Food crops up a lot in literature. The mushrooms and cakes in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the lovingly-depicted meal with the Beavers in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the extravagant descriptions of holiday dishes in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol all remind us that food shared among people is a powerful bonding experience. It can also make shared memories come to life. You may not be able to physically travel back in time to a Christmas day decades ago, but if you have the right recipe, you sometimes feel as if you almost can.
Food also binds generations. Recently some second-cousins, Steve and Cathy, visited me briefly in San Francisco and mentioned an egg-noodle dish Steve’s mother (my great-aunt) makes. It was the same one my mother made when I was a child, one that I’ve yet to successfully replicate. (Now I need to ask them again if they have a recipe jotted down…)
One of the stories we used to like to tell about my younger brother Ben was the time our parents were jolted awake by mysterious sounds coming from the kitchen in the middle of the night. Upon investigation, they found Ben, then three or four years old, happily mixing up some Jiffy muffins from a box of mix. Ben is now chef-owner of an acclaimed restaurant, Arista, with a second restaurant opening soon.
Food also has the power to soothe tensions. As a kid growing up in Vermont, I can remember our annual Town Meeting, when everyone came together to argue and plead for various local measures. Tempers sometimes flared. But after everyone had had a hearing and a chance to speak, tables were set up and a meal was served by the fire department. My favorite part was when the trays of pie were wheeled out. It was after pie and coffee had finally disappeared that the actual voting commenced. (Perhaps this is the real solution for the political rancor this year: pie.)
In many parts of medieval Europe, there was also the tradition of the local lord hosting an annual banquet for all those who lived on his land. By sharing with them even as they shared with him, a reciprocal relationship was reinforced. The tradition of monastic hospitality was also established by this time, the tradition of sharing food and shelter with pilgrims and the needy.
Hospitality and sharing food is one of the essential elements of community. When friends are in need or a baby has just arrived or someone has suffered a loss, the communal response is often to arrive at the door laden with food. As busy as my own family is these days, we still try to host friends for meals whenever we can. And when Christmas draws near, we often bake a few extra of that family Springele or Lebkuchen recipe and mail them off to far-flung relatives or siblings.
Let me close by sharing some food with you: pancakes. Here’s the recipe, committed to memory by now, that I use every Saturday morning. The whipped egg-whites make these some of the best, fluffiest pancakes that I’ve ever had!
Extra Fluffy Pancakes (maybe originally from an older edition of Joy of Cooking? Can’t recall):
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 ½ teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 cups milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
Gather three bowls. In a large bowl whisk together dry ingredients and set aside. In separate bowl, mix melted butter, milk, and vanilla. Separate eggs, placing the whites in a large bowl and mixing the yolks in with the milk and butter. Whisk the whites into firm peaks.
Mix the milk mixture with the dry ingredients until just combined. Gently mix in half of the egg whites with a wooden spoon or mixing spatula, then fold in the remainder of the whites.
Drop pancakes with ladle into lightly-oiled nonstick pan or cast-iron skillet and cook until browned on both sides. Serves three to four hungry children if their parents have eggs instead.
Image: “Still Life with Waffles” by Georg Flegel, circa 1600s.