avocados from Mexico. Blueberries from Peru. And tomatoes…ahhh. Beautiful Canada.
I prayed that my anger would not affect the food. You see, I believe this to be the truth: whatever my mood, that energy goes directly from my mind and heart to my arms to my hands and into the food. I did not want to eat these negative vibrations.
Oh, the trees. My relationship with trees is mysterious. I watch them as if they are my children. From the first buds of spring to the death of their leaves when they are bombarded by sleet and buffeted by the wind, they are my constant companions. I “feel” them speak to me. Before you shake your head in pity, listen.
Several years ago, I lived next to a city park, which gave my second-floor apartment the feeling of being in a treehouse. Many years before that, I lived in an apartment along the Willamette River in Oregon. Trees surrounded the apartment. There have always been the trees.
One morning, during meditation in my “treehouse” apartment, I heard a message inside my heart.
“Don’t worry. We are your protection.”
I believed then, and I do now, that the spirit of the trees spoke to me.
The year rolled on, and on May 25, I watched as a reptile in human skin – sworn to protect the public – put his knee on a man’s neck and stared into the camera for eight minutes and 46 seconds. He did not remove his knee until George Floyd was dead.
The raindrops on the trees outside my window clung to the branches like tears. I cried too. In July I posted about police abuses. I did not write about food. Would we ever again find joy?
2020 dragged on. Christmas was, thankfully, quiet. No guests. No poultry or stuffing. No hand-crafted pie. New Year’s eve, without the college students across the way, was still. There was no disturbance of fireworks. More than 300,000 people had died from the virus. I thanked God that 2020 was over and that we had a new president.
January 1, 2021, I received a phone call. My 90-year-old uncle died that morning from COVID-19. I did not cook the New Year black eye peas called Hoppin’ John, I didn’t make collard greens laced with onions, garlic, and turkey wings. I did not bake cornbread. Instead, I contemplated his being the last in a generation of maternal elders, and what it meant to lose them.
On January 6, terrorists staged an insurrection against the United States. They breached the United States Capitol Building. They terrorized police officers, defecated and urinated in offices, stole items. They searched for legislators and the Vice-President with assassination intentions. These criminals wanted to disrupt the certification of legitimate election results and the peaceful transfer of presidential power. They failed.
I recognized a Truth. As we struggle to make it through these times – and we will struggle – we have to eat; we must find joy. Although for many of us, our food stories will not be found around the table, we will have joyful stories to share. Through the miracle of technology, folks are learning new recipes, discovering new winter soups, baking new breads. A friend is making homemade yogurt, canning and pickling, and sharing these experiments through video technology. We’ll continue to bake Cornish hens and roast chickens. And we’ll brunch Zoom with buddies over the weekend.
I looked out at my snow-covered trees with the answer. Food is what we need to live. Joy makes us resilient. Stories are what give us joy. It is not self-indulgent to write about food.
“Let us break bread together on our knees.” I remember Mom’s soprano filling the apartment with melody.
The lyrics are branded on my heart, and I’m reminded of three principles spawned from eating with family and friends. Gratitude. Service. Healing.
Gratitude for having access to food no matter how humble. Service in preparing food to share with others. The Healing that comes with sharing prayers, laughter, and companionship.
When I allow myself to feel the sadness that can come from eating alone ─ a consequence of the pandemic lockdown and my being medically unvaccinated ─ I recognize that sharing a meal is fundamental to self-nurturing.
I don’t remember the exact holiday. Some 50 years ago, at Passover, Rosh Hashana, or a Friday evening Shabbat, I sat across from my Jewish hosts. I knew nothing about Judaism except for what they explained about Kosher meals. Nineteen years old, Black and, most definitely raised Baptist, I nevertheless felt an intimacy with my new friends. We had mutual history: slavery, oppression, and escape from bondage. I relaxed into the comfort of being welcomed and learning about a new culture. I felt…nurtured and accepted. But I also nurtured and accepted them when I agreed to share a meal ─ “break bread” ─ with people I barely knew.
Recently, I came upon an article in The Atlantic by Amanda Mull entitled “How America Lost Dinner.” (https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2019/10/work-its-whats-for-dinner/599770/ )
Mull outlines the path taken to our fast food, take-out culture and how we’ve become a society where so many of us are accustomed to eating alone. Family dinners, it seems, have been relegated to the back burner of American life. At first, I was reactive, thinking, “Well! That’s not my experience.”
Reaction instead of response is always a misstep.
By the time I finished reading, I was responding to Mull’s analysis that “By all indications, Americans want to cook and eat together.” Agreed. I rarely feel bad when I’m sharing mealtimes with others.
