I’ve been hungry for a lot of things in my life that had nothing to do with food and everything to do with the way I fed myself. It’s been a lifelong journey to figure out what nourishes and what simply sustains me. Nourishment, at its heart, is really about love.
My dad and I were the only two people in the kitchen. I remember it being a time and place where people had left or were leaving and life seemed frighteningly different. Was I visiting him? Was it after the divorce? I must have been four or five years old. He put a plate of raviolis down in front of me. I’d watched him open the can, dump them into a pot, and heat them up. He smiled at me. Maybe he winked.
The way the memory has embedded itself in my brain is that we were side by side, and I was acutely aware of the motion of raising the fork from the plate to my mouth, almost as if I were doing it slow motion in tandem with him. Oh my God, those raviolis. They were absolute ambrosia, the best thing I’d ever tasted.
Fast forward twenty years, and I’m living on my own. I’m thinking about my dad, as we’ve recently reconnected, and we’re going to see each other at Christmas. It’s been twelve years. In the emotional soup of being angry at him for being absent in my life, feeling excited to see him again, and feeling a love in my heart that seems a little out of place, the memory of that meal nibbled at the edges of my hunger. I became inspired to hunt down those raviolis.
I’m not sure I knew what I was after on my quest. I think it may have been a deep longing to connect with my dad in that primal way where we were so close that we moved our forks in tandem. I wanted to repeat that taste, that time, when I was four or five years old, alone in the kitchen with my dad, safe and loved.
Taste is a complicated thing. The textbooks will tell you how important smell is to taste, but they rarely mention how important emotion is to taste. I believe it was the tone that was set between us, a small slice of remembered intimacy, that put me on a quest to capture the childhood delight of canned raviolis.
They weren’t hard to find. The can looked like the same one I remembered from twenty years earlier; maybe the illustrated chef on the front was a little more modern. The grocery store had the cans placed at eye level, three aisles over from the crackers and chips on the right.
I rushed back to my apartment, my mouth watering. I opened the can, heated the raviolis, and put them in a bowl. They smelled just the way I remembered them. I sat down, picked up my fork, expecting the same kind of ambrosia rush—and … Oh no! They were horrible. The texture was pasty, and the sauce had a sickeningly sweet aftertaste to it. The stuffing didn’t resemble cheese at all, and I questioned whether or not it had even come from a cow. The whole bowl was kind of mushy. How could I ever have loved these so much?
Was it my undeveloped childhood palate, which responded indiscriminately to salt and sugar and mush? I tried to make it funny, but the truth was I was disappointed and sad. I couldn’t explain the sorrow at the time. Now I see that it was my longing to reconnect with the dad I hadn’t seen in twelve years, the dad I remembered from our canned raviolis meal so long ago.
I threw the rest of the raviolis unceremoniously into the trash‚ the lingering odor of them no longer pleasant. My kitchen smelled of disappointment and the fake flavor of fast food, of junk food. I realized that I could never go back and that the past would never let go of certain places in me.
Years later, I was telling someone the story about how great the raviolis had seemed when I was a kid and how horrible they were when I got older. In the retelling, I spoke about being in the kitchen with my dad and the combustion of love, security, and canned raviolis. That experience resulted in a sense of being nourished in mind and body—and I realized in a rush that it was never the raviolis that were so wonderful; it was rather sitting with my dad, doing the small, simple thing of sharing a meal. It was the spirit of that moment that stays with me to this day. So often, comfort food isn’t about the food at all, and so often, it’s the smallest things in life that truly nourish us.
The biblical adage that man does not live by bread alone is not a treatise on carbohydrates but a directive on nourishment. Intent. Connection. Love. Nourishment is about the moments in our too busy lives that give us pause to stop and appreciate the things that fill us. Sometimes it’s a meal. Sometimes it’s the company, and sometimes it’s the way the light hits the front porch in the morning. How we nourish ourselves and with what is a richly complex process that evolves as we age. I ask myself this question: Does it nourish me. I ask this question about food, about people, about things I want to purchase, and also about situations.
Asking the nourishment question is another way of asking how I love myself. But somehow the question of how to nourish—and with what—seems more specific than the question of how to love—or whom. I trust that love is something that arises as a result of who, what, and how we nourish others and ourselves.
I think that most of the world’s problems can be solved by people sitting around a kitchen table. The nourishment of family and friends can assuage sorrow. The nourishment of food can help us celebrate life and heal. How we nourish ourselves—with what and with whom—is a huge, complicated process that informs our life every single day.
May your life be nourished by calm, love, goodwill and joy. And, may you enjoy the sweet, the savory and salty of life in nourishing gratitude.