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Give and eat

(article, Kim Carlson)

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I am a sucker for stories that explore the web of connections between how we eat and who we are. The best of these put food in context with the rest of life.

In that vein, here's a story from the New York Times that reinforces the idea that  food is often the best gift. From the paper’s health section, it is a physician’s tale of one of his best memories as a doctor resident, involving a Chinese patient and a thank-you gift of good food:

bq.After each operation, at 7 to the minute, the evening of surgery, his family arrived at the ward kitchen, a sudden oasis, with enough egg drop soup, sweet-and-sour chicken, orange beef, on and on, to feed the entire surgical staff and a few hungry urologists. The dessert was fortune cookies containing special messages of gratitude.

Of course, it might have been an Italian patient, or a Ukrainian patient, or a Sudanese patient. And yet, I wonder if there's something about Chinese culture that is unique in this regard. On Sunday morning Nicole Mones discussed her new novel, The Last Chinese Chef, on National Public Radio. The novel, which tells the story of a woman finding herself again after her husband’s death, places food at its center. 

“Food is the main engine that drives connectedness — relationships — in Chinese culture,” Nicole said in the interview. Tainted food for people and animals is getting huge play in the media right now, but food in China is about much more than that, of course; the idea of food as a gift may be fundamental.

The epigraph that opens the first chapter of the novel demonstrates a generosity of spirit that inspires me:

bq.Apprentices have asked me, what is the most exalted peak of cuisine? Is it the freshest ingredients, the most complex flavors? Is it the rustic, or the rare? It is none of these. The peak is neither eating nor cooking, but the giving and sharing of food. Great food should never be taken alone. What pleasure can a man take in fine cuisine unless he invites cherished friends, counts the days until the banquet, and composes an anticipatory poem for his letter of invitation?
— Liang Wei , The Last Chinese Chef, pub. Peking, 1925

On Culinate, we don’t have a gift section, nor do we cover entertaining yet. But we have several stories about people making connections with one another through food. (And there will be more.) Take a look at Jamie Passaro’s piece on the abundance of food that friends prepared for her after her baby was born. Joan Menafee feeds her friends soup. And Chelsea Cain writes about eating pesto pasta with her mother — not a gift in the most obvious sense, but in the big picture, a gift indeed.

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