To feed is to fulfill a basic human need. It is an attempt to quell a biological hunger.
To nourish is to fulfill a carnal need for acceptance and comfort. To nourish is to say “I welcome you, my brothers and sisters, to share this table with me…to break bread with me…to sit beside me and be a companion in this communion.”
The holidays approach and it becomes easy to find yourself swept away in the focus on feeding. Kind hosts attempt to satisfy their guest’s mixed palates – from gluten-free to vegan to lump-free mashed potatoes. They attempt to avoid any hungry complaints by exhausting themselves with a plethora of recipes and mountains of food. Courteous guests agonize over choosing the right white wine or the number of rolls to bring. They strive to anticipate any confrontations on their own dietary choices and plan a few standard responses if asked “are you on a diet or something?”
A recent post in a plant-based Facebook group evolved into a long string of replies about how to handle this situation from both sides. An attendee at a wedding was trying to maintain her oil-free, vegan diet. The bride and groom had courteously prepared a vegan plate, but there was oil used. Should she say have something? Should she have asked for a new plate? Should she have just not eaten anything? Should she feel bad about going off her diet? How should she thank her hosts for their thoughtfulness?
The pressures of the holidays can add their own weight. It can be challenging enough just to get time off of work but now we’re also expected to show up with Instagram-worthy side dishes. My most lucent memories of feeding take me back to when I worked at a major organic grocery store. All employees were required to work the holidays, as these were the busiest days of the year. As a cook in the back kitchens, I remember Thanksgiving Eve mashing 50 pounds of potatoes and rolling 60 pounds of turkey meatballs to feed customers. This was numbing, heartless cooking for “guests” I would never know. Just an attempt to get food on the shelf. Even working the customer side of the store, I witnessed less-than-glorious moments. Kind women who would pass for my godmother turned tyrannical when a pre-ordered organic turkey was too small. Gentle old men could dissolve into panic when they discovered there was no organic, grass-fed, GMO-free, locally-source vegan gravy. I vividly recall one 20-something showing me a Bon Appetit recipe for “haricot verts” that was soaked with palm sweat. She trembled out “Where do you have Harr Cot Vertis?”
The holidays can be ALL about the food.
Yet, it is only food. Yesterday it was in the ground, today it is on the table, and tomorrow you will be thinking about your next meal.
As a personal chef, I practice the culinary arts. Like the arts of the stage, this is ephemeral. What I create lasts for one meal, for one moment. It is enjoyed, consumed, and gone. It is not a CD you can play over and over or a movie you can stream on Netflix any time you need a romantic comedy. It is a moment you get to fully savor once. Attempts to recreate the experience will always offer some variations. I might prepare the same batch of Sweet Potato Blueberry Muffins five times in one week. Yet each batch nourishes a different family. Each muffin is enjoyed in its own way - sometimes warmed and relished with great attention and sometimes quickly chomped in the car ride to school.
As we gather these holidays, let us remember the intention of our table. It is not merely to feed and fulfill a simple biological need. It is meant to nourish us with warm faces and genuine conversation. It is meant to unify as we reflect with gratitude and hope for peace. It is meant to strengthen family bonds and reinforce traditions. It is a safe place to meet new acquaintances.
Let us remember that the food brings us together to feed our stomachs.
But it is our human spirit that nourishes us to feed our souls.