In my house, you have to answer very carefully when someone asks, “Are you hungry?” Weigh your options. Did you wear stretchy pants or are you willing to spend the rest of the day with the top button of your jeans popped? In Italian American families like mine, everyone thinks that their mom makes the best meatballs, or that their dad seasons the best steaks, or that their nonna bakes the best pizzelles for Christmas. Of course, homemade cooking makes everyone feel warm and fuzzy inside (especially us Italians), so we are all biased.
But when I say that my parents truly make the best food you’ll eat anywhere, it feels like an objective fact.
— Gina Muscato (@GinaMuscato) December 18, 2020
This is because at any family function (whether it’s Christmas, Easter, Memorial Day, or just another Sunday), everyone flocks to my house. And my parents do all the cooking. At the Melchionne household, there’s no point in trying to rival what’s already on the table. Sure, we eat the traditional spaghetti and meatballs on Sunday, but there’s nothing like gathering around the table when Mom whips out steak pizzaiola with zucchini fritters, or when Dad serves broccoli and cavatelli with a hard hunk of bread for dipping.
In my house, food is a social activity that fills the very air. God forbid the family arrives too early; when the first dish has yet to be served, it feels a little awkward. When I go out with friends, my idea of having fun always involves food. “Where are we eating after the movie?”; “Are we shopping or eating first?”; “What time are we out of here so we can eat?” When I finish breakfast in the morning, my next thought will be, “What’s for lunch?”
Yeah, I’m a natural-born foodie.
And as much as this may be part of the Italian American experience, which is particularly shared on the East Coast, the way food connects people is not exclusive to the Italians. The phrase “let’s break bread together” has been around for centuries and is traced back to biblical tales. Think about The Last Supper; this catalytic event in Christianity took place at a dinner table, with a gathering of friends, around an array of food. How different would have been Christ’s last meeting with the Disciples if there wasn’t any food to eat?
We all know how food brings people together; in close proximity at a table, there’s nothing to do but eat and talk.
Not only is eating and chatting therapeutic, but it also benefits you in the long run. A 2011 study conducted by Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that children who eat dinner with their parents five or more times a week are closer with them, eat healthier overall, and even use drugs and alcohol less. While in recent years families have less time to actually sit down and share a meal because of long work hours, school, and the lack of mandated paid leave, the value of food and the act of consuming it together has not diminished.
This is not exclusive to America. In France, food is so idealized that it’s frowned up to rush through a meal. People in Cambodia bring food and mats to open spaces in a potluck-like gathering. In Japan, meals are revered and never eaten without saying, “Itadakimasu”, which means “I humbly accept”, a phrase that is rooted in Buddhist principles that respect the animals and plants that give us life.
In Armenia, the precise method of kneading lavash bread connects women in a social tradition that’s recognized by UNESCO. In North Africa, couscous is a staple in many households and embodies togetherness when traditionally shared by the family in one large pot. The Mediterranean Diet found in Italy, Spain, and Greece is also listed on UNESCO’s countries of Intangible Cultural Heritage and Humanity. The ingredients found in Mediterranean cooking are all about bold flavors and utilizing all resources to reduce waste. With these values, the Mediterranean emphasizes the way gathering to eat is a social ritual.
Food is more than just sustenance; this idea spans continents, customs, and religions. Cooking and sharing a meal is the culture-bridging ritual that plants everyone on equal ground. Everyone knows a mom, an aunt, an uncle, or just a good friend whose food is to die for, and the traditions they erect when they cook for you forges relationships, memories, and familial perspectives throughout life.
So when you find yourself at someone’s house and you hear, “Are you hungry?”, always answer with a resounding yes. You never know what memories you’re about to create.
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