The Magic Around Mealtimes

By Michelle Perales

If I were to fill the air around you with the clinking sound of thirsty cups followed by hungry footsteps crunching at toasted leaves and smoky gravel on their way to our open kitchen doors, I would be inviting you enjoy the rich flavors of our beloved community mealtime at the Emerald Village. I would be asking you to join us to feast upon a hearty stack of empty plates filled with thick slices of anticipation, and slathered with the laughter of feisty children wrestling with our four-legged gentle giants. Yet, these are only a smattering of the special ingredients that make their way into the reasons why I cherish the ritual of the community dinner in the way that I do.

After weeks of gathering around simple tables with simple chairs, participating in the swell and boom of numerous kitchen productions, I keep finding myself placing my heart in new corners of the whole experience. Personally, my love for food began with my love for food. However, with the stampeding consumption of ever-quickening mealtimes in America, it’s no surprise that our culture around sharing meals is dilute, at best. In refusing to settle for such a hurried lifestyle around eating, I began to search for a more intimate connection with my own ability to eat nourishing meals. This search, mixed with a chronic observation of human behavior, helped me to realize that people (as I do) also enjoy eating, and pieces of the puzzle naturally started to find one another. I began to pick up breadcrumbs that led me from kitchen to farmers’ market, from plate to garden, and from friends to community. I had just begun to spend hours joyfully exploring some tedious culinary terrains by the time the Emerald Village unwittingly invited me into their commercial-sized kitchen, ripe for delicious experimentation. I quickly began waltzing to the cadence of regular gatherings of hungry faces. Every eager belly within a mile radius was already accustomed to wagging its tail, begging, “What’s for dinner tonight?” and I was happy to be joining in the ballet of feasts and abundance.

Community dinner becomes a place where the many hands that come together to create the gift of food are given a chance to be acknowledged. It could start with the bombardment of ripe apples hand-picked from a neighboring farm that are begging to be bitten into, or it could be the bouncing bushels of chard that managed to climb out of our garden beds earlier that morning. It could even be the fresh water from our well that refuses to wash a few stubborn lines of soil from the cracks in my hands that remind me of how many moments are added up in the creation of a single meal. From the worms and the microorganisms teeming in our compost to a circle of exceptionally unique people holding each other in thanks, I am grateful to see how the desire to share in food and experience can create such a precious sense of pride in one’s life. It’s not just the toiling kitchen laborer who gets to hold the knife to the chopping block that night, or who gets to play cleanup with the dishes that creates the community meal experience. Every participant becomes honorary in some way, whether you are playing soux chef, creative director, or even if you sprint across the lawn for a pair of tongs just before serving, you become an essential ingredient in that evening’s presentation.

There are so many factors to the magic that come into play, and one of the main courses is definitely the social function. People have been eating together in social groups for as long as homo sapiens has been able to wrap a leaf around a morsel and build a fire. In fact, we’ve all probably been enjoying each others’ salty company for far longer than that. Supper becomes a stage to share our favorite flavors with friends, and while taste buds may be tantalized by the aromatics of tenderly stirred sauces and stews, the spaghetti is often strung together with the tales of every face that stopped by to curiously peer into the pot that day. Every story from Grandma-ma’s travels across the globe to what the goats were caught doing that day becomes interwoven in the experience of re-enacting minor plays and scripts that life has been writing for us lately. It certainly doesn’t take long to develop an appetite for laughter and absurdity once you’ve reached a palatable mixture of the two. You’ve just got to be okay with your personal monologue being delivered by a sprig of asparagus floating and wagging beyond the grip of your teeth, as well.

So, if you get the chance to gather round the table with a sample platter of personalities, I recommend taking the time to enjoy it with its many pairings. Food cooked with love always tastes the best, and there’s almost always going to be leftovers. This is family, this is community, this is what we wish to share, and this is the experience we hope for everyone to have around their food; it’s certainly what keeps us coming back for more.