A recent fall nesting impulse found me mining beef stew recipes and sifting through an old Victorian secretary that sat in my living room. The secretary, chock-full of my mother’s personal correspondence, had stood undisturbed for several years following her death. Perhaps this was my way of preserving my memory of her. Yet on this day I felt moved to investigate the contents and, in doing so, made a surprising discovery—a diary. Interesting that nowhere in this diary did I unearth any revelations of old romances, or a mother’s commentary on my brother and me, or even her cherished trip to Greece. This diary spoke of nothing but food, hospitality, and the joy of feeding her family and friends.
My big surprise turned into an afternoon immersed in an unsuspected piece of family history. It also revealed a road map to the many layers of nourishment that reach beyond nutrition. It all started with an introduction to my mother’s sous chef.
Page one: Beef roast from Med (short for her butcher Medwin); 20 minutes per pound, begin in cold oven turned to 325 degrees.
This small entry sparked a memory of her frequent phone calls to Med requesting something special from his cooler. Her request typically prompted his instructions for preparing a beef roast beauty or plump leg of lamb. Med operated a tiny market called Obert’s Grocery, located a few blocks from our home. It might not have passed today’s public health department inspections, but anyone who knew her way around a kitchen also knew Med and relied on him for special cuts of meat and a strategy for creating a feast.
Turning the page to July 3, 1966, I began to read the diary entries from 1965 to 1983.
Page 2: Dinner for Charlesons, Seyberths, Tekla, Bede, Dot, Gladdie, and the Proctors; everyone cheered for the beef stew, wild rice purchased in Hayward, Wisconsin, leaf lettuce, glazed carrots, chocolate sponge cake, and fresh strawberries; invited Millie L. but she was visiting her sister in Chetek.
While my diary discovery could have slipped into a sweet trip down memory lane, I quickly recognized that it spoke of something much larger than nostalgia. It highlighted our family’s perception of food, what it meant then, and how it continues to “flavor” our lives today. Thanks to my mother (and perhaps Med) I have always believed that food wields a mighty power for the comfort it brings to heart, body, and soul. Though not a natural born cook, my mother learned early in her marriage that food also served as a universal language. It connected her to each of us and to her friends and countless others during times of celebration as well as sorrow.
In studying the food-related beliefs of various wisdom traditions, nutritionist Deborah Kesten discovered that honoring food through thoughtful preparation and then partaking of it with depth and sincerity actually makes it sacred. Food is sanctified by warmth and affection. She found that many traditions offer a spiritual perspective that we have forgotten over the centuries. When we furnish food with such sacred understanding, it nourishes both body and spirit. When we appreciate food in this manner, as my mother did, we also contribute in an essential way to healing.
Most cultures and religions embrace rituals that use food as a means of connecting to a deeper spiritual significance. Jewish dietary laws, for example, honor the sanctity of the life inherent in both animal-and plant-based food. Christians sustain a connection to Jesus Christ through the bread and wine of Holy Communion. African Americans season their soul food with love as a way of celebrating community and friendships. Yogis eat, in part, to commune with food’s life-giving qualities, while Muslims honor food for its divine essence. Buddhists pursue enlightenment by bringing a meditative awareness to food. The Chinese communicate with gods through food, and the Japanese turn to tea to renew the spirit.
The spiritual potential of food encompasses everything from the soil that produces what we eat, to the thoughtful act of preparing and serving meals. Food, in the most profound ways, brings us into community with others to listen, smell, taste and talk. Food tends to encourage intimacy and foster feelings of safety and well-being. Food also sparks memories and invites storytelling.
Though she might not have studied the religious and cultural nuances of food, I’m certain that her inherent understanding of its value explained why my mother kept a food journal. Nowhere in its pages did I find notations about how many calories or grams of sugar, fat or protein filled her “Ida May’s Great Big Cake,” or her crown roast of pork. Instead, she filled every line with lists of friends and relatives who came for dinner and stayed to play gin rummy or bridge.
Through the years, I have grown to appreciate her life-long influence of food as hospitality. For me, she freed food from the conflicts and confusion over endless weight-loss fads, eating disorders, cravings, addictions, and body image fixations. She showed me what it meant to cook with intention for a wounded child or a friend recovering from chemotherapy. She understood that infusing meals with loving-kindness was and is powerful medicine. By preparing meals and eating with another, we offer sustaining energy and life-giving power. Partaking in the gift of food moves us away from the idea of food only as “fuel” and a list of nutritional values.
I spent the better part of that afternoon paging from month to month through the diary, making notes of fall and holiday recipes and lists of friends who might enjoy an autumn feast. And that’s when I arrived at a late diary entry featuring my birthday.
March 27, 1983: Mary’s B Day Party; favorite friends Veda, David, Wendy, Emma and Ralph, Bea and Sam, Oscar Sperstead. Med suggested a rolled 8 lb. rib eye roast (two hours and 20 minutes at 325 degrees), grapefruit and orange salad, mashed pots with dill and yogurt, baked asparagus, homemade bread, Isabel’s German chocolate cake with ice cream. Isabel stopped in for dessert.
Rather than tipping me into a sentimental slump, this last entry launched me into the kitchen to investigate the possibilities. Maybe it was time to whip up a chicken pot pie, or, better yet an Oktoberfest celebration to bring in the spirit of the harvest. True, I wasn’t harvesting much more than a few lingering tomatoes and a pot of herbs that had not yet frozen, but that was enough to get started. And then I started a list of really good eaters. All I needed was the menu. Hence, the following entry into my own diary:
Late Autumn 2015, Oktoberfest: Andra, Jen and Jon, Chris, Stephanie, Hal and Lynn, Vicki and David, Ethan and Hannah. Slow cooked short ribs, fresh herbed spaetzle, Grandma Glady’s red cabbage, German potato salad, black forest cake with whipped cream. Robust appetites required; lederhosen and dirndls optional.