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Food is for sharing

March 12, 2009

Cooking for one is quite possibly the most depressing endeavor ever. Which is why TV dinners and nonsense like Lean Cuisine remain so utterly popular. The thing about cooking for one is that when you’re only cooking for yourself, you try to cook something simple, that doesn’t make too many dirty dishes, and that is done fast and that tastes good. This generally means not as healthy things.

But when you’re cooking for two or more, you care more about the composition of the meal. At least, I do. And when you’re cooking for a crowd, you want to please everyone, give people options, and make things nutritious AND delicious.

That’s because food is meant to be shared, in my opinion at least. To get a healthy variety of foods, you need to make quite a bit of food, and that’s just too much for one to eat. There’s nothing more satisfying than making a good healthy meal that is yummy and that gets all eaten up by the end of the night. While it’s fun to play with leftovers, they can be a bit of a burden.

I had a dream this morning that I was retired and living in the country with my boy. Basically all I did all day was garden and cook. We lived outside of a small town and the economy was tanking and there were a lot of people in town who were down on their luck.

So, I persuaded the town council to give me free reign of the town hall and its commercial kitchen every Sunday all day. I raided my own garden and got local farmers and businesses to donate food, and with a team of volunteers, cooked a big, hot, homemade meal every Sunday afternoon and invited the entire community to come and eat for free. People were encouraged to donate food or time or money, but nothing was required.

The food was served on real dishes, and it was real food, like chicken & dumpling stew or roast beef with veg. And the whole community came together: homeless people, elderly shut-ins got rides in, young families, middle class couples with college kids, and they all mingled together and shared a meal.

Who knows if it would actually work in real life, but it’s a very nice little fantasy: people of all walks of life being brought together by good-tasting, fresh, healthy, home-cooked food for free; and people donating their time, money, and resources to a community cause.

There are some places kind of like this in small communities around the country. They’re often called community cafes. Families volunteer to cook for a week or a month and the food is simple and homemade. These places are usually in very small rural communities that otherwise would be unable to support a restaurant. The community cafe acts as a gathering place with food and coffee and it works because it only has to break even, it does not have to turn a profit.

I’ve also read about other restaurants that ask customers to pay what they can afford or what they think the meal was worth. These places tend to do a lot of simple, vegetarian meals, which are much less expensive than traditional restaurants that have meat as the focus of their meals. This is probably the only way they can turn a profit, unless people are uncommonly generous with their bills.

There’s just something about food that transcends time and culture and socio-economic status. And Americans are great at adopting food cultures and making them our own (like most other parts of various cultures we’ve adopted). So food is one thing that we can really appreciate about everyone, regardless of where they come from (even the separate regions of the US!).

Of course, the food I’m talking about is not McDonald’s versus Carl Jr.’s versus Sonic. I’m talking about real food. The rural, country traditions of every region of the U.S. and every nation that has sent immigrants here since the Vikings.

So last night when I was dreaming up community-building events with food, I was also dreaming about meals. I do this a lot, but I wondered whether other people do, too. So, I decided to try my first-ever poll! Let’s see what happens!

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