I grew up in a family that bonded when eating together. Maybe it’s because each of us contributed to the preparation of a meal. A task might not be pleasant, but it contributed to the health and joy of the meal. Yes, I said it. Joy. There was nothing like Daddy rolling from his chair onto the floor to exaggeratedly crawl away from the Thanksgiving table because the meal was so good and filling. Of course, once on all fours, he became a horse. There were plenty of siblings and cousins around to take advantage of his back.
My father liked to fish, bringing home perch or shad or whatever unlucky vertebrate took hold of his line that day. Cleaning fish taught me a kind of focus in the kitchen. Mom was always nearby watching. If I grabbed them the wrong way, the scales would prick my fingers.
“No. Do it this way!”
And I would do it as she instructed. When the fish’s body was smooth enough to run my hand along both sides without getting caught on the scales, I was ready for the nasty part ─ gutting. Sometimes, there was roe, a delicacy that, to this day, I will not eat. Call it caviar if you want.
The grossest part was the beheading. Looking into the blank eyes of a lifeless creature was my personal science fiction movie. With vacant eyes staring, it seemed, at me, I looked the other way as I severed the head from the body. And there, my friends, is another delicacy I will not touch ─ fish heads in any dish whatsoever.
We did not fillet our fish. I remember only too vividly my mother reaching into a child’s throat to remove a spiky bone. She may at times have resented motherhood, but she would not let us die.
We blessed the food. We ate the food. The fried fish, accompanied by biscuits, collard greens, mashed potatoes and gravy was well worth the trauma of the cleaning. In those moments of blessing, intimacy filled the space. If Daddy was home, we’d have spirited discussions about what was going on in the world. Assassinations ─ Gandhi. Malcolm X. President Kennedy. Civil Rights. Daddy shared some important wisdom: “Don’t ever judge another man unless you’ve walked in his shoes.” To this day, I hear his voice in my head as I meet all kinds of folk.
The pandemic has caused many of us to reevaluate and reprioritize our values and forced folks to slow down and acknowledge ─ positively or negatively ─ the people and communities surrounding them. For me, ironically, the lockdown highlighted the absence of cooking for folks and sharing a meal. I delighted in self-examination and sharing my time with the food writings of Ruth Teichl, Verta Mae Grosvenor, Edna Lewis and the delightful food adventures of Peter Mayle. I truly loved the stillness and nature’s rejuvenation and protection of the animals. However, there was something missing. I know it takes time to plan, shop, and prepare meals. But there is a huge ripple of love in the heart when serving others ─ that love is serving myself.
I was in a large vegetarian kitchen of an ashram. There were maybe fifteen of us or more. We were engaged in various stages of preparing the meal for a holiday celebration. Some were kneading bread, others chopping fruit and vegetables; a huge caldron of soup was being stirred and tofu “turkey” artistically prepared. The enthusiasm in preparing a meal to serve so many people ─ literally a few hundred ─ filled the room with ─ you got it ─ Joy. It was joy that came with gratitude for the chance to serve and for the personal satisfaction that comes with feeding others. Nurturing for them, nurturing for me.
Shortly after moving to Philadelphia, I lived in a house with a woman who lived in filth. I didn’t know this at first. When I went to check out the house, it was immaculate, but by the third week, the truth had revealed itself with the dog poop in the front yard that was left to dry on flagstone plates. The flies and stench irritated the neighbors who told me that it had been an ongoing problem. The laundry basement reeked of a cat litter box. My housemate was either unwilling or unable to help with kitchen and bathroom duties on a regular basis. I had been duped.
In a phone call with a clergyman, I whined, “Is Philadelphia hell?” He was kind; he chuckled, and gave me practical advice. Meditation, prayer, and finding someplace to volunteer. This made me feel better, and I began volunteering at a grocery coop where my job was ─ wait for it ─ weighing cuts of cheese and slicing bread. I was not homeless. I was not hopeless. My search for a new home began.
I ate in my room with the door closed, and in the days that followed, I consulted a psychic who told me: “Your housemate has unhealed trauma. People who live in filth have unhealed trauma.” I could hear Daddy’s voice again.
“Don’t ever judge another man unless you’ve walked in his shoes.” Lordy. What a mess.
Shortly after that call, I found some compassion, ordered pizza, and we ate together. Tensions began to dissolve, and I found my own apartment.
“Breaking bread opens people up. If you get in the habit of this as a family, you can talk about anything.”
My friend Tina said this to me almost 20 years ago. She and her husband had an ironclad commitment ─ which they keep to this day ─ to family dinners. At that time, they had eaten with the children every single day for 15 years. And I want to say that her children have become the most grounded, healthy, loving adults I know. Healthy traditions give birth to healthy families. Healthy families spawn unity. Unity is what we need in these miraculous, challenging, and eventful times.
Posted in Commentary, Essay, Family memories, Food, Gratitude, Heart and Mind, Memoir, Reflection, service, Stories about life, values and spirituality
Tagged essay, Family memories, food, Gratitude, memoir, Reflections, service, Stories about life, values and spirituality