My Mother keeps faded recipes crammed into a small card box in a cabinet in her kitchen. Each stained card is a ticket to a story about someone I would have dined with had I been alive when she was young. “Sheila, I promised you Mothers Danish Pickle recipe – see that you use it!”
I can still taste the meals she cooked for us growing up. Eddie-Boys chicken in wine, her makeshift hot dogs on a stick, even her corned beef that smelled like sour cheese, all leap to life in my mouth as soon as I think of them.
As I’ve grown to take on the cooking responsibilities for my family I’ve learned first hand how food is about tribe: the tribes of our ancestors and the tribes that appear in our lives inexplicably. Food has been used to welcome guests, make marriages, and forge peace between warring tribes for thousands of years. The gift of food to another person is a profound gesture. It is intimate, like being fed by our Mothers when we were newly born. It can be sensuous and intoxicating like falling in love. It binds us together when blood does not exist to do so.
At gatherings I often look around the table and realize this group of people who are perhaps not related make up a band of kindred spirits. I find these modern tribes to be mysteriously immanent in my life. They are not tribal in indigenous sense, they don’t replace family, are not joined by ancestry. They are not limited by geography, culture or ethnicity. One moment they’re as essential as water, the next they’ve evaporated like a glass of Grappa left out over night. Recipes are the story of these tribes in some small way. They are messages spoken across a fire and a boiling kettle. Shouted across continents and lifetimes they are made and remade every day, everywhere in the world. They are the culinary archeological evidence of a gathering that is tethered to our distant tribal pasts.
Something I should mention before I go any further – I really don’t like recipes, at least the kind you find in books. I mistrust them, like I mistrust tax attorneys or people who are good at coloring within the lines.
We sometimes need things like that; stalwart, dependable rudders to guide us, but if you live by them they will kill you dead. Food is only truly nourishing when its wildness, its unpredictability is allowed to come forth. Recipes thrive on predictability. People do not. America’s Test Kitchen be damned!
My Mother has never colored within the lines. She never mistook a recipe for what it was: a nice idea about how things should go thrown into a world where nothing goes as planned.”To hell with it Timothy, if we don’t have Chablis we’ll use Chardonnay and add more salt and garlic!” Storming through the kitchen like a mad scientist she would cook meals that wrapped you in her arms and put you to bed. Her food must have been filled with love, otherwise it couldn’t have felt so good to eat.
This is where recipes really foul things up. Cooks find one way of doing things that people like, and they keep doing it over and over again. “Who cares if the produce changes, or the meat comes from a different place in the world? Who cares what the weather is like or what mood you’re in? Here’s the recipe, here’s the food, enjoy it dammit!” Thats not the kind of recipe I’m talking about. That is not the lore that arises from a tribal feast, its a set of rules dispensed by someone who doesn’t drink enough wine.
If you want to feed a tribe and nurture its development you’re going to have to be willing to close the recipe book from time to time. Recipes that function as tribal lore are faded and grease stained, scribbled on the back of a hotel napkin if they’re written at all. They use measurements like “one or two hand fulls, depending upon how coarse the flour is” or “a cup of Italian dressing, really good stuff if you can find it. Otherwise use vinegar and salt.” Some of the best ones are based in an oral tradition. “The lamb was so fresh I almost cried when I looked at it. I couldn’t marinate it overnight like I usually do. I just did a reduction using that raspberry vinegar I made and added butter and garlic.” Those are the meals I remember, the ones that stick as Tribal Lore recipes.
When people leave my table I believe they have been changed. They’ve had time to share what is in their hearts, reflect upon their lives, take a deep breath, one last bite and head back into the world a little renewed and perhaps more hopeful.
Their hearts have a new tribal mark added to it, because of the food and love they’ve received and perhaps given. The recipes of those meals record a story of the beautiful sacrament that transpired between us, weaving us together. We may not be lovers now, or kin, but at least we have a chance to call each other friend. That meal may exist only as an oral tradition, but it is passed on as our story, part of our tribe.
I hope in reading these posts you are able to see more clearly the tribes of your own life. An authentic tribe brings us closer to the profound experience of living. When I cook for those I love, and when I am cooked for with love, I am immersed in the sacredness of life, a gift not to be taken for granted.