Friday, January 8, 2010

Perspective; its what's for dinner

Copious amounts of print have been expended on food recently. Shoot, Blake has shelves of books on the subject, some written by scientists, some by polemicists, some by philosophers, some by cranks and liars. For some of these folks, food is a weapon to be wielded in the service of a certain vision of society as much as a source of nourishment or pleasure. For some, it seems nearly an idol; unless your dinner is grown, purchased, prepared, and consumed in the correct manner, one is a heathen. Don't get me wrong; I have been known to thumb through Country Cook Illustrated on a search for a tasty entree. I have attempted red, white and blue desserts from Martha Stewart in honor of art and the 4th of July. I have even taken my camera into fairly classy restaurants and photographed my entree. But we are not pretentious diners and our daily table at noon will be grilled or fresh in the summer, stewed or baked in the winter, and between bread in the spring and fall. The provenance will range from our home freezer or garden to the Tarkio HyVee. Period.
But the post is only tangentially about food and its family tree. Let's skip the obeisance to a local purely elemental diet. Let's think about what we eat in social terms; let's think in action words. Let's get out of the temple of food as an art form. Haven't we all, when in good company, managed to forget completely what we are eating?
Its been so cold the last week or so...the last month. Here in northwest Missouri, we've even spent quite a few days housebound by the cold and snow. In kitchens, the reaction is universal; turn on the oven. The metal cookie sheets twist and shout from the abrupt change in temperature from cabinet to oven. The butter on my counter is harder than the oleo in my fridge. The apples I've peeled make my fingers chilled, rigid, inflexible. But the hour of cooking raises the humidity and steams the windows. Ah, warmth. Cooking as activity; food as fuel.
In the opposite season, canning takes center stage. Harvest the garden, shuck the corn, core and skin the tomatoes, snap the beans, slice the cukes. Someone washes the jars; someone watches the pressure gauge; someone labels jars and shelves them in the basement. Food in the bank; food by committee.
This is food according to the female sex. What do we do when something good happens? We cook something to celebrate. What do we do when we're depressed? We bake cookies. When someone dies, the funeral dinner committee calls and we cook. When we age, we eat cake! When we have a baby, we eat cake. When we marry, we eat cream cheese mints. That's what we do in Tarkio.
Is it gourmet? Maybe. But it might also be a Waldorf salad, or cherry fluff, or Snickers salad, or strawberry/cream cheese/ pretzel salad. For a party, how about Rotelle dip? That's classy, right? But its food for a group, made from ingredients on hand, spontaneous food. And with no redeeming nutritional value at all.
Let's keep peanut butter blossoms on the menu. Let's hail the brownies from a box that we throw together in a flash for the bake sale, for preschool treats. Let's not forget that our food is for our people, for our friends, for those who celebrate, those who mourn. Its our gift and our contribution to our fellow human beings. Its a ritual and a tradition during holidays, but its not a religion. Food is what we cook and what sustains us; its what we give our friends, our family, our church, our community.

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