When I was growing up, our house smelled like food ó except when it smelled like coffee or tobacco, or both, or all three. Unless we had been away for several days, the place was never stale. Upon entering, the immediate reaction of family members and visitors was to inhale deeply, and then smile, for it was obvious that my mother had been busy in the kitchen.
Anyone who arrived near mealtime was expected to stay. Those who arrived between meals were given dessert and coffee ó or, at the very least, something to drink, such as lemonade, iced tea, or brandy. As a youngster, I was so used to seeing guests at the table that I often missed them when there were none. Guests added another dimension to an already rambunctious experience. Following my fatherís lead, we devoured my motherís excellent cooking as if it were our first meal and our last, with vigor, energy, and enjoyment. Visitors happily went along for the ride.
My school acquaintances were included in this culinary whirlwind. Occasionally, I couldnít help noticing that some reacted as if they had never seen real food before. It was sad, but having also visited their homes, easy to understand. Either no one was cooking, or what they were cooking lacked spice and imagination ó or, we might say, the spice of imagination.
The rooms were stale, or worse: the atmosphere hung heavy with the odor of dead macaroni and shriveled fish sticks. Often, as mealtime approached, there was no activity in the kitchen, or if there was, it did not bode well. And I was rarely invited to stay. No one insisted. No one picked up the telephone and called my mother and said I would be late because I was staying for supper. I was welcome in general and treated in a friendly fashion, but meals, it seemed, were more of a private affair, as if that were when problems and scandals were discussed, and it was feared some secret would slip out.
When I did stay, it was usually because I had been invited in advance. In other words, I was expected, and treated as an official guest ó a situation no one should be in, and which brings strange and subtle pressures to bear. I would far rather enjoy an impromptu sandwich than be part of a planned and timed exhibition. And when it is necessary to tender an invitation, a gathering should still feel like an impromptu occasion. Guests should never be made to feel that they are guests. They should feel like one of the family.
This brings to mind a meal I enjoyed at a friendís house back in 1973. I had stopped by to see him in the afternoon, and as evening drew near, his mother invited me to stay for tacos. Naturally, I accepted. And because everyone was relaxed about my presence, the meal evolved into an eating contest between my friend and me ó to the amusement of his parents, his younger sister, and his little four-year-old brother. Amid laughter at the crowded kitchen table in a shaded room facing the street, one after the other, the tacos disappeared. It was more than a meal: it was an experience.
I did not know then that my friend was going to die of cancer ó that he would, in fact, be dead at the age of eighteen. There is much else to remember him by, but that unplanned evening at his familyís table is something I still treasure. What if it had not taken place? And what of the countless invitations each day that are not given?
May 10, 2006
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