Monday, February 14, 2011

Cooking up Love

It's snowing hearts in the world today. Snowing hearts and pouring love.

It's Valentine's Day.

Commercial. Yes.

But, it also has links to pagan rites and ancient lore. Meant to commemorate the onset of the 'mating season', this day heralded the return of the birds after their winter respite -- though here in snowy Alberta, the return of that first robin is still at least a couple of months away!

Years ago, when my daughters were small, I had a cooking show segment on a local cable TV show. I love to cook and even more, love to delve into the history of foods and culture and traditions. One year, I dedicated an entire meal to this day of Love. From Oyster Soup as a starter to 'Coeur a la Creme' for dessert, the entire meal had love as its main ingredient. The camera crew were enchanted. They filmed and salivated and when it was over, devoured what I'd created in the flash of a camera bulb!

There's something about food that connects us. It's part magic, part lore, part substance.

Last week, I was interviewed for The Human Voice Project. One of the questions the facilitator asked was, "what's a tradition unique to your family?".

Alexis, who had nominated me for the project and who was conducting most of the interview laughed. Food, she said. Definitely food.

Food. It is a family tradition. Something we all share. Something we all love. Cooking. Collecting cookbooks. Sharing recipes. Entertaining.

"In our home," said Alexis during the interview, "both my sister and I know, there is always room for one more person at our dinner table. We know we can invite anyone and no matter how busy or crowded, my mother will always make room for more."

Okay, so I tend to over-calculate the amount of food needed for any meal -- but at least it means there's always enough and no one pushes back from the table hungry!


In my world, it's all about Love.

Growing up, food was a way to express love in my family. My father cooked. My mother cooked and always they shared their love through a plate of cookies. A special soup. Buttertarts.

Oh yes, the Buttertarts.

Most Christmases, when they were still living in Europe and I had moved to Canada, I would travel home for the holiday season. I'd barely be off the plane in Frankfurt when my mother and father would be standing there, a plate of buttertarts proffered in each their hands.

"Here try mine."

"No. Try mine."

I don't like buttertarts, I told them. I didn't want to have to choose sides. But... I must admit, I liked my mother's best -- and dad, if you can read this, I loved yours too but you never put the walnuts in!

Once, when I was about 17 and had just moved away from home to live in Strassbourg where I was going to University, I decided to make 'a meal'. Now, because both my parents were avid cooks didn't mean I cooked. There wasn't room in our kitchen for another cook! So, this meal was truly a test of their tastebuds and their blind support -- could she or couldn't she conjure up a meal that was both palatable and appealing to the eye.

It was something I got from my mother. To taste good food must also look good. It wasn't good enough just to plunk a plate of vegetables on the table. They had to be displayed in an appealing way. Everything had to be complementary. Watch for shape. Colour. Texture. Use the right plate. and no, you can't just stick a bowl of dip in the middle in a plastic container straight from the fridge. Get a glass bowl. Decant the sauce...

My father, a man of contradictions and prone to loving to push my buttons, sat at the dining room table, grumbling. "Why's it taking so long?" "you'd better not be making some weird and exotic concoction." "I eat to live not live to eat." (that was his favourite expression concerning food). "Make sure there's no garlic in my meat."

Garlic was his button. We'd lived in France for many years and he always complained about the smell of garlic where ever he went. Once, while in Luxembourg, my mother and father and I went for dinner in a tiny bistro that specialized in Grenouille. My mother ordered Grenouille slathered in a garlic and creme sauce. When the frog's legs arrived, my father picked up his plate and cutlery and moved to another table, leaving my mother and I to eat alone. which wasn't all bad as we got to enjoy our meal without his grumblings. We were just happy he at least let us ride in the car with him afterwards! Not sure how we would have gotten home if he hadn't.

So, on the day of my 'big meal', I made two roasts. One with garlic. One without. To curb his grumbling about 'the wait', I made him a peanut butter sandwich to feast on until dinner was ready.

And in the end, while I can't remember the exact dishes I concocted, I remember the feeling of joy, of satisfaction, of happiness that surrounded me.

Whether or not the meal was delicious (and it was!) it didn't matter. And that's the thing about food and Love.

It's not what's in the meal, it's who the meal is shared with that makes it so special.

And thus began my love affair with food. As that 17 year old, it was the art of cooking I fell in love with. Not just the act.

It's the time spent browsing through cookbooks and gourmet magazines, savouring recipes and photos, deciding what to make.

Writing out the menu.

The grocery list.


Unloading the groceries and beginning the process of preparing the meal.

The cleaning and chopping and sorting and dicing. The braising and sauteing, the molding and combining.

It's the setting the table. Choosing the linens. Placecards. Decorating the centerpiece. Making sure the table is a beautiful reflection of the faces of those gathered round to share the meal, the company, the laughter, the conversation, the Love.

Because ultimately, it isn't about 'the food'. It's about the Love that goes into creating the meal.

Just like on a Valentine's Day years ago when I had prepared a Love Feast for my cooking show. At the end, the crew gathered round and feasted on the concoctions I had created. And in that moment, we were all connected through the lore and tastes of a bowl of Oyster Soup and the beauty of a white heart surrounded by raspberries that lay shimmering on a glass dish that reflected the beauty of the delicate flavours of the dessert.

It wasn't just about the food. It was that we were a small cast, standing round sharing in something that had been prepared with Love. The food connected us, because, as humans, we are always seeking that which connects us and imbues us with a sense of the wonder and mystery of being human.

Food is the way to a man's heart.

Woman's too.

Today is St. Valentine's Day. May you be connected to the world around you in Love. May your heart pour out its love for life and living, as you revel in every facet of your being your most magnificent self in Love.


Maureen said...

Happy Valentine's Day!

Some of the most memorable occasions for me have been lovely dinners with small groups of friends. Even when the food isn't three-stars, if the company is, the occasion sticks in the mind.

Joyceann Wycoff said...

What a lovely valentine. I love hearing about your early years and adventures.

trisha said...

beautiful, sweet memories.

I on my part am not at all foodie, almost any thing works for me, love almost every thing that is well cooked. :)

lots of love.

Laura said...

What a beautiful post about love on this day of love! And what a blessing that your children know that there is always room for one more person at your table! That says much about your generous spirit.

Much love to you today.

Anonymous said...

Happy V-day to you sweets!

xo BA

Glynn said...

So many family stories revolve around food. And you told a great one here.

S. Etole said...

Now I need a peanut butter sandwich!!!

Happy Valentine's Day to one with a huge heart.

Brandi said...

Happy love-day, sweet friend!

Thanks for sharing your early memories :)

I also show my love to others through food....and that's not a bad thing!!