Sito was my late grandmother-in-law. No matter when my husband and I stopped by (or even, sorry to say, dropped in without calling), Sito would provide a feast for us. She spent almost every day cooking and filling her freezer with nourishing delicious meals and treats, betting on the chance that someone would stop by, if not this afternoon, then the next. When you’d spill your troubles to Sito, she’d say affectionately, “Awww, Dino, go get yourself a plate.” And she’d motion to the stove where a banquet that would feed an army sat hot and ready.
For generations, cooking food has been more than just about feeding one’s body. It has been and still is a way to nourish a soul, a relationship, and to provide companionship and sustenance in a world that is sometimes cold. A hearty meal with family and friends, complete with hot bread and smooth, creamy butter, sometimes topped off with a bit of wine and finished with a cup of steaming coffee, is the way women nurture those they love, and put material form to their feelings. If they don’t know what to do for someone, they cook. They cook after births of babies of their friends. They cook for funeral dinners. They cook at Christmastime elaborate fixings, not only to celebrate the holiday of Christ’s birth with decorated cookies and home-made candy, turkey with orange sauce and cheesy potatoes… but to put tangible life into their devotion for their families and express their love in a way they otherwise can’t. When there’s nothing left to say and one doesn’t know what to do, or trouble comes along, one can cook, and things somehow seem a little brighter. In lovingly preparing food, a woman hopes and feels she has made a difference.
Women will hover over a family member about to bite into a concoction that took all afternoon to create. She studies every eyebrow, every cock of the head, in anticipation, hoping to see pleasure on her loved one’s face. Seeing that will have made the effort worthwhile, and when she puts her floury, dusty apron away she will be satisfied.
We live in the heart of Amish country. I’ve been blessed to have some Amish ladies occasionally help me with my cleaning. Once, I heard the ladies speak of Cousin Nettie’s wedding. Everyone in the community, young and old, pitched in to make food for the special day. The cooking began several days in advance, and was truly a social event in itself for the members of the women-folk. When the Amish women want to shower their blessings on someone, they start at the stove.
While interviewing World War II veterans some years ago one thing that impressed me was the fondness with which each man spoke about his first meal home after the war. I imagine those wives and mothers of men, now long gone, standing at the stove, praying and preparing. What else could they do?
Yesterday, my husband and I spent the afternoon in the kitchen together, making sfeeha (Lebanese meat pies), stuffed grape leaves, lentils with onions and rice, and Arabic bread (recipes that Sito shared with us before she died). It took us awhile to get in the groove of working together. Apparently, I was folding the dough of the sfeeha wrong, and he was very definitely hogging the lemon juice. But once we found a rhythm, it was a very enjoyable endeavor. As the meat sizzled, cooking inside the oven, I felt pride in what my husband and I were creating — a meal yes, but more than that, a token of love for our family. You see, what precipitated the entire afternoon of cooking was the knowledge that it was the last day that our college-aged sons would be home before going back to school. We wanted to prepare a meal for them that they would love… that they would miss… that they would seek and so return. And so, like generations of women before, and cultures of women around the world even today, my husband and I set up shop in the kitchen and started pounding dough.
Today, the boys will return to the university, with a carload of their things, school supplies, some grocery items. Also in the back seat will be some Tupperware containers of Lebanese food and some miniature apple pies, the fruit of yesterday’s labor.
Today, I wrestle with my feelings for my boys. I love them intensely. I want to see them follow their dreams and succeed. I wish they were little again and living here. I am proud of them. I am happy. I am sad. I wish I could shield them from life’s sorrows. I can’t solve all their problems. I want them to know I’m here for them. For these reasons and a million more, I prepared food for them. And in doing so I connected with not only my boys, my husband, and my family, but with millions of women around the world alive today, and some who have passed on. We cooked and we cook simply because… we love.