a reflection by Pat Mohr
When a friend is struggling, my instinct is to make them a meal. I’m an adequate cook who has come to the craft out of financial and gastro-intestinal necessity. If there’s any sort of guiding principle to how I orient toward food, it is probably something like Ron Swanson’s: “There has never been a sadness that can’t be cured by breakfast food.”
It’s fair to say that a lot of us are struggling right now and could use many helpings of whatever foods we use to ease our distemper, breakfast or otherwise.
Getting together for a meal is difficult these days, and the cruel thing about living in pandemic times is that the things we need to feel safe — being with others and the love and belonging those moments confer — also come with the freight of anxiety about possible sickness.
In the early months of the pandemic, we tried to be with each other, recreating cocktail hours and dinners on our computer squares, which, apart from the fatigue everyone felt from it, was a really heartening act because it showed that we miss each other, we miss being together.
When I think about the people I love, and what I miss about them, something that is inescapable is the things that surround them, things that have nothing to do with their essential being but accessories of my experience of them.
My friend who loves pretzel rods and Sprite, another who cares deeply for spreadable cheeses, and one more who believes in the mysterious healing powers of slow-roasted meats.
These foods are not who they are, they’re not my friend’s essence, but they’re little affinities that animate them and make my experience of them much richer.
When I moved away from Chicago, I always looked forward to returning, to seeing loved ones, friends and family, and re-connecting with them, getting to be with them in person, where for months I had only exchanged emails or texts or phone conversations.
What a delight it was to experience the people you love after being away from them for months.
It was like listening to your favorite music on computer speakers and then arriving at a festival with those same bands.
Their smells, their voices in a room, their little gestures and tics.
The part of connection, or deep connection, that feels especially meaningful is the sensual or phenomenological aspect of being with people, something we experience in our bodies, when we feel calm, loved, and cared for.
And whether we mean to or not, we often use food as a way to connect, which makes perfect sense, seeing as food is the thing we do that incorporates all of our senses.
In my family, someone returning home often means emptying the fridge of every dip, spread, and salsa and the pantry of every chip and cracker, arranging it on a counter or some other flat surface and being together, using food as an entry point for re-connection, to experience loved ones anew and feeling the comforts of their presence.
For those of us who have enough, who have our basic needs met, what food can do, especially in these ambiguous intra-pandemic times, is bring us together in a fundamental way, meaning allowing us to experience each other and be physically present.
I can’t really explain, and it’s probably best not to, how much a cup of a coffee and a walk around my neighborhood with a friend can revive my spirit.
What I love about those moments is the accessory, food, allows for togetherness, allows for connection, and for deeper emotions to become possible.
It puts us with others, side-by-side or across from each other, to experience each other again.
Think about who you want to see, and daydream about seeing that person again and how you want to experience them.
For me, I’m thinking about my closest friends in Chicago and a weekend we spent together in Michigan, a small table on a patio that we covered with chips and cheeses and dips and spreads and breads and pickled things. I’m having a hard time remembering anything specific that I ate, apart from the vibrant swirl of color in a container of tub cheese (which is something to look up). But I remember it lasted a couple of hours and I remember my friends, the five of us, talking and laughing, and thinking, even at the time, I haven’t laughed this hard in months. And how good it felt to laugh with others and feel cared for by friends and that sense that you belong in the world. That you matter to people and that people matter to you.
Food was not the end, food was the means of connection, of strengthening bonds, a way of finding each other out in the world again.