As a Jew raised vegetarian, with a sprinkling of Italian heritage, I learned life through food. The kitchen has always been my comfort zone. For my sisters and I, food was never something that appeared out of nowhere ready to eat. We were our parents’ kitchen staff- garden assistants and prep cooks- peeling whole heads of garlic, picking green beans, serving soup, stirring the polenta, slicing the pickles for the requisite first course of the epic feasts for Shabbat and every one of the dozens of annual Jewish holidays for which the framework is primarily “they tried to kill us, they didn’t… lets eat!”
I am not a fancy chef. However,I have a passionate relationship with food- a deep reverence for the processes and people that make it happen. (My partner laughs at me because I am often deeply moved by a recipe or a description of a meal and I can get the chills while reading an article about a chef). I was so emotional this summer when I harvested baskets of tomatoes that I grew from seed for the first time that I had to laugh at myself.
Although I have no professional cooking training, I do have to say that my forced conscription into the Sabbath feast preparations every single week until I left home, instilled in me a useful solid understanding of how to host- how to bring people together with artfully prepared delicious food, how to ritualize a meal, how to set a table with seasonal, conceptual unity between garden flower arrangements and colorful dishware, how to serve and clean up after large numbers of (often demanding) people.
My brain tends to work like a switchboard. In this way I am an apple that hasn’t fallen far from the tree; being the daughter of a rabbi and an artist-educator, I grew up directly witnessing my parents’ community organizing skills in action. I think I just absorbed the understanding that what one does in life is build things- relationships, projects, communities, spaces. In a society where people do not often learn how to effectively communicate, get organized, solve their own problems, express love, connect with others…I was taught that those were the most important parts of being alive. And for me, food is a central part of that- a simultaneously creative and mundane act, an opportunity for gathering and for individual expression and experience. Cooking is a collaboration with nature- it’s about drawing out the essence of the ingredients you’re working with, capturing them at the right moment, combining ingredients thoughtfully, understanding their needs, powers, and particularities, paying close attention, being humble yet confident, balancing age-old wisdom with innovation and discovery…just like effective cooperation amongst people.
There was a period of time during which I was in graduate school, helping produce the film Slingshot Hip Hop, running an after-school program, coordinating a collective of activists & artists doing workshops internationally about the struggle for self-determination in Palestine. I was so busy and so exhausted (while also, for the record, feeling excited and inspired) that the only time I ever felt ok stepping away from working was when I was cooking for the crew. I was never able to justify reading a book or watching a film- I couldn’t escape the never-ending to-do list running through my mind. But cooking was a creative act and a form of decompression that I didnt feel guilty about because it was necessary in order to live. I was able to relax into it. To this day, even though I’ve managed to balance out my schedule a bit more, one of the only times I feel completely present and never doubt my choice of place and activity is when Im cooking.
Along with my gratitude for my food-loving family and the wisdom it has provided me with, I have questions at times about the potential lack of healthy balance in my family’s relationship to food and drink. Sometimes it seems that we could benefit physically and energetically from letting go and taking a more casual approach every once in a while. There is a fine line, as it turns out, between intentionality and obsession. Boundaries and balance in terms of food and alcohol can be tricky for us as individuals and collectively. There are times when we need to challenge ourselves to focus on other elements of culture, other ways of being together.
I am trying to learn how to let go sometimes- knowing that my culinary ideas and organizational skills are valuable during my crew’s myriad celebrations but that even benign bossiness ain’t cute for too long 😉 Plus I want to be able to enjoy receiving as much as giving and to trust others to make things happen and teach me things.
I am currently in a period of transition in my life. I am considering shifting away from the community education work I’ve been doing within the Jewish community for a decade. Although I have always bounced between worlds and woven together interests and communities, I am committing now to focusing in on culinary art/culture/community. BUT WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?!! In the current context, in which white 20 & 30-something-year-olds throughout urban centers of the U.S. are r(e)discovering food like Columbus discovered America, what is useful? What is necessary? It is not enough for me to say food makes me happy. I try not to consider my life choices in a void, ignoring the big picture of the country and world I live within. Happiness is of course a goal (and one we all need to embrace more) but also purposefulness. While brooding over this recently, I found Patti Smith‘s questions in Just Kids resonant. She was speaking of art, I am thinking of the world of food:
“Once again I found myself contemplating what I should be doing to do something of worth. Everything I came up with seemed irreverent or irrelevant.”
“Why commit to art? For self-realization, or for itself? It seemed indulgent to add to the glut unless one offered illumination.”
As someone exploring possibilities of jumping more fully into the word of making and serving food and the culture that surrounds it, I too should certainly feel concerned about not just participating in the gluttony that Patti Smith refers to. Otherwise I am just aligning myself with the wealthiest people on the planet- those with the resources and time to indulge in such things while the rest of the population is being pushed off their farmlands, picking fruit covered in poison, losing their olive trees to bulldozers, struggling to hold on to their food traditions, grocery shopping at Walmart, being served processed animal garbage in their schools….
Patti Smith created her boundary-crossing collaborative poetry-music-art as a heartfelt rebellion against the social and economic systems the music of her day was being shaped by. Her words, although originally written about rock n roll, provide us with perfect metaphors as we reflect on the “new food movement” we are a part of, wary of, reliant upon, and hopefully making an intervention into:
“We feared that the music which had given us sustenance was in danger of spiritual starvation. We feared it losing its sense of purpose, we feared it falling into fattened hands, we feared it floundering in a mire of spectacle, finance, and vapid technical complexity.”
So where to from here?