SOUL FOOD SATISFACTION: THE BEAUTY OF COOKING IN COMMUNITY
Growing up, there were always good cooks in my family, including several seafood restaurant owners. The food was always delicious, but as a child I was not usually permitted to partake in the preparation - even so, I loved sitting in the kitchen while either my grandpa cooked up wonderful seafood dishes or watching my grandmother, aunts and mom prepare holiday meals. Even at this moment, I can see my grandmother sitting on her tall red stool cutting up onions and celery and mixing them by hand into the cornbread stuffing. I don’t recall any of the specific conversations, but I remember a lot of laughter (maybe even a little arguing) and mostly, thoroughly enjoying being a part of it. The meals were always delicious but the abiding memories, for me, were just enjoying being a part of the group either cooking or consuming the meal together.
While food is ultimately for sustenance of our physical being….so much more is fed within ones emotional, social and spiritual being when that food is prepared and consumed in the company of others.
As the years have gone by and I am living on my own, it has been easy to let those traditions of cooking together fall by the wayside. With a hectic pace of life taking over and with long work days and no family to cook for, food can become more of a means to an end rather than an experience.
Often, we merely brush up against others during the day and seek rest in the evening. While rest and solitary moments can be essential in our lives to refresh ourselves, it can leave us feeling a bit cut off from the rest of the world and lacking something that can only come from inviting others into our little world for some shared experiences. While I do love living alone and cooking for myself, I also find something missing in the cooking and eating process when I am doing it solo…..I miss that shared experience, that sense of community and connectedness.
Crossing Cultures to Spice Things Up
Across all cultures and throughout time, people have gathered in community to both prepare and consume food.
To name only a small few groups from my immediate circle:
Those who gather at the local church/mosque/temple to help tend to the buildings and grounds with each bringing a dish to share a meal at the end of the work; or
A friend in Montana with Scandanavian roots who gathers with some of the family after Thanksgiving to make Leftsa (thin potato pancakes) using a family recipe passed down through generations;
Latina friends who gather with extended family to make tamales for the Christmas season;
Greek friends who gather yearly for the Greek Festival to share their culture through food and dance;
Chinese friends who gather each fall to share a meal and celebrate the mid-autumn festival and share mooncakes.
Each of these diverse cultures and groups of people share one commonality in their approach to food: community. Spending time with one another preparing, cooking and sharing the meal becomes just as significant as the consuming of it. In fact, as I think through my memories often it is conversations, laughs, stories shared during the preparation of a meal that have deeper connections with my soul satisfaction than the taste of the food itself.
Making Space for Exchange
With this in mind, I have made space in my life to gather with friends regularly to cook meals together. While I do have a passion for cooking, I love preparing meals as a group because it can be fun even for those who are not passionate about cooking. My group of friends have varying levels of interest, from “through the roof” to “doesn’t even like to boil water”. I have found that when cooking together, we can always provide tasks for everyone. The more passionate cookers in the group can be more involved in the recipes and cooking while others’ roles can vary from sous chef (chopping and slicing) to simply providing some of the needed ingredients and sitting with a glass of wine whilst the rest of us are deep in preparation. Ultimately, when we sit down to the meal it is a continuation of communing with one another with the added benefit of being able to truly savor and enjoy the fruits of our labor. We engage all our physical senses while also activating emotional and spiritual connection with one another.
Recently, a group of us gathered to prepare traditional Chinese Dim Sum including steamed dumplings and steamed buns. Each had a different item that they brought and we assembled, then steamed the dumplings together. As an added bonus, we made more than enough for the evening so each could take some home to freeze and consume at a later time. I found that when I consumed the dumplings at a later date (either on my own or sharing with other friends) I was brought back to our wonderful evening of preparing them together.
Remembering the conversations during the preparation and reveling in the memory of that shared experience only enhanced my enjoyment of the meal. This was no longer a tasty dumpling…it was a tasty dumpling I made with my friends on that night in September. What fun we had while our dogs ran around playing with each other and we laughed about the challenge of getting a good fold on the dumpling . . .and even sympathizing with a friend who lost her mom recently. I was transported right back to that evening we were together, noticing how wonderful the dumplings were smelling as they steamed, talking about women’s issues, mulling over the desire to have children or not. Cooking in community is about connection – about a shared experience, about feeding the soul as deeply as feeding the body and the senses.
In the spirit of encouraging others to participate in gatherings of communal cooking, I'll be sharing some specific ideas and themes for group cooking gatherings in the coming months. These will include a bit of background on the food, suggested menus, and actual recipes in hopes of making the experience feel less daunting and more enjoyable. Each suggested gathering will have a purpose or theme around which you can build your evening of sharing, community, and sustenance.
Do you have some favorite cooking rituals? Feel free to share them in the comments section. We would love to hear about them and are always looking for new ideas for shared cooking experiences.