Once you brush away all of the superficial things that we accumulate in life and begin to prioritize those that are important it is remarkable to see that everyone shares the same list. It all boils down to family, faith, health, companionship, meaningful work, how we treat others and how they treat us and those things that allow us to continue to survive: food, water, basic shelter and clothing. Unfortunately, people tend to get caught up in those things that feed our desires outside of the foundations of a good life. This article will focus on one common denominator that addresses nearly every one of those foundations and can even stretch to encompass a few desires outside of the basics in life. That common denominator is food.
There is little doubt that we all face demons every day. People can easily get caught up in our differences whether they be political, territorial, religious beliefs, relationship disagreements, or even work related friction and as we see by watching the news, these differences can become the center of our attention. If there is anything that we can agree on – it is a good plate of food. So, how important is food beyond the basic need for sustenance? Let’s take a look at the role that food can and does play in life.
A baby is born and the first thing that he or she does is cry. What does the baby cry for? Is it attention, affection, discomfort or fright? Those who have watched the miracle of birth will quickly note that it is hunger that draws the first sound from a new born. There is an association that a baby quickly develops: “I cry and I get fed.” Food becomes a comforting crutch in life that we carry with us forever. We may not cry for food as we get older, but we realize that food is a friend when it is sometimes hard to find one. When we are happy –we eat. When we are sad – we eat. When we are lonely – we eat. When we are stressed – we eat. Food is comforting, it is fulfilling, it is a reward when we need it and a memory of people and things that we have encountered through our lives. Food is important.
We now know, although not everyone practices it, that “we are what we eat.” Selecting the right foods and preparing them well is the most significant contributor to a healthy body. Many of the health issues that plague mankind are preventable if we would only follow some simple rules of selection and preparation. Diabetes, heart disease, cancer and obesity are, to a large extent, preventable if we understand how important food is.
The once cherished “family table” was a time to sit down as a symbol of reverence for tradition and a time to share in each other’s day. The family table was a time to celebrate the small things and to comfort each other when our day takes a negative turn. The meal was a time to pass down the values of the family and to teach each other how to live, respect and cherish each other. The common denominator was a plate of food that was prepared with love, care and a sense of obligation to those things that keep a family strong. We have strayed from this over the years with the advent of a microwave oven society and the ease with which fast food and convenience items take over the traditions of old.
We do (thanks from everyone in the restaurant business) lean on restaurants now for much of that attention to tradition. Restaurants are a place where we can celebrate birthdays, graduations, weddings, anniversaries, promotions, first dates, breakups, business deals and even the lives of those who pass away. In all cases, it is good food that serves as that common denominator. We break bread to remember and even to forget. Food is a powerful catalyst that ties two ends together no matter how far apart they seem initially.
When it comes to appreciating great food there is no language barrier. The experience surrounding dining can and does go way beyond that typical biological family. State dinners sponsored by governments are used to create a common ground for discussion, compromise, support and understanding. No matter how deep the differences are between two people or even entire countries, we can always appreciate a great meal. This simple foundational need and pleasure can become the basis by which differences are put aside, maybe long enough for there to surface a spark of understanding and agreement. Food is important.
There are so many examples of the power of food as a communication tool – examples that each of us knows and holds close to our hearts. Here are a few:
One of the most difficult jobs on earth is farming. I have had the wonderful opportunity to visit farmers in the wine regions of France, California, Oregon and Washington State. During harvest, workers are pressed with the need to pick the grapes when they reach the correct sugar content and do so during a very short window of time. It is backbreaking work requiring those involved to bend at the waist, snipping bunches of grapes from the vine from row to row for many hours at a time. With the sun beating on their backs, hands that are rough and cut from the vine knife used and grapes weighing down on their frame it becomes work that would surely be considered intolerable by many. At the end of the day in most vineyards, something magical happens. The crew will sit down together to a meal prepared by the vineyard, break bread, clink glasses filled with the vineyards wine, laugh and truly enjoy telling stories about how many aches and pains they have. The next morning the process starts all over again. Food is a powerful and magical substance.
Restaurant work is, simply put, hard. Ten or twelve hours on your feet, the pressure of the clock, lifting, chopping and dicing, heat that is intense enough to cook a person, burns, cuts and aching muscles – this is the life of a cook. Service staff must attend to every detail in the dining room: polishing glasses and flatware, making sure that their station is impeccably clean, memorizing the art of the kitchen and the complement of wine and focusing on a state of mind that exudes service excellence and in some cases tolerance of unruly guests. At 4:30 in most restaurants all of this stops for 20 minutes or so while both sides of the swinging door get together for staff meal. When done correctly, this stress reliever goes way beyond nourishment. It is a time to talk, to share, to set aside tension, take a breath, laugh and set your mind at ease for the onslaught of business just around the corner. For the moment, everyone is equal around the plate. Food is incredibly important.
Each professional cook that I know has experienced that epiphany in life – that moment when a certain food, or food event has allowed them to pause and say: “wow, this is something that I want to dedicate my career and a good portion of my life to.” It is that first oyster with warm salty ocean brine that says “it doesn’t get any fresher than this;” it may be that hand picked heirloom tomato that is still warm from the July sun and eaten as one would an apple or sliced and simply drizzled with good olive oil and a pinch of sea salt that turns an average person into an explorer of food experiences; or it might be the first time that they enjoy a meal prepared by a serious chef who knows how to delicately handle those foods and take them to a new level of significance. In all cases, the power of food can move a person from a desire to find a career to defining a “calling in life.” Food is important.
Food allows us to maintain traditions and celebrate them with others, it allows us to pass down a gift of a treasured family recipe that becomes part of the family’s heritage, it is the one thing that we can freely give to others with a smile and a sense of understanding and appreciation.
I remember many years ago visiting with a woman restaurateur in Saranac Lake, New York who owned a business called the Blue Gentian. It was a neighborhood restaurant of great renown. People would line up around the block to wait for a table and enjoy her “blue plate specials,” as they were called. Nothing elaborate: roast chicken, meat loaf, and even a few casserole dishes. I asked her one-day what her secret ingredient was. She pointed to an empty jar in her kitchen and said that that was it. When I looked puzzled she said that the ingredient was love of people, love of life, and appreciation of others. This was what tasted so good at her tables. Food is important.
Over the past few Sunday’s I have watched the new Anthony Bourdain series on CNN called: Parts Unknown. No matter what you think about Tony, the series is brilliant because it shows the human bonds that are formed around food. It is a personal show that opens your eyes to other cultures and traditions and the honest purity of the human spirit once you focus on the foundations of life. He demonstrates both directly and indirectly that food is important.
Chefs, and cooks (both domestic and professional) have extremely important jobs. If we could just peel away the superficial stuff that gets in the way of life and just learn to “break bread” and appreciate our differences, we might be able to enjoy the human condition a bit more.
Photo by: Kristin Parker – Kristin Parker Photography
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