Zanthe Taylor M.F.A.

A Million Meals

Cooking with Gratitude

How food brings us together in troubled times

Posted Nov 20, 2012

I haven’t posted in the weeks after Hurricane Sandy because, honestly, it felt trivial to be writing about any parenting or food issues when faced with the stark reality of people who can no longer put a roof over their family’s head or food on the table for their children. Without power, heat and in some cases, housing, many families in New York have been truly pushed to, and in some cases, over the brink. And those of us lucky enough to live outside the zones of darkened blocks and flooded homes have been consumed with helping those who weren’t so fortunate.

Yet as the memory of that storm week recedes into the past—though not the devastation it wrought, which will be felt for months, if not years, to come—I find myself wanting to commemorate a surprising common thread that bound together the experience of many people around me. The day of the storm, October 29, was strangely anticlimactic in our neighborhood despite the cancelled school day, a light sprinkle of rain and not the deluge many were expecting. Yet the certainty in the forecasts kept us obediently indoors all day long, checking the windows every hour and remarking that the winds did seem to be growing stronger—or did they? We did little storm preparation beyond digging out our few working flashlights, pulling in our yard furniture and pots, and checking that we had plenty of food (nothing to worry about there, of course, unless our fridge lost power, which I now understand could easily have happened). Hunkering down together on a Monday with nothing to do was a novel experience for the four of us. We didn’t even really turn on the TV, just checked in periodically with the news online.

At some point during the day, things got unusually quiet—the girls in their room playing with their dolls and listening to a book on CD (yes, sometimes that really does happen), my husband working, and I was struck by an urge that’s not unusual for me: to cook something. Strike that: to cook everything I could lay my hands on. After a quick cookbook perusal and a pantry check, I simmered a spicy barley risotto with marinated feta into existence, stepping hastily into the yard to gather some last scraps of mint from my fading herb pots. Sitting down over a hot lunch with my family was highly unusual, and felt incredibly comforting. As the day wore on, we made popcorn to go with our evening movie—West Side Story, which drowned out the howling winds and distracted us from the occasionally flickering lights—and shepherd’s pie for dinner. As I tucked the girls into bed that night, worried about the big glass window in their room and the large trees outside, I was nervous but nested, and hoping that others in the storm’s path were feeling the same. Yet I knew they weren’t, judging from the images that began coming through online before bedtime. The image that struck me most at the time, though it turned out to be one of the less tragic by comparison to subsequent scenes of human suffering and devastation, was Jane’s Carousel in Dumbo. A brightly lit island in its beautiful glass pavilion, completely surrounded by water, was a 25-year labor of love now undone by the East River.

The next day, we picked our way over fallen branches and through drifts of soggy leaves to some friends’ home nearby. The mother of the family was also gripped by baking mania, popping lemon poppy-seed muffins into the oven as we arrived. Again, something about warm, homemade food calmed all our nerves, and I saw several Facebook posts that week joking about the “Sandy 15.” Eating and cooking became a way to reassure ourselves.

As the week wore on, we were no longer confined to our homes but left to our own devices, and we felt adrift from our usual hectic schedules of work, school, after-school and social events. Our calendars became graveyards of cancelled plans. Checking the news constantly was emotionally draining but essential. Fielding calls and emails from faraway friends and family, we reassured them, guiltily, that we were okay. Entertaining our increasingly stir-crazy children was annoying, but we didn’t complain (much), because we knew: we were the lucky ones.

In the weeks since the hurricane, one major source of relief people have been able and eager to provide is food. I was telling a friend how the storm had ratcheted up my (already strong) drive to cook and she said, “For yourself?” When I looked confused, she explained: parents from her children’s school had been cooking hot meals in the mornings and driving them to storm-ravaged neighborhoods, where people were hungrily accepting baked ziti at 10am. At a fundraising event I heard a man describe how he rescued his children from their flooded, burning home in Breezy Point; when he returned later to the smoking wreckage of his neighborhood, he, his family and neighbors cooked all their quickly thawing food in a massive BBQ. Being together like that, he said, made them realize that though they’d “lost everything,” they had also lost nothing.

One tiny lesson from these weeks of stress and dislocation—not the most important one, perhaps, but worth learning nonetheless—is how much cooking at home, sharing food with others, and joining hands over meals are all bedrock underpinnings of human civilization and culture. The Italian-American Sunday “dinner,” the Jewish tradition of Shabbat dinner, Thanksgiving and Christmas meals: all these and more enshrine the need to prepare and experience meals as part of a community. Yet it’s an experience that doesn’t exist in “normal” life for so many people, whether because of time or financial constraints, the erosion of food traditions and cooking skills, or the triumph of nutritionism and health concerns over the pleasure of eating.

As we approach America's most food-centered holiday, Thanksgiving, I want to make a heartfelt plea, as I do every time I write and think about food and family, for the return of these genuinely communal eating experiences to our everyday lives. Not just meals out at restaurants or fancy dinner parties, either, but humble home-cooked meals which we eat with a sense of appreciation, leisure and togetherness. "Comfort food," once a term with meaning, now evokes merely excess and a disregard for health--newly endangered Twinkies becoming the latest added to the dubious list beginning with mashed potatoes and meatloaf. Thanksgiving, too, has become synonymous with gluttony and hysterical consumerism run amok.

True comfort lies in the experience, more than the food. We enrich ourselves and each other by preparing and sharing meals, regular meals, together; wouldn’t it be nice if we could bring that experience back into normal life, which times of trouble reveal to be the sweetest existence of all? Gratitude comes easily when nourished by a meal with family and friends, and all of us lucky enough to sit down together over our Thanksgiving meal should resolve to do it again, soon.

What I cooked this week (and last, and the one before!):