Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Joy of Food

Food nourishes us, pleases us, comforts us, entertains us, unites us, and even charms us. Apart from the weather it's one of the safest conversation topics around. According to Webster’s Dictionary, food is “a source of nutrients that living creatures need for energy and growth.” Beyond that, food provides a multi-dimensional source of entertainment.

In recent years, the media has exploded with everything from celebrity cooks to food facts. One can find a plethora of information on the internet, in magazines, and on television. The new movie, Julie & Julia (based on the book), which is about the life of Julia Child and her blogging protégé, is further evidence of our insatiable appetite for foodie fare.

Do you ever get stuck on a food network show when surfing the channels? Even my thirteen-year-old son Ryan, who can be a rather picky eater, is drawn to the likes of Ina Garten (The Barefoot Contessa), cooking away in her beautiful Hamptons kitchen. But who wouldn’t want to be a guest at her house? Her warmth and hospitality ooze from the screen as she prepares delightful dishes. The young British cooking sensation, Jamie Oliver, has managed to attract the most reluctant customers (high school junk food lovers) to his brand of healthy eating. And Martha Stewart, the "Queen of Cuisine," has developed such a following that even incarceration couldn't hold her back. Food isn’t just an industry or a biological necessity, it’s become a phenomenon.

Food can connect people in a powerful way—family, friends, colleagues and strangers share a part of themselves when they share a meal. Eating with others reveals so much about character, mood, decorum, personality, and manners. Many people drop their inhibitions in the pleasure of their food; whether enjoying hotdogs together on a city bench or oysters on the patio, our true selves are apt to shine.

My great-grandmother—one of the best cooks I’ve ever known—escaped to Canada after the Second World War with barely a suitcase in hand, leaving her privileged life behind. She couldn’t speak English and her only previous work experience was managing the staff back at her estate in the Hungarian countryside. In Toronto, the roles were reversed and she became the housekeeper—cooking and cleaning for others. Her biggest pleasure was to prepare incredible meals for appreciative diners. I recall the tortes and pastries and perfect meringues awaiting us when our family visited her from Montreal. Although she didn’t speak English and we children didn’t speak Hungarian, her food connected us in a way that language couldn’t. Food was her gift and, forty years later, I still carry the memories of the tastes and smells of her kitchen.

Food doesn’t have to be fabulous or fancy to elicit a positive response from me. If you invite me for dinner and put out a baguette with some cheese, a few grapes and a tossed salad, I’ll be happy. Friendly company, a welcoming atmosphere, (and perhaps a glass of wine), is in itself a recipe for a fine evening. Like sharing French fries at the ski hill, simple foods in the right climate make for a special time with others.

That said, one of the greatest gifts a person can give me is a lovely dinner. The thought, the time, the energy, and the expense that go into entertaining should never be underestimated (and always be followed with a thank-you note!). If you’ve done it yourself, you know what it takes to put a dinner party together.

My mother is the quintessential hostess and a fabulous cook, and we are lucky to be frequent guests at her house. Last week she asked what the boys would like her to make for Sunday dinner and they said tacos. She’d never made them before, but with determination and creativity, she made the most gourmet taco dinner you could ever imagine. I am sure that our children will never forget the love their grandmother disperses through her delectable feasts.

Sharing a family meal provides a great opportunity to engage with children. Gathering the troops together at dinnertime may be a challenge for busy people, but I believe that it’s critical to make the effort as often as possible. Some of our best family discussions have emerged around the dinner table. And it’s the ideal time to teach table manners, which seems to require constant reinforcement. Life can be challenging in this competitive world, but if we raise our children with good table manners and an appreciation for food, they will have a better chance at making that positive first impression (especially on a date!).

Food-talk can wander in many directions—organic farming, nutrition facts, dangerous additives, good restaurants, great recipes, and favourite cooking shows, but what I like best about food is the bond we feel when we look at each other across the table and say, “Yum!”


  1. So true Carla - nicely said!

  2. Great thoughts on food, Carla! It is so sad that so many families do not have or do not make the time to eat together on a regular basis (if not daily).

    In addition to all of the great reasons you mentioned for getting together with your family around the table, I'd like to add that passing on food preparation skills to children (and even to other family members or friends when hosting a hands on dinner party) is another wonderful benefit of sharing a meal together. A young person out on their own for the first time is more likely to succeed, enjoy themselves and quickly make friends if they can cook more than an egg or K.D.

    I hope that you were able to learn some of your grandmother's skills and secret recipes. Her recipes sounded delicious even in print in your article!