Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Meaning of Food

Philip and I rented the movie Ratatouille Saturday night with our daughter, Alexis. We started our movie night by making comfort food for the show. The only rule was that we had to use what was already in the house. No going to the store, and much to my disappointment, no ordering out. We hadn’t been grocery shopping in almost a week, so this was certainly going to be a challenge. We'd seen enough episodes of Iron Chef and Chopped, however, and were pretty sure we could do this.

Alexis made homemade mini pizzas with pepperoni. That was easy. Philip used tortilla shells and cheese powder from a box of macaroni and cheese to make nachos and dip. (That sounds horrid, but with a little burrito seasoning, the cheese dip was actually not bad). And I made pigs in the blanket from a roll of biscuit dough and some frozen Smoky Links.

Sharing food and sharing the process of making food can be a powerful force in our lives. If food were language then for me cooking certainly would be meaning making. The two are intimately connected. They’re inseparable. And above all they’re socially constructed concepts. Coming together around food helps us tap into the communal, tribal, nature of who we are. It also triggers great stories and memories from our past.

As I was trying to keep Alexis from eating all of my piggy dough, a communal cooking memory popped into my head. My dear friend Shaunanne, who lives in northern North Dakota. Our visits are too infrequent but always include a long afternoon together in the kitchen. Planning, preparing, and serving meals together has evolved over the last fifteen years and has come to define a big part of our relationship. I wrote a poem several years ago that attempts to capture a bit of our relationship and the role food has played in shaping who we've become.

The poem also incorporates my fascination with ritual, and what better place to explore ritual than with a holiday dinner. When I was a kid, my parents never made us go to church or Sunday school. The only exception was Easter. My mom dolled us up every year—my brother and me in suits, and my sisters in dresses—and dragged us off to the Lutheran service. Afterwards, we’d meet my dad at my grandma’s and have a giant feast. That was the extent of my religious training.

As an adult, I’ve created my own ritual for holidays, and of course food and friends are the centerpiece. Here's the poem that tries to capture all of that:

The Feast

Out my kitchen window
A crow is dragging scraps
Of duck across the yard—
The skin, some fat, a neck.
Did I mention it’s Easter afternoon?

Heading toward the crocus bed
The crow pulls its duckstuff
Under white and purple flowers
Blooming in this third-month
Mix of snow and sun.

What do you think it means?
I ask my friend, standing near me
Stuffing the rest of the bird
With celery, onions, and oranges.
This is sorrow at its best, she says.

The purist in me wants her words
To mean one thing, but she’s a poet
Staring out my window at a ritual
she knows too well.

Caught in my own ritual
Of sacrifice and sentiment,
Which amounts to drinking wine
And making food for my friends
Because it’s somehow holy to me—

As holy as Christ’s walk with a cross
Strapped to his back, the heavy wood
Trenching a path like a signature—

I nearly miss the crow lifting itself to the sky,
Fragments of metaphor scattered in its wake,
A half-ass resurrection I finally understand.

I miss my friend Shuananne, and I miss gathering with my friends around bottles of good wine and good food. But Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and with it will come another set of rituals, another set of traditions, and best of all another story yet to be told. I can't wait!


  1. A lovely story, poem, and post, Bob!

    And as an aside, Larry and I saw Ratatouille in Chicago when it was released to theaters. We went home and tried to make the dish look as beautiful as it does in the film. No dice. Pun intentional.

    Bon appetit!

  2. Great poem! Did you all like Ratatouille? (I loved it. :)

  3. hey. what happened to my comment, I wonder? Here's what I tried to post this morning: In the ongoing debate about what comes first, thought or language, the answer clearly is....DUCK FAT!!
    Good post, Bob.