Editor’s Note: We’ve gone on a search-and-rescue mission to find amazing stories and essays published in earlier print editions of Rootstock. Today’s throwback, “Celebrate with Food” was written by Terese Allen for the Fall 2010 edition of Rootstock.
One of my all-time favorite movies is the classic Like Water for Chocolate, the tale of a young Mexican cook who is in love with her sister’s husband. In this enchanting story the talented woman pours all the pure, unrealized adoration she feels for her brother-in-law into the task of meal preparation; her dishes then arouse diners to acts of great passion and yearning.
The lesson is clear: food, like love, has power and magic.
I often think of that film and its message at this time of year, when food is the center of so many celebrations. Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year’s Eve–these are events when what we eat carries deep meaning. They’re when cooking matters most. Indeed, since food intrinsically is something to be shared, the true spirit of giving is manifest in an edible present or a meal made from scratch.
Food is always a gift, but it is an especially multi-faceted one during the holidays. Besides physical sustenance, besides culinary pleasure, food is also keepsake. My family, for example, treasures almond crescents, a treat my Polish mother always made at Christmas time. She died when I was young, but every year when my stepmother serves a batch baked from the same recipe, she gives the gift of re-connection.
During mid-winter’s festivities, heritage foods like Polish Christmas cookies, Southern sweet potato pie or Jewish rugelach reinforce ethnic connections, too. They are dishes that tell us who we are and where we came from.
An annual feast like turkey with all the trimmings is a ritual that marks the seasons and mediates our passage through life. As friends and family gather round the table each year, they watch how their lives, their community, and their world changes—as well as how they stay the same.
A gift of food is personal attention, too. Nothing makes me feel more cherished, for instance, than the annual container of poppy seed “jam pots” my cousin ships to me, because she knows how much I love them. Above all, perhaps, food is togetherness. Whether it’s turkey stuffing on Thanksgiving or mimosa on New Year’s Day, holiday fare is both substance and symbol of our interrelatedness.
Food is a gift for the cook, too. In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, scholar Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi demonstrated how cooking engages the mind and spirit in a “flow experience” that rates high on the scales of concentration, creativity and happiness in humans. But unlike many other activities, it has a social dimension, too. When you prepare a meal for friends and family, you not only make their lives more enjoyable, you share the experience with them. You go one better than the adage, “It is it better to give than to receive,” because when you cook, you both give and get.
While it’s true that the hours needed for cooking aren’t easy to come by during a hectic season, there may be no better time to slow down, take a day off, and head into the kitchen for an off-the-clock session of meal preparation or gift-making. Still, one error many cooks make is thinking their offering must be painstakingly made and elaborately presented. The more time spent carving garnishes or decorating pastries, the more profound the message, right?
Not necessarily. The simplest dishes are often the most gratifying, especially those whose ingredients shine with local, seasonal flavor: baby onions glazed with pure maple syrup, perhaps, or a no-cook relish made from fresh cranberries. The personal touch, like mixing homegrown rosemary into biscuit dough, is a signal that you value substance over style, relationship over busy work.
And if you still wonder how your contribution will be received, remember this: Unlike Chia pets or talking socks, edibles are something people need. In an age of over consumption and increasing alienation, the gift of food, made with love, is what we naturally crave and gratefully relish.
Terese Allen writes about the pleasures and benefits of regional foods, sustainable cooking and culinary folklore. A former chef and food columnist for Madison’s Isthmus newspaper, Allen has gone on to author several books about Wisconsin’s “edible heritage.”