Today is All Souls Day. In the Roman Catholic tradition, today is a day to be spent praying for the souls of the departed, that may be dwelling in purgatory to cleanses them of sin so that they may reach heaven. Many spend the day remembering lost loved ones. Unlike All Saints Day, a “Holy Day of Obligation” one day before (Nov 1st) and All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween Oct 31st), today is the day I have the most sentiment for. As a lapsed Catholic, I have let go of all of the trappings of religion. But as a person who is loved and who loves, I appreciate a day dedicated to reflecting and remembering loved ones with mindfulness and purpose. I think of these beloved friends and family members almost every day. They are never far from me even though they no longer inhabit space the way that I still do. It dawned upon me several weeks ago that almost everyone I know…at least those I know well, I have attached a food memory to them.
My earliest and most intimate food memories are the usual suspects: home, my grandmother’s home, school, restaurants. It doesn’t take much for me to have a memory spark. Sometimes (fairly often) it is a certain smell in the air, a recipe on-line, a color, even the look of the sky on a certain day…any of these things can force a recall of an edible and a person. Some days I find myself in my kitchen talking to the food I am preparing. This often brings back clear memories of my grandmother trussing a turkey and apologizing, fussing or laughing, depending on how well it was all going. This motivates a chuckle. It was especially funny when she would stuff a bird and imply that she was somehow making the fowl uncomfortable. She’d rub the skin all over with butter. All the while like she was massaging lotion on a beloved grand-baby. A grunt and a huff and the huge roasting pan went into the oven. A few last words to the bird, oven door closed, temperature checked, hands wiped, and she was off to the next thing. (Or she poured a cold beverage and sat down for a bit.) This is only one food memory of one person. My mind is catalogued with them. Like a mash-up between a photo album and a collection of favorite recipe cards. A recipe Rolodex, a yearbook of yummies, a contact list of cuisine…you get it. And this list is private. No one knows about it but me, well…and now you. No one knows that they are associated with a food in my mind.
There is food that reminds me of a dearly departed soul. There is food that warms my soul. There is that book “Chicken Soup for the Soul” (which I’ve never read). And there is the proverbial American-Southern soul food. This last one perplexes me a bit. To me, all food is soul food. If it makes you feel good, it changes your attitude (hopefully for the better) then that is soul food. And while most explanations attribute soul food to the deep south of the United States of America and the influence of African culture brought by slaves, further understanding means knowing that what has become known as soul food has MANY influences. The Indigenous peoples, the Spanish, the French, the Portuguese, the English, the Africans and then all the people who came to these shores after, all contributed to what we know as soul food. This is so apparent when traveling around the US and experiencing something as standard as Collard greens or fried chicken. How it is made, the ingredients…all vary from region to region…and each claims to be authentic soul food. And it is. And what we like is very much tied to the soul of the person who made it for us. Countless times I’ve heard “I only like (so and so’s) pie”, “I haven’t had ______ since my Pop-pop died”. Sadly, some of the tastes we love seem to go with the souls who prepared the dish.
Before literacy was so wide-spread, many people shared cooking techniques one-on-one. With no written recipes or cookbooks, many of us, most of us, learned (or in many cases lately, didn’t learn) how to cook from one another. If you watch any cooking show, inevitably the question of how the host or guest became interested in cooking comes up. Usually it is because someone was in the kitchen of a parent, grandparent, neighbor, teacher, coach, or counselor of some sort. Sometimes the person was naturally interested, sometimes they were conscripted and in some cases they were mandated to get involved. Whatever the case, one soul imparted upon another usually not only how to cook, but how to really know food, enjoy food, understand foods effect on people. They say money makes the world go ’round. I think it is food. We all have to eat. Wealthy people, poor people, everyone in between…if we don’t eat, we don’t live. In most cases, eating involves cooking. More and more I see that people are relinquishing that task to someone else (or an automated factory of nobodies).
Soul-less fast food flourishes and has become the go-to option for many. We know this ain’t right or good for us. We make excuses about why we eat fast food (work, time, kids, etc.). We try to pretend we take advantage of “healthy options” on fast food menus. We buy into the marketing manipulation key words like “fresh”, “inspired”, “goodness”, “real”(this one confuses me), “clean”, “crafted”, “light”, “responsible” and “wholesome” among others. Then, there are those of us who know we’re making bad choices, cry YOLO and just dig in. Yes…WeOLO, but how we do it matters. Movements toward better prove to me that our souls are aching for more than what fast-food chains have been offering for the past fifty years. We tell ourselves our parents or grandparents ate better because they had more time, better choices, grew their own food. I call BS. We have the time (put down the smartphone, turn off the TV, quit Yoga class…yeah I said it. Grocery shopping and cooking can give you the same benefits if you do it right AND you’ll have a meal at the end. Not your bag? Ok, keep the Yoga. You get my point.) InstaPots are a thing now. It’s the new CrockPot. We are fans of these tools because they can give us rich, hearty, warm meals with the ease of tossing stuff in and turning it on. Like laundry. Also, the make-a-meal delivery systems are a thing now. I get it but I don’t get it (and I don’t buy them or buy them either…lol…ok…sorry). I guess these are happy medium options. Subscribers get a recipe, directions, portioned ingredients…everything but the pots, pans, dishes, and utensils. All is in the box. It comes to you. You just make the time and make the meal. It looks fresh “enough”. But seriously, for a fraction of the cost, you could find a few recipes this week, shop the ingredients and make the meals next week. Subscribers are paying a premium to have someone else meal plan and prep for them. Worth it? Maybe…not for me.
Even though I often feel taken for granted, I enjoy cooking for my family and friends. Yes, I complain. There are two able-bodied people who eat what I prepare and rarely offer to grocery shop, help or cook. (*Full disclosure: they are getting better in this area.) I feel like I have an obligation to the souls I love and live with to share what departed souls have shared with me. And even without the quid pro quo, I smile when I think about how much my grandmother liked my cakes, how my Auntie will request cookies if she knows I’m coming for a visit, how my mom will say “You made this?” when she likes something, how my father-in-law’s eyes would shine when he was invited over for a meal. These are memories of people and food that warm my soul, that give me life in more ways than one.
So today, on All Souls Day, have something good (and maybe even good for you) that sparks a memory and touches your soul. Perhaps a hot chocolate, a cup of tea, a piece of toast.