“Pesto only tastes good when my friends are here!”
That’s what my daughter said one night when she turned up her nose at a plate of pesto spaghetti -- the same food she and her friend each ate two helpings of the night before. Our visiting friends had just left, and while I argued that the pesto still tasted good, I couldn’t argue with the feeling behind my daughter’s words.
There’s something wonderful about cooking for (and with) good friends, especially those with similar tastes and food philosophies. Our friends arrived from Minneapolis on a Friday evening, and I enjoyed spending Friday afternoon making Thai chicken curry, fresh vegetable stir-fry, peanut sauce with fried tofu, jasmine rice, and herbed simple syrup for cocktails. But Saturday was even better, because that’s when we all collaborated on the preparation of a big Mexican feast, including slow-cooked pork tinga (Rick Bayless recipe here), chile rellenos, and homemade re-fried beans. (As you already know, my daughter ate pesto and spaghetti.) The meals were excellent, to be sure -- thoughtfully prepared with love and skill. But the food itself but it was not the highlight of either night.
In the days since, I’ve thought about how much I enjoyed being in the kitchen with my friends, and how much I enjoyed our conversations about budgeting for organic food, farmers’ markets and CSA shares, and how to teach our kids the joy of preparing a good meal from good ingredients and of eating a meal prepared with love and thoughtfulness.
All of this reminds me of a terrific poem by Joy Harjo, called The World Begins at the Kitchen Table. In it, the author writes:
The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live […] It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human.
I doubt that Harjo is thinking of lessons in manners and salad forks. I have a good idea of what I want to teach my daughter via the kitchen table (or the kitchen island, in our case) and how it relates to what it means to be human and to our relationship with what Harjo calls “the gifts of the earth.” (The entire poem is great, you should read the whole thing here.) Here’s a start:
Where our food comes from matters. When we buy our strawberries from the co-op, when we choose the can of organic pumpkin, when we decide to make room in our freezer for 25 pounds of ground beef (because we have a chance to buy antibiotic-free, grass-fed beef from a rancher), when we grow our own herbs, when we commit to helping support a local farmer for a season, we are making a choice that says we value these foods and the people who produce them.
Process matters. Not just the process by which food arrives at our table, but also the process by which we prepare it. Process doesn’t have to take a long time -- what goes together faster than a salad of tomatoes and basil fresh from the garden? I’ve found that when there is some delight, pleasure, or even the satisfying of curiosity involved -- even in those four-hour long recipes -- the food is somehow more delicious.
Who we eat with matters. Part of why I loved eating with my visiting friends was that they care as much about family meals as I do; not just the ones we eat every night, but also the ones we eat with our parents, cousins, and friends. When we share food, we share more than what is on our plates.
When we ate our Mexican feast with our friends that Saturday night for the first time in way too long, we discussed new recipes, restaurants discovered, plans for this year’s gardens, strategies for teaching, dilemmas in our lives and families, and authors we’d read. As we talked late into the night, our table became everything Harjo’s poem said it would, and we were thankful for all of it. And, yes, it made everything taste better.
Merie Kirby grew up in California, moved to Minneapolis for grad school, and after getting her MFA stayed for fifteen more years. She now lives in Grand Forks, ND with her husband and daughter. Merie writes poetry and essays, as well as texts in collaboration with composers. She also writes about cooking, reading, parenting, and creating on her own blog, All Cheese Dinner. Her most recurrent dream is of making cookies with her mother. This is an excellent dream. Merie's last piece for Simple, Good, and Tasty was Dorie Greenspan's Leek and Potato Soup: Perfect in France and in North Dakota.