Flipping through an old issue of Gourmet Magazine in search of inspiration, I came upon an article entitled The God of Small Feasts. Describing her childhood, Shoba Narayan wrote that in India cooking, like eating, is a communal activity. In addition to her parents and siblings, the household in which she grew up included a grandmother, four aunts, and an ever-changing mix of female relatives. All these women participated in the daily ritual of food preparation.
I was so struck by these statements that I stopped reading and sat for a long time, contemplating their implications. The life I have lived is the exact opposite. Cooking is almost always a solitary activity and this is true for everyone I know.
That’s because, like most other middle class Americans, we enjoy an unprecedented level of privacy and independence. Generations rarely assist one another in the ordinary day-to day work of living. Extended families don’t share homes or responsibility. We visit with relatives but we don=t labor with them. Each household does its own shopping, cooking, cleaning, washing, gardening, and child-rearing. We pay other people to do what we cannot do ourselves.
We traded-up from communal living for self-sufficiency, space, and solitude. I like these things but must admit that it can be lonely sometimes and I’m not so sure the benefits outweigh the burdens we have imposed upon ourselves. Isolation is the price we’re paying for our autonomy and upward mobility. We don’t have to live with parents or grandparents, aunts and uncles, and I for one am happy about that but it means that there’s usually nobody around to lend a hand or tell us a joke while we fold laundry or mash potatoes.
But it’s different at Thanksgiving. My husband has developed a passion for pie making and so he’s there, with me in the kitchen rolling dough, peeling apples, seasoning pumpkin puree. All three of our sons are enthusiastic cooks and the women in their lives are willing helpers. Everyone works, everyone talks, shouting to be heard while the food processor roars. Heated discussions happen over the cutting board and at the sink. And our laughter mingles with the sizzle of sauté pans. It’s crowded, hectic, noisy, messy, and wonderful.
I want more days like this, hunger for them really. Suddenly I realize that all I have to do is ask. Come early I’ll say to family and friends when I invite them for dinner. Let’s cook together. And like the household Narayan remembered, we’ll chop and chat, slice and share.
I read this short essay last night at Nighttown. The event was a fundraiser for the Cleveland Heights Library and a celebration of the written- and spoken word. My piece generated a warm and enthusiastic response so Idecided to post it here for another audience. Let me know what you think. Does my writing speak to you and your experience? Do you have the same feeling, or see things from a different perspective?