I went out in Chicago this morning, handling the ferocious -20° wind chill in the best way I knew how – by huddling up in a somewhat pretentious coffee shop with my friends and teammates.
Now I’m somewhere between here and there, 36,000 feet above the surface of planet Earth. It’s not a bad place to get some perspective.
That coffee shop wasn’t a place I would go normally, and it was certainly not a place I would have picked out on my own. Full of chromed coffee equipment, fancy origin cards, and lots of sleek wood, concrete, and industrial metal, it’s the kind of place that makes you feel like you should sip your coffee alongside painstakingly compiled tasting notes rather than a crumbly muffin and a good book. I’ll freely admit it – I’m not a coffee person, and I don’t enjoy feeling like I need the caffeinated version of a sommelier’s degree to properly appreciate what I’m drinking.
But it is nice, sipping something carefully prepared and presented, especially when it’s an experience shared. Then it’s not so much about the coffee – the coffee becomes a gateway to something more.
The freezing wind kept most people off the lakefront – though it didn’t stop Ayman, Caroline, Nancy and Kenzie. Or the guy we saw walking from the top of the tower.
My friend Caroline and I were talking, sitting there in the warmth of the shop. She was nursing a vanilla mocha while I sipped oolong tea from a tiny ceramic cup without a handle. The conversation meandered from the competition this weekend, to my graduation plans, and finally to food and cooking. We talked food, restaurants – reviews we’ve read and meals we’ve shared. We talked about the culture of food.
Not food culture in the culinary sense; not deep-dish pizza, or hot dogs “dragged through the garden,” or caramel and cheese popcorn, or any of the wonderful regional idiosyncrasies that make this the city that it is. We talked about the way food bridges cultural gaps and brings people together in a way that both fosters and forges relationships in a way nothing else can.
For me anyway, food is viscerally tied to memory. Arguing with my mom over the proper texture for biscuit dough. The warmth and bustle of my grandmother’s kitchen just before Thanksgiving dinner. Explaining the smell of stale beer in a jacket after the guy behind me spilled at a baseball game. No matter who you are or where you come from, everyone has a story about food.
Maybe slowing down long enough to refuel our bodies makes us vulnerable, or maybe sitting down across the table from another human being to share time and break bread is inherently intimate. Either way, that table has the power to break down walls and make connections, whether you’re serving Kraft mac ‘n cheese on paper plates or a standing rib roast on your wedding china.
I love cooking for my friends and family, partly because they’re excellent guinea pigs who tolerate my experiments, but mostly because I love the warmth of a shared table – and I love making space for others to enjoy it too. Because, although good food is always the goal, the meal is never really about the food. It’s about using my time and the gifts I’ve been given to return at least a small part of the love that the people at my table have given me. It’s about respect, and about sharing, and about connection. And, yes, it’s at least a little about the food too.
My kitchen island in Athens is definitely a far cry from the wooden table in Intelligentsia near Millennium Park, but they share much of the same DNA. That’s exactly as it should be. Because when I think about the meals that have been most important to me, I almost never remember exactly what I ate – I remember the people and places and stories that made that particular table special.
What about you?