In my world, food is a gift.
Sometimes it’s a conventional gift, in the sense that you give it to someone who (hopefully) enjoys eating it as much as you enjoyed making or selecting it. In other instances, it’s more about sharing an experience. Either way, I'm grateful it plays such a large role in my life.
I’m one of those infuriating people who doesn’t want to own unnecessary things. Items like clothes and furniture and kitchen utensils are essential, and I’m happy to keep books and music that have become important to me, but I’m not interested in letting the collectibles and knickknacks pile up. I almost never keep something just for the sake of having it.
I imagine this makes me difficult to buy for.
It also makes it difficult for me to enjoy shopping for presents. I used to love selecting exactly the right gift for each person, but these days I look at the multitude of objects on the store shelves and I wonder if my family and friends really need them. Will anyone’s life improve if I give them a symbolic thingy to mark our long friendship, or if I hunt down another addition to their collection of commemorative milk jugs? The useful items I myself most like to receive--lemon zesters and flour sifters and silicone spatulas in fun colours--never seem entirely appropriate. I worry I’ll just add to everyone’s clutter.
So I’ve fallen back on food.
To my mind, food is the ultimate gift. As long as you stick to the giftee’s dietary preferences and restrictions, people are generally quite happy to receive something they can eat. Food is fun to make (or to select, if you're not so into cooking), and it offers ample opportunity for giver and recipient to share something, be it the dish itself or stories of how the recipient ate it.
I tell kind of a lot of stories about the food-gifts I've received. You probably don't want to get me started.
Food’s physical footprint is minimal, too. You give it; they eat it. It doesn’t bog anyone down.
Last Christmas, I gave each of my grandparents a loaf cake all to themselves: chocolate for my grandmother and banana macaroon for my grandfather. For the rest of my relatives, I prepared an extensive dessert buffet equipped with candy-striped boxes in which everyone was encouraged to pack their leftovers.
It was a success. Everyone stuffed themselves, even though we'd just finished an enormous supper, and not a single box left the house less than full. My uncle, bless his soul, took two boxes--a breach of etiquette I cheerfully allowed, since the table still held an awful lot of uneaten baking and I didn't want to have to eat it all myself.
(Okay, that's a lie. I wanted to eat it all myself, but I recognized that would be a very bad idea.)
My family ensured I, too, finished the holiday with plenty of food in hand. One cousin gifted each and every one of us with a packet of his home-smoked bacon, while my aunt and uncle promised to host the entire family for a pre-theatre supper in January.
This supper, when it came, included ample talk of how we’d all used our bacon. These bacon-scented reminiscences led, in turn, to discussions of grilled cheese sandwiches we’d known, trashy foods we couldn’t help but love, and, of course, the meal in front of us. For the most part, the restaurant was a hit. My duck confit sandwich would've been better on toasted bread than fresh ciabatta, but the meat at its heart was so frickin' good I could scarcely bear to complain about the casing. The rest of my family raved about their lamb shanks, their burgers, their salmon, and their shoestring fries. Those of us who'd been there before talked about the other menu items they'd tried, too. The foodish conversation was intense.
All in all, it was a great evening.
Shared meals are a gift all by themselves, regardless of whether there's a clear reason behind them (or separate cheques at the end of the night). I rarely fail to get something out of a meal I’ve shared with someone else, whether it’s a conversation that stretches into future meetings or a new appreciation for a restaurant’s approach to food.
Restaurant eating is, for me, a social activity. I almost never go to my favourite restaurants by myself, no matter how much I like their food, because restaurants are places to eat with friends and family. If I want a solo meal, I'll make it myself.
My friends and I continue to talk about great meals we ate together, even years after the fact. We mourn our favourite four cheese and pesto pizza, which our local bookstore cafe ejected from its menu because we were the only ones who ever ordered it. We fondly remember the hangi we attended in Rotorua, or the evening we ate roti on the patio of our city’s best bar, or the time we decided the turkey melts our University’s cantina makes were delicious enough to serve as a settlement in a court case.
Food doesn't always have be a serious thing.
On the family side of the equation, my bacony cousin has cooked a number of meals we all speak of in tones of reverent awe. And ooh, boy, you do not want to get us started on his desserts. Not a one of us can shut up about the sweet stuff he brings to most family gatherings, be it a homemade pecan pie or a gluten free chocolate cake from a quality bakery. The guy has an eye for pastry.
Food ensures we always have something in common, even if we can't quite mesh on such conversational topics as pop culture and politics. And, like scent, it serves as a memory trigger. It helps us connect the here and now with the people we once were.
My grandmother, whose dementia makes it difficult for her to remember what she said three minutes ago, still raves about the beef and bacon pies I’ve brought her and my grandfather on more than one occasion. These pies a touchstone for her; a kind act that still lingers on her tongue.
And hey, it saved her having to cook supper. That's a pretty good gift, right there.