The first few months of retirement gave me time to reflect on what provides meaning in my life, what I really value and want to spend time on. Then came the month of December, a month filled with three family birthdays in addition to all the usual celebrations. I realized that food plays a most essential role in how I move through my days. Yes, I need food to survive. But food is so much more than physical nourishment for me. The rituals around food provide an emotional and social anchor in my life, a connection to my past, and possibly a bridge into the future. That is something I want to prioritize, even as my energy level for other activities wanes with time.
Both my parents are German, having emigrated to Canada shortly after they married and then moved to the US when I was 9 years old. My mother hung on to German traditions her whole life, including a strong German accent. Which meant that most conversation occurred in the context of eating. We discussed our days over family dinner every night. Whenever a guest appeared at the front door, invited or uninvited, food was laid out immediately on plates reserved just for company, and the visit took place seated around the table. Every birthday, holiday, or special occasion was celebrated with food, often specific foods for specific occasions, and foods that are not so common in the US. For example, you celebrate New Year’s by eating sauerkraut and turnips; I don’t remember why. My mom served my now-husband her fanciest dish, boiled beef tongue – the whole tongue, unsliced, on a plate placed right in front of him. (He hid his shock very well.) As a tween and teen, I was so embarrassed by all this, because my friends’ families didn’t have such odd traditions and ate more “normal” foods, or so I thought about it at the time.
Fast forward to my marrying into a Jewish family. I did not convert, but did promise to raise our children in the Jewish faith. Imagine my surprise when I realized that a lot of Jewish culture and tradition revolves around . . . food! I loved it! While the kids were living at home, we had Shabbat (sabbath) dinner every Friday night. I learned how to celebrate the annual religious holidays (Rosh Hashana, Passover, etc.), all of which included a meal with family and friends using traditional foods. I even tried to lower the fat content of traditional Jewish dishes and compiled those recipes to write a cookbook (another one of my many unfinished projects!). At times my kids were embarrassed, because many of their friends did not share this culture and they had to miss out on some important-to-them events (Jewish holidays sometimes interfere with school calendars).
The relatives on my father’s side all live in the former East Germany, so I didn’t meet them until after the Berlin Wall came down. When I finally did travel to Dresden in 2000, guess what our main social activity was? Gathering around a table laden with food and eating and talking. There were some days I thought I might explode. Breakfast was at one relative’s house, then a visit to another relative’s house over kaffee and kuchen (coffee and cake), then lunch at another, and more kaffee and kuchen in the afternoon, and then dinner at another house. I began to understand that my mother wasn’t odd, she was merely carrying out her traditions of origin. The smells and tastes of boiled knackwurst and sauerkraut were very familiar.
This focus on food now permeates my being. I show love by cooking. When my now-grown kids come home to visit, I cook all their favorite foods and sweet treats. When my husband is feeling stressed, I cook him something special. When a friend comes over to visit, they leave with something I canned from the garden. Most of our socializing is over a meal. I’m happy to say that my kids are no longer embarrassed about all this; they actually request some of the traditional foods from their childhood, and have asked for the recipes to continue the traditions into their generation.
As I’ve been exposed to teaching ESL to adult immigrants and refugees over the past two years, I’ve learned that food defines all cultures and can smooth cross-cultural communication. In one fall semester class, I suggested that we have a potluck dinner for the last class in December at which everyone would bring one of their traditional December holiday dishes. There was so much excitement in planning the dinner, and then sharing each other’s dishes. Even the most reluctant English speakers overcame their nervousness to describe what was in the dish and tell a story from their country of origin about the holiday it was a part of. This past semester I was working one-on-one with a recent immigrant from Iraq. She invited me to her home for dinner as a thank you. The food was amazing (and so much of it!), but even more amazing to me was how easily we had an extensive and meaningful conversation over the meal.
My mother passed away a couple years ago, and I have been missing her. This past December, I went to the German deli, bought all her Christmas Eve traditional foods, and ate them on Christmas Eve on the beautiful company dishes I inherited from her. It felt right.
Michele Straube recently retired after 35+ years dealing with difficult people as an environmental attorney and mediator, most recently running the Environmental Dispute Resolution Program at the S.J. Quinney College of Law. She is working toward a certificate in teaching English as a second language, which has given her the opportunity to reflect on the meaning that culture and tradition play in our daily lives.