In my last blog I made the case that the state of Israeli Kosher food is not as stellar as it could be. But to argue the position that we should be invested in the quality of our food, there is a preliminary question to be asked- why is food important?
Should we talk about it? Is it not slightly hedonistic to concern ourselves with the whys and hows of food; to view it as an art? I have been turning these questions over in my head for the past little while; not because I don’t know the answers, but because I have been having trouble verbalizing something that I intuitively know.
Recently I spent a year working in a community kitchen. The kitchen serves people with special needs who are employed in a sheltered workshop. Once a week I would come to the kitchen and with two other women, cook what constituted the one hot meal of the day for most of the workers. We didn’t put out great food. We didn’t even put out good food. We were feeding 200 people on a tiny budget. We did our best with the ingredients we had. It was not food I would cook in my own kitchen. And yet, it was one of the best experiences of my life. It was there that I learned that there is nothing in the world more viscerally satisfying than the act of feeding another person. It is the most basic human act. We all need to eat. Every single living thing needs to eat. To give someone food is to acknowledge that they are alive as you are alive. That is why food, all food, is important.
But is it art?
Food tells stories. It itself is a story. There is an aloneness to a fried egg sandwich; an intimacy to a pepper- the way its skin feels like the smooth brush of a wrist against your own. There is an invitation in a pan of paella and a history all its own in its smoky undertones. But more than that, food is a way we tell stories about ourselves; about our past and our present. In everything I cook there is a vision of my mother’s hands as she sorts through beans, watching them drift through her fingers into the cholent pot. Every time I bake, I am painting glaze onto miniature cupcakes with her. In loaves of bread, I see my grandmother’s sturdy arms as she kneads her challah dough. Cilantro, I learned to love from a roommate and so she is there too, when I use it. In Italy, I tasted arugula so sharp and peppery it brought tears to my eyes, and so when I serve arugula I want that moment to be alive and present. And so on, back through time to my Hungarian and Polish ancestors, and forward too. I read. I cook. I bake. I consider new flavors; new experiences; new techniques. As I evolve, so does my food. I tell the story of myself.
And perhaps this is the reason why the act of feeding another person is so very fraught. Maybe this is why Judaism begins with the offer of food and water; why one of Christianity’s most potent symbols is the act of being fed. When we feed other people, or even ourselves, we are giving a little bit ourselves. In food, the purposeful physicality of cooking becomes a way in which we evoke a bit of our being and willing give it to another.
Is it art? Oh, I don’t know. But I am hard pressed to find another fitting definition for art than ways in which to tell stories; ways in which we are revealed.