Whether it's meant to soothe or to celebrate, the act of giving sustenance communicates caring and strengthens neighborly bonds. Food writer Michele Kayal shares heart- and hearth-warming recipes for quiche, soup, cinnamon rolls and more.
Cinnamon rolls aren't traditional condolence fare — you know, like a casserole or a bundt cake — but I somehow knew they were right, that their sweet spice would soothe my friend, would make her house feel like a warm blanket in the days after her dad died.
As we walked up the street to deliver them, my daughter, then 6, asked why we were bringing our friend food. Because she's sad, I explained. And when you make people food with your hands, it can help them feel better.
She thought about it for a minute. "Because when they eat it, it goes inside them," she said, "and then they know you love them, right?"
I'm pretty sure that entire teams of gastronomes, food scientists and culinary arts professionals couldn't have come up with anything closer to the truth.
Around the world, different cultures have always given different foods in different ways for different reasons. In Asia, newlyweds receive cooked rice dishes to symbolize prosperity and fertility, and an Indian mother feeds her son from her hands during the coming-of-age ceremony to symbolize the end of his maternal dependence (theoretically, anyway). In Latin America, women who give birth enjoy la cuarentena (quarantine), a 40-day recuperation during which friends and relatives clean the house, run errands and nourish the new mom with strength-building foods such as carrots and chicken soup (and you thought bringing around a lasagna was good enough). Jewish homes are warmed with a gift of bread (so the house will never know hunger), salt (so life will always have flavor) and a third item, usually a broom (to sweep away troubles) or sugar (to keep life sweet). After a death, friends and relatives bring Jewish families a "meal of consolation" — essentially, food for the grieving family and for the mourners they'll be receiving. Some Christian traditions have a similar "meal of mercy."
Lasagna or carrots, rice or bread, cinnamon rolls or salt. It doesn't matter what you bring. It is the act of bringing sustenance or sweetness that communicates caring — and something larger. It cements our bonds, the chemistry of flour and eggs, butter and sugar making not just a cake, but a community.
All I knew about the neighbors behind me was that they'd strung Christmas lights around their yard where they hosted groovy parties deep into autumn. When I finally met them — had a ball gone into their garden? — they offered me a glass of wine, showed me the art they made from old beer bottles, and sent me home with a bag of seed gathered from the wildflowers in their lawn. The next day, I brought them a loaf of spelt bread, which struck me as the edible equivalent of their Birkenstocks.
When it was my turn to bring dinner to an ailing neighbor, I delivered a hearty minestrone soup, relishing its beans and vegetables as restorative tonics and its one-pot ease as a guarantee that even her 9-year-old son could heat it up for her. And when a new family moved in up the street, I opted for sugar rather than a broom and made coffee cake.
I waited on the new porch until a girl about my daughter's age opened the door. I could hear from inside that her mom was on the phone.
"Hi," I said, introducing myself and pointing in the direction of my house. "I've brought you some coffee cake."
"Why?" she asked, taking the plate.
"Just to say we're glad you're our new neighbors."
"Wow," she beamed. "Me too!"
She and my daughter had their first play date recently, painting pictures and playing with our cat. They want to ride bikes together and giggle about the teachers in their school. They are becoming friends.
And I like to think that they understand it started with a couple of eggs and a half-hour of effort.