When people gather for food and community, all the senses are called into play but the experience surpasses the sum of what each sense brings to the meal or event. Laughter presides as does the enjoyment each person finds in each of the others present.
Dover and I recently had two such experiences: One happened while we were on vacation by the sea, a week before Irene caused residents to evacuate and houses to go dark for over a week. On this night, however, the meal came together from what each person loved to do - prepare, even invent, salads, hang out at the grill, make pies, slice potatoes for French fries, and even to provide a few surprises. Joy in babies and dogs was rampant.
Supper by the sea - August 20
Who: Seventeen cooks, entertainers, and eaters, ages a little shy of 1 to 73, and of course two dogs.
The entrés: Sautéed steak strips, hot dogs and hamburger and cheese (Swiss and cheddar) burghers (left over from a New Haven neighborhood picnic), ketchup and 2 kinds of mustard.
The veggies: Grilled onion salad, grilled asparagus, grilled onions, roasted red peppers, roasted garlic, sautéed baby Bella mushrooms, melting Tuscan kale, green salad, kitchen made French fries (Yukon Gold).
The desserts: Blueberry pie (local blueberries), chocolate pie (peau de creme, Graham cracker crust and whipped cream), chocolate and chocolate chip ice cream, home made chocolate sauce.
The wet stuff: Wine (white and red), beer, milk, chocolate milk, water.
A Labor Day Picnic/Birthday Party, September 5.
Rain or shine, a group of friends and relations have been gathering in a yard or on a back porch for standard picnic fare and quiet-to-raucous conversation on Labor Day. This event has probably been happening for 30 or 40 years; children grow and move away (and maybe even back with children of their own), new friends are made and join up, others move out or, sadly, die, but there is a core group who have been present every year since the first person said "Hey! Let's have a Labor Day picnic!" those many years ago. It actually started with a birthday, but Labor Day provided the free day for the adults, a day to note the end of summer, as many of us were teachers or students, all of whom greeted the changing seasons with mixed expectations.
So we just did it again. Who had the better time? The kids? The others who finally had time to sit and talk with each other? Or Dover, the first dog we have had who was socially acceptable enough to bring to food events. Do not be fooled by this picture - it was a set-up, and the cake and its 30 roses and buds - everyone can have a rose and kids can have two! - was always safe, in spite of the doubters in the crowd.
A silent meal: Many years ago I had an occasion to stay overnight at a convent, which meant taking a meal with the nuns - in silence - as that was their rule. When a bell rang, everyone dug in - the only sound was the scraping and clanging of utensils on the soup dishes and plates, an angry, unsettling noise. We ate the unappetizing food in haste, the whole idea seemed to be to enjoy food and human presence as little as possible.The dominant memory I have of that evening meal was the anger - anger that the nuns had to eat at all, perhaps anger that there was a guest in their midst. Their enjoyment of food and each other's company was markedly lacking. What a grace-less experience!
So the question: Which meal better reflects the sacred nature of our lives in the world? Who would have thought that the so-called secular meals would win out over the convent meal? I prefer the community gatherings, where each individual's contribution and presence signify the holiness of our lives together. Taste, touch, smell, hearing, and sight; companionship, laughter and pleasure in the other's company. That's it!