Every Thanksgiving, for as long as I can remember, my family travels to Decatur, AL to have a traditional, southern meal. For us, that means BBQ with white sauce, ham, turkey, and all the fixin’s- dressing, pies, and Sister Schubert’s yeast rolls. I remember the year I became a vegetarian, after a long pause, Mimi said, “well, we’ll just have to figure this out.” She made vegetarian versions of all the side dishes for me that year, and she has ever since.
At Mimi’s house, once the food has been prepared and arranged on platters, we all stuff ourselves into my grandparent’s tiny kitchen and gather around their island, which is always covered by the feast. Holding hands, we give thanks for one another, the food, and all the blessings that have been bestowed upon us. The meal itself is like the seal to that covenant, the gratitude we feel for our family and the comfort their company brings.
On the same side of my family, we had similar traditions for Christmas when my great grandmother was still alive. She would have the family over for a feast, and we would make the drive up to Lexington, AL, knowing full well what a wonderful meal awaited us. In the weeks prior to this event Grandmother Phillips would no doubt be tending her garden carefully. When the time was right, she would have harvested what we needed for our meal and spent several days at the stove in her kitchen. I imagine that this process was automatic for her. She knew exactly what order things should be cooked in, using recipes that only existed in her mind. She always made too much food. “Y’all are skin and bones,” she would say, packing up the leftovers for each family. Anyone was welcome to her table, and once you sat down, she was taking care of you.
On my mom’s side, our culinary heritage is also full of strong traditions, and sometimes butting heads. You see, my grandmother’s family is from a tiny town in Sicily called Bisacquino, and it just so happens that my grandfather’s family hails from the same little village.
There is a tradition in Sicily of making fig cookies called cucidati over the Christmas holidays. The LaRussas brought one family recipe to the table, and the Brunos brought a different one. Every year when my grandmother and great aunt get together, they make both recipes. One of the years that I was able to join, I remember each woman taking a few moments to secretly whisper to me: those cookies just have too much icing…the dough in her recipe always comes out dry…I use a different ratio of figs for the filling and it’s better. Each matriarch has her prized recipe, and neither will ever agree which is better. I had no problem with this because I got double the cookies, of course!
The fact that special recipes can connect families through many generations is one of the reasons why I love food. It is also one of the reasons why I enjoy exploring foods from all around the world. I am lucky to have an extremely vibrant and rich culinary heritage, but so do millions of other people on this planet. I know the feeling when you enjoy a dish that has been perfected not just over a single lifetime but over many– one that children have grown old with, and even made for their children! I love to be able to participate in that.
Eat Joyfully began as a common interest between my fiancé and I. He loves food and wanted to learn about my family’s recipes, and I wanted to share my love of cooking with him, especially as we live out the rest of our lives together. It has slowly developed into a passion of ours to cook the most interesting, challenging, and delicious dishes we can find. We are slowly exploring the culinary traditions of the world through Eat Joyfully, understanding that food is something that connects us all.
At the top of every page on this blog you will see a portion of Ecclesiastes 9:7: go then, eat your bread with joy and drink your wine with a happy heart. The full verse is: go, then, eat your bread with joy and drink your wine with a happy heart, for God has already approved your works.
When I read that, I was moved. Obviously, I love food and so the literal idea of enjoying food was nice to consider. However, when we read the end of the verse, we understand the real meaning. God wants us to live wonderful, thoughtful, fulfilled lives. He does not want us to be constantly stressing and worrying. He wants us to be Marys, not Marthas! [see Luke 10:38]
We don’t really know who the actual author of Ecclesiastes is, but the implied persona he dons is that of Solomon. I believe that Solomon, our teacher in this book, uses a food metaphor here for a reason. Food is something that connects ALL people, through ALL ages, in ALL walks of life. Individuals might have differing anxieties on any given day, but everyone needs and wants food. This is a great unifier, and I believe it makes a particularly effective medium for Solomon’s point. God has approved of our works already, now we need to enjoy and be thankful for the blessings he pours out onto us! We must enjoy our food and enjoy our lives, as they are both gifts from God. How freeing is that?!
My family is half Sicilian and half southern American. It has always been fascinating to me that both cultures value food and faith so highly. Good food is a way to show your love for someone in the south. We make feasts and as a family gather around our food. In preparation for a meal together, we always clasp hands and bless the food. We say a prayer expressing our thankfulness for the blessings of good food and time together, we pray for members of the family who can’t be with us, and we take a moment to appreciate the meal we are about to have. Whether it is a simple, daily meal or an extravagant, traditional dinner we always focus on the food and faith.
Around the world people connect their spiritual side with food, and so many cultures can be experienced through food. As we journey through these dishes, we think about the folks that created them and the mouths they’ve fed with these meals. We enjoy what we create and share it with y’all. We hope y’all enjoy it too.