We Became Friends Over Food
Cooking with love provides food for the body and soul.
Food is essential, yet it is so much more. Its brought me a measure of peace and calm. And, while we eat out of necessity, it is the fellowship and food that brings us to the table.
As a family, we sat at the kitchen table for most meals, except on holidays like Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas where the dining room table was set with the "good" china, sterling flatware (which required polishing) and crystal glasses. The linen table cloth and napkins had to be ironed and additional leaves set into the heavy dining room table. Chairs from the kitchen were added to the six dining room chairs so that the table could seat a few more. And, Count Basie (who was a neighbor), Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte and Nat King Cole would be playing in the background on the Hi Fi phonograph. Sometimes my parents would take a spin around the living room--they were very good dancers.
Our table included family, friends, neighbors and people who were regular guests in our home. Many of our guests traveled from New York City to Queens by subway and my Dad would be dispatched to either pick them up in the city or from the subway station in Jamaica, Queens, depending upon the time of day. Our cousins drove in from the Bronx, usually accompanied by their elderly dog who did not get along with our boxer, Prince. Prince was banished to his dog house, but my Dad always managed to sneak him a few treats from the table to make his time out of the house a little better.
Platters of baked ham, roast turkey, sweet potatoes, macaroni and cheese, collard greens (picked out of our large garden) and Parker House rolls were staples on the table. My Mother always made plenty so there'd be leftovers for our guests to take home as well as for our family to enjoy. Desserts included sweet potato pie, coconut cake and if we were really lucky, cheesecake.
Moms macaroni and cheese (recipe below)
For Christmas dinner, my Dad always made a fresh fruit cup consisting of oranges, apples, grapefruit and maraschino cherries. It was served as a first course. My sister and I joke, to this day, about Dads fruit cup, which wasn't anything special but it simply wouldn't be a holiday without it. We enjoy a wider variety of fruits now and our families have come to enjoy our take on "Dads" fruit cup.
Over the years I've sat at some of the best tables with wonderful and gloriously delicious food. Tables which were elegantly set in formal dining rooms (and resembled Gourmet magazine covers) kitchens, backyards and on picnic tables--family and friends who gathered together around a meal. And places where strangers became friends. Beautiful memories.
These days I savor the memory of family style dinners that I've come to enjoy with a special group of friends in Northeast Ohio. We are a part of a cookbook club and have cooked dishes from around the world. The food, while delicious, isn't the best part of the meal. For me, it's the conversations while we're prepping, photographing the dishes and then at the dinner table in a members home. Lots of voices, opinions, cooking styles, sharing of cultures, endless dishes and serving pieces, laughter, hugs and smiles. What brought this group together, initially as strangers, was a love of food. We became friends over food. Chef Julia Child once said "people who love to eat are always the best people." She was right. And we get to enjoy leftovers the day after only if we remember to bring containers!
When you sit at someones table, you get a glimpse into who they are. If you're lucky, you leave the table different than when you sat down. Leah Chase, legendary chef and owner of Dooky Chase's in New Orleans put it well. "There are no secrets to cooking. You can give all the rules you want, all your recipes, but that person may never become a cook. Give a recipe to someone else, and what they make will never be like yours. Rules and recipes will never make a good cook. Cooking is like religion. You can sit in church all day long, and that won’t make you a saint either."
Here’s one of our most beloved dishes.
Macaroni and Cheese
1 pound penne or elbow macaroni (I used mostaccioli)
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
4 cups milk, heated
2 cups shredded extra-sharp cheddar cheese
1 cup shredded Asiago, Fontina or Colby Jack
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Dash of cayenne pepper (optional)
1/4 cup (1 ounce) freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup Breadcrumbs or panko
Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook until al dente. Drain well.
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter a deep 4-quart casserole dish.
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour. Cook for 1-2 minutes, whisking constantly. Gradually whisk in the milk. Bring to a simmer, stirring constantly, until the sauce thickens. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 5 minutes.
Remove from heat and stir in 1-1/2 cups of the cheddar cheese and 1-1/2 cups of the Asiago cheese. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper.
Combine the cheese mixture with the pasta and mix gently. Pour pasta into the casserole dish. Top with the remaining cheese. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs over the top.
Bake on the medium rack in the oven until bubbly and golden brown around the edges, about 30 minutes. ❤️
What's your favorite family meal story?
Pat Bennett is the founder and President of Pat's Granola, a Cleveland food and lifestyle company.
Pat's Granola is sold online at www.patsgranola.com and is also available at selected Northeast Ohio businesses including:
Troubadour Coffee Roasters www.troubadourcoffeeroasters.com
Sports and Spine Physical Therapy www.sportspine.com
Local Flavors Shoppe www.localflavors.net
Locle Box www.loclebox.com
Made Cleveland www.madecleveland.com
Mister Brisket www.misterbrisket.com
Nature's Oasis Lakewood www.naturesoasis.com
Happy Cows Group Share Happy Cows Group Share
The Corner at The Van Aken District The Corner at The Van Aken District
Sweet Bean Candies Sweet Bean Candies
Listen to Pat's story:
Some of my best memories are of old and new friends sitting around my dinner table.
Good conversation, a lot of laughing , food and wine.
I miss all that .
When I was seven, my parents relocated our family, for my dad’s job, from New Jersey to Columbus, Ohio. In those days before the Internet and videoconferencing, and when a long-distance phone call was prohibitively expensive, that kind of move meant family contacts became few and far between. My mother’s answer was to create new family in Ohio, and her method set me up for a lifetime of the food-is-love connection you wrote about, Pat. Mom reached out to the Ohio State University office for foreign students and until I graduated from college, our table—all holidays and may other meals—was filled with six, eight, even twelve young adults from all corners of the world. The one rule was no political or other divisive conversation allowed. And it worked. Even in 1967, during the Arab-Israeli war, we had students from Israel and several other Mideast countries eat together and play pickup soccer after meals. Students cooked for us sometimes, too, and we loved it all—Thai and Indian curries, falafel, naan, lassi, steamed buns, hummus, escargot, empanadas, and many more foods that were totally foreign to a family accustomed to eating hot dogs, tuna-noodle casserole, and jello! But those years and those meals were about much more than food, of course. My mother’s adopted ‘kids’ shaped my brother’s and my worldviews in ways we could not have fathomed as we grew up. Several of the students came to my mother’s memorial service, traveling from the west and east coasts when she died more than 40 years after their meals at Lila’s table. Surely, our shared table helped shape their world views, too. Food is love, Pat. You nailed it.