On Food and People
I am a humanitarian. A humanitarian who is also a foodie. Fortunately, I have found these traits to be complementary. They are also the keys to my happiness.
There is nothing in the world I enjoy more than sharing a meal with good company. The best times of my life have been spent sitting on dusty picnic benches, telling stories in foreign tongues (including my own broken attempts at Portuguese and Arabic), and sharing culture, ancestry and love through a homemade meal.
I have spent my entire life loving people and food. I love them hard. I love them so much that sometimes I literally feel like my heart could burst when I sit down at a dinner table. I’m not just talking about that amazing Spanish tapas place in Santa Monica, the one that I have gone to on my birthday the past few years. But so long as we’re on the subject, the reason I love this particular place SO much is because the owner always greets us (well, everyone who eats there), with open arms and a vibrant smile. He adores the food his kitchen prepares, and he is not shy in sharing this passion with his patrons. He exudes the same warmth that I remember so fondly from my months studying in the south of Spain. It is his demeanor, as much as the fabulous and authentically-Spanish flavors, that make the experience for me.
Now back to those dinner tables. I think you know the ones I’m talking about. The Thanksgiving tables overflowing with abundance of food and surrounded by your favorite family members and closest friends. The romantic picnic blankets spread out on the beach with your toes in the sand and a cheap bottle of wine tucked away in your basket. The city park benches shared with a stranger where your sandwich is wrapped in foil and the crumbs go to the birds.
What makes these meals so memorable? Certainly the food. What foodie could forget that out-of-this-world root vegetable roast or steak and arugula salad? Ambiance doesn’t hurt either. But more than the food and the atmosphere are the people. They are truly that which makes the meal. For you see, each person who sits down at the table (or park bench, or wherever you choose to eat) brings their own flavors along. And boy do I love zest of grandma and pinch of an old friend!
Let me give you an example. Have you ever cooked the same meal twice, followed the same recipe to the exact degree, but had it taste entirely different? Were you thinking about the same things both times you made the meal? Did you eat the meal with the same people? The way I see it, we bring our own flavors to the foods we prepare. I will never be able to prepare the same dish as the one I ate at my favorite restaurant, even if I have the recipe, because the dish is as much an expression of the chef as it of the ingredients and technique. Similarly, if I am recalling happy travels in Morocco while I prepare a lamb tagine, I am capturing the flavors of my experience there. And then, depending on to whom I serve the dish, their own feelings and memories will affect how they taste the food. It really is amazing how much eating is tied to our human experiences.
I attribute my obsession with food in part to genetics (and the very real possibility of past lives spent in Mediterranean cultures, as these seem to be my most visceral flavor favorites). But my upbringing has also been foundational in enhancing these innate qualities.
I grew up helping my mom in the kitchen. She was always experimenting with her recipes, taking notes from the latest health trends. I learned early how to make “diet” cookies using non-fat yogurt instead of butter and to substitute raw honey for processed sugar. I’ve been making recipe modifications ever since.
Travel has also been foundational in developing my appreciation of the ways that culture and history shape cuisines, as well the impact of food on fostering connections and establishing community. I have made more lifelong friends around the world by sticking my hand in their potato chip bag (with permission, of course) or helping to pick their coffee beans than I have ever made at networking events in Los Angeles. There’s something special about eating and drinking together. Perhaps it’s as simple as finding common ground. After all, we can always talk about the food we are enjoying. But I think that mealtime taps into even deeper human desires.
I’ve recently been reflecting on why I love cooking meals for family and friends as much as I do. I’ve realized that making a meal allows me the opportunity to share myself with people in one of the most human ways. We all need to eat to live. In those moments of putting a meal on the table, I am able to provide that essential need to the people I care about most. And when I use the freshest and most pure ingredients in preparing the meal, I take this one step further by providing not only sustenance but also nourishment and a hope for better health. Similarly, when someone offers to prepare me a meal, I feel instantly more connected with them. After all, they have chosen to take care of me in that moment. I am always grateful for the opportunity to learn more about their unique story as expressed through the flavors in their food.
I promise to write in much more detail about the connection between food and humanity, but for today, these are my thoughts.
I love people and food. These two things are enough to overflow my life with joy. The question, now, is how to combine the two to make a difference in this world.