It’s Spring Break season for colleges across the country, and gaggles of students are discarding books in favor of sunscreen, fleeing the ravages of grades and midterms for salt water and sand, leaving irresponsible drinking behind and adopting a more well-rounded schema of poor decision making.
So that was a gross generalization.
For the past three years, however, I have done the absolute opposite of that stereotypical tanning and headed north to a snow-wrapped, fireplace-boasting cabin in Deep Creek, Maryland. My friends and I spend our days reading, watching movies, lounging in the hot tub, and listening to the soothing voice of Rodney Yee guide us through Relaxation Yoga. We also do a lot of cooking.
This year, our menus have included jambalaya, huevos rancheros, chicken noodle soup, baked ziti, goose steaks, home made pizzas, and literally millions of chocolate chip cookies. Today, we’re working on an exceptionally complicated batch of bourbon-banana bread pudding.
My favorite part of cooking at the lake house (because it’s definitely not the two-burner kitchen or the randomly-equipped pantry) is the sense of camaraderie I feel jostling around whoever is washing the dishes or chopping carrots or stirring a simmering pot of ragout. Everybody makes his or her way to the stove at one point or another while dinner is being made–to talk, smell, taste, or make suggestions for the next night’s meal. The kitchen is an intimate space where even silence is shared.
There’s an aphorism that goes, “The family that eats together, stays together.” I would take that one step further to say, “and the people who cook together become family.” To make a meal with someone is to acknowledge a basic, shared need. And to expose our needs to others is to admit that we rely on them and trust that they will provide what we need. Families share food, shelter, and clothing. What is Spring Break at the lake if not sharing what we have with each other and caring for each other’s needs?
Cooking for a large group of people also means eating with a large group of people. Dinner at Spring Break is when the Xbox gets turned off (do boys ever grow out of this?), job searching is put aside, and headphones are unplugged. We gather at the table–sitting all week in the same seats we picked out our first night–and begin the ritual feasting.
Dinner is a rowdy affair–Andy makes a joke, Howell laughs too loud and spits his drink back out, while Idris makes a sly, amusing comment that only Liz and I manage to fully hear, while Kevin interjects an inappropriately timed quotation from True Lies in his best Arnold Schwarzenegger voice. The roles switch, the scenes are enacted again, dinner progresses. It’s amusing. It’s incomprensible. It’s crazy. But I like it.
Food brings people together in a way that not many other things can. And good food sears the memories created with those people into our minds. There’s a reason the smell of cinnamon and brown sugared apple pie makes me think of my mother in the Fall or the taste of sangria reminds of that one time I sat philosophizing in a tapas bar for hours with a good friend.
This is our last year coming up to the lake. We’re almost all seniors now and will be moving around the world to find other lives. It’s frightening to move from comfort to insecurity, but when we sit together at the dinner table, we remind ourselves that wherever we go, if we invite people to share our meals, we will never be alone.
I guess what I mean to say is that sharing meals makes me feel closer to the people I love. It strengthens new friendships; it makes me see strangers differently. When I cook for people, I am sharing the part of myself that says, “I care about you,” without using any words.
We have a tradition in my house of holding hands and issuing a rousing chorus of guten appétit while we shake our held hands up and down. I suggested this on our first night at the lake, and to my joy, this tradition became one we adopted every night during Spring Break. It is, after all, a family thing.