A few years ago, when I was just starting to write about food, I really loved this Japanese blog. The author would post a daily picture of a bento box and list the contents. I was hooked. Each lunch was completely different, and made with extreme attention to detail.
I started to notice that the author had her own style, in the colors she picked to go together, the shapes she made with the food, and her flavor combinations. And all the while, everything was made in tune with nature and the seasons. A pink flower shape in the rice was colored with ume plum. Orange hearts were cut out from carrots.
Most of the blog was in Japanese, so mysteries remained in my head. Who did she make these lunches for? Herself? A spouse? A child? A customer? Whoever it was, I could not help but picture someone opening the box and smiling from ear to ear about the contents, before digging in heartily.
Everything I cook is dictated by love. When home alone, I rarely put effort into meals. The best food is reserved for loved ones. Amy Sedaris said it best when she titled her first cookbook I like You, because that’s what you’re implying when you set down a plate in front of someone.
7 years ago, I was in Miami for a last minute grad school visit. Like most of my early 20s, it was badly planned. After the interview, I was stuck without transportation or a place to stay. A few gas station payphone calls later, I had the address of a friend-of-a-friend. I hitchhiked a ride to her house with a nice man in a huge, souped-up, white Cadillac. Jessica opened the door with a smile and her lighthearted laughter at seeing my ride pull away made all the shame about my derelict state disperse.
We settled into chairs at the dinner table and became instant friends. The next thing I knew, her sister Stephanie set down a plate in front of me. It was a plain hamburger on a bun. I just looked at it in disbelief. Here I was, a complete stranger in their home, and after the day I’d had, this gesture of love was overwhelming.
I was accepted to that school’s ethnobotany program, but my GRE math scores prevented me from enrolling. In the extra semester they gave me to study, I got more and more into writing recipes and experimenting in my kitchen, not in the lab. I quit my job sorting and cataloging plant specimens at the New York Botanical Garden. My free time was spent making meals for friends and family. Thus began my “self-training” as a cook.
In addition to the presentation and flavor of food, I now take into account how the food I serve will make my guests feel physically. I want to offer the people I love food for a long and happy life. I use lots of fresh vegetables and fruits. I don’t fry, or use refined sugar or flour. And everything I make is vegan. Eating this way changed my life, and the least I can do is share it as much as possible.
At the Love Your Body retreat I co-hosted with Kalima Harvey last month, I extended this love to complete strangers, just like Stephanie and Jessica did for me. And just like that, we became friends. The appreciation and praise I received for my food was such a reward. But even better was the second night of the retreat, when all of the participants were gathered around the table after dinner, chatting, laughing and bubbling over with energy even though they had worked out twice that day and not had any coffee or sugar.
My interpretation was that the food I made had an impact that went beyond just a homemade meal. In the extra attention to detail, to the ingredients and the preparation, there was something extra. It didn’t matter who the guest was–a family member or a new acquaintance–that extra something was love.