Have you noticed how food is often more than just nourishment?
It is, of course, always nourishment, and we need it to survive. But were it simply calories and nutrients, we would be like my cat Schlitz, who every morning is excited to hear the sound of food pellets entering his empty dish. Yet even Schlitz enjoys the ritual of a can of tuna, knowing that the smell of it opening signifies the imminence of a special treat: a small dish of the water the fish was packed in. He sits at my feet, meowing loudly and batting at my ankles, saying, “Come on mister, give it here, and I mean now!”
But that’s just an every once in a while thing for him. Whereas for us (and by us, I think I speak for most), there are a million little rituals surrounding our food and how it is obtained, prepared, served, and shared. These rituals are as old as time itself and materialize themselves even in religion, whether in breaking the challah, blessing the communion wafer, or taking the thigh bone of the just-slaughtered beast, wrapping it in fat, and burning it as an offering to Zeus or grey-eyed Athena. People have always thanked God for their food.
That is, in part, because food equals life. But also, food equals friends and family. Feasts are used to mark celebrations; the celebrations themselves are often inseparable from the food that is served. Holidays of all types fit this mold, whether Thanksgiving, Christmas, Passover, Eid ul-Fitr, or even the serving of cake and ice cream at a birthday party.
My family has some of its own celebrations that are unique to being a Sharrard. One of my favorites was always the summer shish-kabob. My grandfather, who was a professional tinkerer and who also didn’t get dressed in the morning without enacting a private ritual, created huge skewers specifically for the feast, by which I mean that he turned the handles on his lathe, sharpened the rods on his grinder, and built the set of three-foot skewers entirely in his basement workshop.
Our family would spend the morning skewering the lamb, bacon, and vegetables, including my personal favorite—tomatoes straight from our garden. As part of the skewering process, someone would be assigned the tearful task of drilling holes through onions because my grandfather, in his painstaking exactitude, had hit upon this step as the oddly logical, though not quite obvious, solution to the dilemma of how to skewer the bulb without breaking it to pieces.
In the early afternoon, my grandfather would build the fire in the fire pit he had dug to match the size of the skewers. I was quite young when most of the shish-kabobs happened, so I don’t remember the process in exact detail, but by mid-afternoon the flames had subsided and there was a glowing pit of coals ready to roast meat over. The skewers would be trotted out on trays and lined up over the pit and slowly turned and rotated so that no single skewer was over the same part of the fire for any longer than it was over any other. Then, as the meat approached ideal doneness (still pink in the center, moist, and quite flavorful), my favorite portion of the day would begin: standing fireside with a saucepan at the ready to catch the tomatoes as they dropped from the skewers, roasted through. This was a game that was eliminated in later years by making skewers of just tomatoes so that they could be removed when they were cooked, so no one would have to save them from the coals.
This was also the part of the day when everyone would arrive. And by everyone, I mean everyone. That was the whole point of my grandfather having built the skewers—everyone could share in the feasting: family from out of town, friends from church, business associates, my parents’ friends, neighbors. I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone had been invited to join us on the merit of walking past the house as food was being served.
Being young at the time, I thought that all families had rituals as elaborate as ours. I wasn’t quite right, this ritual being much more elaborate than most, but every family has some sort of pageant that they enact on a regular basis, be it standing around the grill with a beer in hand, waiting for the steaks to char ,or making flapjacks in the kitchen on Saturday mornings. These are the things that make us feel like family. These are the things that make us know we belong and we are loved. These are the ways that food sustains us by more than just its nutrients, but also by building within us a sense of community to which we can aspire.
Photo credit: James Sharrard