I love to cook, and am always making something. Like a lot of people, I’ve been doing even more cooking as of late. I like watching videos and reading recipes to relax, and talking about cooking has been a great way to reconnect with my brother, who is a chef. In my family, one of the first things we say when we’re checking in on one another is, “What’re you cooking?”
As a folklorist, I’m always thinking about what we call foodways, the various ways in which our cultural and social values come together in a given meal. Food is a shared language that we can use to connect with anyone, anywhere. We tell stories over food, but also food itself is a way to tell a story. We can use it to tell people about where we came from: our traditions, identities, and cultures. The food I cook in Tennessee reminds me of my heritage, but it’s also influenced and inspired by my new home. (You can read about my “Mountain Masala” here.) I find it fascinating how we share our food, and the stories of our food, to establish and strengthen our connections with each other—and how the story of these new relationships is apparent in new dishes and fusion foods that mix together ingredients and methods from different times and places. When I plant my garden, I think about how I can use the food I’m cultivating to hopefully serve others, building new friendships and improving the lives of people in my community.
Of course, with new social distancing practices in place, we can’t really share food in person for now. But not so long ago, I was invited to join a “virtual dinner.” I signed up out of curiosity. The dinner was being hosted by a friend of a friend of a person who I’d met very briefly last year, in New York City. The online event involved sharing a Sunday meal (just whatever we were eating—no particular menu) with a group of people. There were around eight of us, and to start we each took turns sharing what we had made. We talked about the food: the ingredients, where they came from, and how we made the dish. The format was a little different, and at least one person had some technical difficulties, but it was a great way to connect. It’s interesting how old traditions flex and bend to accommodate our changing circumstances—and sometimes new traditions are born.
A friend of mine from back in Scotland, Tom, is a Rotarian and retired police officer. He was one of the officers in charge in 2005, when Tony Blair hosted the G8 summit in Scotland (and a member of the security force that looked after George W. Bush). Tom is much older than me, but we became very good friends. As Rotarians, we did a lot of interfaith work together. Back in the day, Tom and I had a habit of going for a cappuccino and a piece of carrot cake in the café at the museum where we worked. We had a standing appointment for 11:00 a.m. We had so many great conversations over that carrot cake. Recently Tom reached out to me so we could meet for cake and coffee online, a great throwback to the days when we were just starting our long friendship. These virtual meetings are a new tradition I’m carrying over into other friendships as well, including my relationship with Jimmy Neil Smith, our ISC founder. We normally meet for breakfast or lunch every few weeks, something we’ve done since we met many years ago. A Saturday morning not so long ago, we resumed our tradition with an appointment online.
In Jonesborough, we often describe storytelling as sacred. It’s a tradition that has been practiced for thousands of years by our ancestors. Storytelling was a tool they used to build community, just as we do, even though our stories and communities take different forms. In a digital workshop the other day, someone asked me about virtual storytelling, and whether it can ever compete with in-person stories. I think whatever ways we can find to feel close and share the stories of our days, whether we’re near or far apart, is worth valuing. If you have the opportunity to share a virtual meal with someone, whether it’s an old friend or a new acquaintance, I highly recommend it. Many things have changed, but sharing the stories of our lives (in whatever form they may take) remains a sacred act. Food, like story, remains our shared language. It belongs to us all.