Open any cookbook to the index. Embedded in the potential menu for tonight’s dinner is the story of language, geography, family history, migrations, inventions, chemistry, farming, commerce, and botany. A recipe is more than the sum of its ingredients.”
So writes Todd R. Nelson in a recent article for the Bangor Daily News. It’s a reminder that the food we’ll be sharing over the Thanksgiving table this year doesn’t just nourish our body and fuel our family conversations, it’s a living testament to the meandering history that has brought each and every one of us to where we are now. Nelson focuses specifically on bread, that ur-food ubiquitous across time and location:
Bread tells stories. It narrates our geography, past and present locale….Bread came with your people from wherever your people came from, the compass round.”
It’s no surprise that food ties us closely to our own past, especially baked food whose aroma has the power to tickle old, powerful memories back to life. In my interviews with storytellers, a warm kitchen often takes center stage in childhood memories. But I’ve never thought about the longer history of a staple like bread. How it has sat on the table for generations and generations back; how our ancestors grew the wheat and ground it and baked it, how those loaves fed the children whose own children would someday become our grandparents, our parents, our children and grandchildren. It’s baked into our genes and into our life story and family history.
Let’s talk to each other
Food, like fire, water, and earth, is an elemental force in our life. That’s true whether you’ve been fortunate to be well-nourished or not. As Nelson reminds us, it goes beyond our favorite recipes. Still, a favorite recipe is a great place to start the conversation. If you’re fortunate enough to be around family and friends this Thanksgiving, use that apple pie or baked turkey or fresh loaf of bread as a way to connect with each other. What memories does the smell of sugared yams evoke? Who did Great-Grandma teach how to make her cream puffs? What about that year Uncle Leonard drank too much (as Nelson reminds us, bread and beer are close cousins) and let slip some devastating—or funny—secret?
Lots of ingredients go into making our family and life stories. Sharing a Thanksgiving meal is the perfect opportunity to explore some of the most powerful.