I have a challenge for you – think back over your life and identify specific meals that have remained memorable. No generic meals like “Sunday dinner when I was a kid” or “this ‘great Italian restaurant’ in San Francisco” … Can you recall specific meals that have stuck with you – If you do, you may learn some important things about yourself… I will limit myself to a few:
1. My roommate in college had an Italian fisherman aunt and uncle that lived in South San Francisco. One week we were invited for Sunday dinner - The small house had the furniture pushed back and one long table, covered with a checkered red and white oilskin tablecloth, had been set up extending into the living room and dining room.
This is the style if not the exact house...
You have to imagine a small house with many guests all speaking in rather loud voices using their hands for emphasis. There was a lot of laughter and joking – jugs of red wine - and long loaves of white Italian style bread - antipasto – pasta – salad - cooked chicken and fish – desert – and then grappa and coffee… It was so much more than the food – it was the people and the laughing.
Helen and Nick - The Berkeley Years
2. When I was in college, I lived on a very tight budget… and many Sundays I had dinner with my sister Helen and my brother in law Nick. Nick was attending the Univ. Cal. and Helen was teaching in Berkeley… One particular Sunday sticks in my mind – Helen had baked the most wonderful Greek style chicken (chicken, potato and carrot slicks, baked with oregano and tomato sauce) that and a long Baguette of French bread and Greek style salad, Red wine, and ice cream for desert. This particular time we ate then drove down to Telegraph street to explore the book stores (Cody's, Moe's, Shakespeare and Co. ) and finally coffee at the Mediterranean Café. The day was personal and happy!
Greek farmers traveling to their field in the morning
3. Years later I was hitch hiking in the early morning along a deserted country road in Europe. I passed a small stone hut near the road and a family of Greek farmers was just sitting down to breakfast – when they saw me, the young men came out and took my arm – and invited me to the table. I was served a plate of good fried eggs with the most yellow yolks, cooked in wonderful strong flavored olive oil. We ate large Greek home produced Greek style olives, thick slabs of country bread, and glasses of pine flavored retsina wine (for breakfast!) … We had a fine time “communicating”– them with no English and me with no Greek. We laughed a lot and shared hand shakes and hugs when I left. They hoped some day to be able to buy a tractor (they showed me the picture)
5. When Judy and I were married it was in the middle of my year long study grant at the University of Hawaii. My grant was small - we were poor but happy!
6. Judy and I had a memorable back packing trip into Moose Lake in Sequoia Park… It was late August - time for uncertain weather at that elevation. We were camping at over 11000 ft and there was not any wood to burn but we had a small white gasoline stove -a “Svea” - as it cooked it roared like a jet engine! On this particular trip we had brought along a freeze-dried meal in a packet – ‘Mexican casserole’ –only 'add water and heat for 20 minutes' the directions said. I’m sure those instructions were well intended– but they were not for 11000 and a Svea. (Water boils at about 190F not 212F at this elevation. ) We boiled the stew until the water boiled away, then added more water, and boiled it some more – but it never did get soft enough to eat properly – We finally had to crunch our way through half cooked beans. Still, Judy and I were newly married and very much in love and it was all one big joke!
Vladimir's family with the Zlatnik's
7. We visited Czechoslovakia for the first time when it was still under Communist control. Walking is the streets felt oppressive, people kept their eyes down, and there was no unnecessary talking to strangers. The buildings and streets Prague were gray and brown. We had exchanged letters with a young Czech, Vladimir, and he had invited us to stay with his family in the family apartment – we had no ideas what we were getting into with our two sons – we walked down the street – found the apartment house – climbed the stairs and found a note on the door: “Family Zlatnik – please come in!” Vladimir and his family were not yet home from work – so we entered and found a comfortable home – out first contact with the real Czech people. In years since we have had other very memorable Czech meals with other friends but I remember so well this first encounter with Czech culture and the meal that Vladimir’s mother prepared for us – Herb scented vegetable soup, meat cooked with thick gravy and ‘Knidliky’ dumplings, beet salad, and sweet fruit dumplings for desert… Oh my goodness it was so delicious! And most fascinating was how warm and friendly our new friends were to have visiting Americans in their home. We had fascinating long conversations as we learned about each other. All these years later we count Vladimir as a good friend!
9. Judy and I were in Oaxaca attending language school. We became friends with the owner of the small neighborhood cafe where we usually ate breakfast. One day she asked us if we would like to go with her to a Zapotec birthday party - a goat roast. We jumped at the chance. We joined our friend in the evening, and drove with her to the location on the edge of the city. Here a large tent with red and white stripes had been set up. Inside were tables and chairs for about 80 guests. The goats had been cooked in the ground with hot coals, and there were several women forming tortillas directly from "masa".
A small band was playing music and many people were chatting in loud voices. In Mexico it is the custom to be seated and to be served - and so large plates of food were placed before us - the goat was tender and delicious! We also had black beans and a bit of lettuce and radish salad. Waiters were circulating with bottles of "Mescal" repeatedly filling our small glasses. When we looked around we realized that we were the only non Indian people there - but no matter everyone was very friendly and anxious to share with us.
The program involved a clown couple - and even with our imperfect Spanish we laughed a lot!- Of course when they needed a volunteer, and they pulled me up on stage and gave me a funny red nose to wear and I had todo something silly... all part of the fun...we left that evening with a smile on our faces.
10. Our eldest son Peter is married to Marila, a young woman from Northern California. Her family has a large ranch – and in past years, held annual lamb barbecues. They are a major undertaking and I think we got to attend the very last one held several years ago. The events were held out in an oak grove away from all the ranch buildings. Two yearling lambs are prepared into chops, and for stew. Large oak fires are burned down to hot coals and then grills are set up. The stew lamb is cooked in large Dutch ovens with the special flavoring of allspice and red wine. The pots are filled and then surrounded with hot coals to slowly cook. A large extended serving table is made long rows of straw bales piled 3 high… on which all the guests place their pot luck contributions. Finally the time comes to roast the lamb on the grills, with many hands helping the work goes quickly – and the product was the most succulent lamb imaginable. People lingered all afternoon chatting and laughing – many are neighbors but some friends travel long distances to attend. In addition all the good country cooking is memorable
So what conclusions can I reach from these 10 examples? For me the really memorable meals that I remember are not the grandest and most extravagant, but those that allowed me to connect with others. Food is sharing and talking – laughing and listening… being in relationship. Too often I don't take time to slow down and relish my food and use the time to relate with others. I am grateful to the many individuals that have practiced such acts of generosity to me – I can never pay them back directly – so the best I can do is to remember to return acts of generosity to others. In the great pool of life I hope it all comes out even...
Two Recommended Links of the week: