There’s joy to be found eating in isolation, but for me nothing comes close to the comfort of a communal meal; an occurrence understandably, but sadly, forbidden in the throes of a global pandemic. The coming together of people to share in food, in love, in laughter (if it sounds quaint then you’ve simply never eaten in the glow of dear company, or if you have you weren’t paying attention). There’s an intimacy to dinner that eludes interpretation, the unarticulated mysticism surrounding all rituals – the ritual here being to nourish our bodies in witness of each other.
My individual relationship with food is complicated, I’ve spent years fighting bulimia, cycling through vegetarian, pescatarian, flexitarian and, most recently, vegan – a commitment upheld for a year and a half before an insatiable desire to eat eggs became irresistible, cravings on a vampiric scale of intensity I just had to satisfy. And satisfied I am, I’ve eaten eggs for breakfast every day this week, the yearning bordering carnal. But this relationship is still complicated, strained, volatile, full of ups and downs; one day I might wake up with a different kind of hunger again. But getting back up is always easier when cooking is care (for others, for myself), when its driven by desire and feeling and more than necessity. When I’m taking time to consider what I eat, how I eat it, when, who with. When the meal moves beyond the individual into the realm of the social.
I take seditious joy in slowing down against a world that’s always speeding up. I take satisfaction in anything opposing the order of capitalist hegemony. By no means am I implying the catalyst for revolution will be three hours spent cooking burnt aubergine chilli on a Sunday (though I strongly suggest you do it, it’s delicious), but carving out time is carving out space for new modes of connection and community to arise. In a world where eating easily slips into chore, or lunch falls through the cracks of a busy schedule, or worst, you neglect yourself completely; in a world that positions time as a privilege, time as money and commodity, work as priority, it is a small (emphasis on the small) act of transgression to make time for the superfluous and unnecessary. And a slightly bigger transgression to care for people materially, via the simple joy of sharing and nurturing. This isn’t to say you need spend every night labouring over the hob on a culinary masterpiece, time is a privilege but not contingent to sharing a ‘meal’. Even the most innocuous packet of crisps can be transcendental, late night (early morning) chips shared on a walk home, spiritual: less about when and more about who.
At the end of the day food is fundamental to life (biologically) and community (emotionally), its potential for both the banal and extraordinary constitute a multiplicity that make for an invariably boundless experience – no two meals are ever the same. Be it flavour or people, the circumstances always shift. Nothing illustrates this more to me than cooking with my Cypriot Nan. When, a few years ago, I approached her asking to teach me the family’s traditional recipes she warned me that I would have to learn by doing, by throwing myself into the process, “you won’t find this in a book Eleni.” Without measurement or instruction this cooking felt wild at first, unnaturally chaotic, I made some terrible meals, I’m still making terrible meals. But as I watch and try each time again, I sense the knowledge sinking in, crystallising as muscle memory. And as I watch her explain each process excitement seeps, these koupepia won’t be the same as the last and the story she tells will be different to. It’s as much about the meal as it is a cultural knowledge I was deprived of in earlier years, and the time spent with someone I hold dear.
When I visit my Nan, food is always on the table, continuously refilled plates of olives, bread, cucumbers, grapes and pickled oddities abound. One of the guaranteed monoliths of life: the sun sets in the East, Christmas is December 25th and “you don’t go to a Cypriot household without being fed!” as she always says. A mantra now embedded in my own ethos, whether it’s tea and biscuits, a three-course meal, or homemade cupcakes, if you pass my threshold you get fed!
Time is a privilege I have right now and while I do I plan to share it in many forms - one being food. Once a meal crosses into the social it’s more than just nutritional nourishment, it becomes emotional nourishment, food for joy. On the individual level, preparing a meal for people who’re yet to arrive, anticipating the rosy blush of wine warmed cheeks and smiling faces over dinner. Meeting a friend to partake in a snack, a coffee, even a Greggs sausage roll on a park bench; from the most elaborate feasts to the spontaneous almond croissants my housemate occasionally brings home, all these joys are key to my recovery. Which translates as: food is more than sustenance, it is social - community, gesture - care and love. It also tastes really good.