OPINION: Shared meals, shared lives

Editor’s note: This column was originally written in 2013.

Nibbling cautiously on an Ethiopian appetizer — yesiga sambusa, a pastry stuffed with ground meat — I watched my classmates relax after inhaling their first bites of conversation. Ending our graduate writing class at the Abbysinia Restaurant on the last big snow of the year, a bakers-dozen writers ladled up yebeg alecha, a stew-looking lamb dish cooked in herb butter sauce, with the thin, spongy Ethiopian bread called injera.

Eating with our fingers, using the injera to daintily scoop up the goat meat, reminded me instantly of eating a meal at the home of Mehersingh in the village of Sagar, India. It was 1996, and I sat between my friend Indu Lall and my husband of seven years.

We had left our three daughters at home in the safety net of tag-teaming grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends. My youngest was 8-months old and I had weaned her early to take the mandatory malaria prevention. It was the week before Easter, and we had flown, taken a train and driven six hours into the middle of Madyha Pradesh where we sat in a lovely tent with a sparse yet almost elegant tablecloth and glass plates.

Using naan (flat bread) as the utensils, the meal included chicken cooked in curry, rice and the smallest drought-grown cucumbers slices I had ever seen — passed around and served family style. Popping the bottle cap, Mehersingh offered us each a small warm, glass bottle of Thums Up — we were informed later that it cost a weeks wage to provide. I’ve never been a foodie, but it was one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten. A sincere warm welcome and who you dine with makes all the difference in the world.

I was reminded by a quote by Dr. Tim Chester: “Food connects. It connects us with family. It turns strangers into friends. And it connects us with people around the world,” he said.

Scooping up more goat meat with the injera, attempting to squelch the molten fire in my mouth from one of the stronger spices, I batted the water from my eye and asked the writers around me if they would share one of their most memorable meals.

Without pause, the 6 feet 4 inches tall, strapping Peter Francis Smith, answered in his Aussie accent

“I was a second year undergrad at university in Sydney. A group of eight of us flew to Tasmania (the island state south of the Australian mainland). We hiked into the Western Arthurs mountain range — the last mountainous line of defense from Antarctic weather — and we did endure a summer night in an emergency shelter due to a freakish summer snowstorm. When we scaled the five-hour climb up moraines into the nest of the Western Arthurs, a friend pulled out the huge slab of smoked ribs, we sat beneath an open heaven and ate like diners and not like hikers. This hiker deviance was a pleasurable start to a five-day hike in breath-taking terrain,” he said.

Tall, blonde and brilliantly likeable, Rachel Sarah Ferguson’s most memorable meal seemed to encompass her dining partner as well.

“Of all the meals in all the places I’ve had, my favorite memory is of my husband’s first whole lobster. We were dating long-distance at the time — me in Maine and him in Indiana — and I decided to take him to a ‘real’ Maine seafood place while he was visiting. I took him to a ramshackle place by the docks, and we sat outside near the water. It was low tide and smelled awful, but all part of the authentic experience, right? We both ordered whole lobsters, and when he cracked his open and saw all the innards, he got so white I thought he was going to faint. He’d only had the tails and claws before and it didn’t occur to him that lobsters have guts. Mainers consider the green stuff — the tomalley — a delicacy, so I took a great big bite of mine, and he was absolutely horrified. He made it through the meal … never did try the tomalley, but I said I’d marry him anyway,” she said.

“…Meals are more than food. They’re social occasions. They represent friendship, community, and welcome,” said Dr. Tim Chester.

In between bites of injera-filled goodness and and sips of tea, I shared my all-time favorite meal of fresh pan-fried walleye shore lunches in Northwest, Ontario. There have been more than 23 years of memories, near the top is one where we watched an incoming squall dump a lake of water on top of our fire — but only after we quickly donned our thick-yellow rain gear and filleted, pan-fried and ate our catch of the day. My husband’s grandparents, and later his parents, began taking his family fishing annually, and the tradition was cast forth to my husband and I. And as a result, my three daughters, who grew up fishing for their lunch during August each summer by the age of 3, all separately answered “walleye shore lunches” as their favorite shared meals.

Around shared meals since the beginning of time, good and bad news has been endured, stories have been told, laughter has been tasted, and love has blossomed

Even Luke’s Gospel, written nearly 2,000 years ago, is full of stories of Jesus sharing meals and life with people:

In Luke 5 Jesus eats with a big crowd of tax collectors and sinners at the home of Levi.

In Luke 7 After accepting Simon the Pharisee’s invitation to dine with him at his home, Jesus was anointed with perfume by a sinful woman.

In Luke 9 Jesus feeds the crowd of five thousand.

In Luke 10 Jesus eats in the home of Martha and Mary.

In Luke 14 Jesus was dining at the home of a prominent leader when he urged people to invite the poor, crippled, the lame and the blind to their receptions rather than their friends and family.

In Luke 19 Jesus invites himself to dinner with Zacchaeus.

In Luke 22 Jesus ate with his disciples for the Passover Celebration, a Last Supper before his death.

In Luke 24 The risen Jesus Christ has a meal with two disciples in Emmaus, and then later eats fish with the disciples in Jerusalem.

In “A Meal With Jesus,” Chester explains.

”There are three ways the New Testament completes the sentence ‘The Son of Man came …’:

‘The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:45);

‘The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost’ (Luke 19:10);

‘The Son of Man has come eating and drinking …’ (Luke 7:34),” Chester wrote.

Chester continues, “The first two are statements of purpose. Why did Jesus come? He came to serve, to give his life as a ransom, to seek and save the lost. The third is a statement of method. How did Jesus come? He came eating and drinking.”

Fitting for preparing an Easter celebration meal.