By Andrea Israel and Nancy Garfinkel
Everyone knows the old saying, “You are what you eat.”
But there’s an even greater truth: you are what you say about eating.
That gleam in your eye, when you reminisce about eating pasta in Rome, is probably less about the fettuccine than it is about Federico, the handsome guy at the next table.
The ache in your heart, when you tell the story of spoon-feeding soup to your beloved, ailing grandma, is undoubtedly more about loving and missing her than it is about the lousy soup.
How do we know this? Well, through a surprising and wonderful turn of events, we have come to recognize the inextricable connections that exist between the foods we eat, the ways in which we talk about that food, and our deepest — sometimes hidden — emotions.
And we’ve been given this glimmer of wisdom by our recently published novel-cookbook, The Recipe Club: A Tale of Food and Friendship. The story charts the ups and downs of a lifelong friendship between characters who stay connected, despite a bumpy relationship, by forming their own two-person Recipe Club.
When readers of advance copies began asking us to help launch their own food-themed friendship-and-storytelling circles, we knew we were on to something wonderful and important.
So from coast to coast, we are running Recipe Clubs, intimate gatherings in which members share real-life stories associated with personal recipes. Yes, Recipe Clubs are about food and cooking . . . but they’re about creating community. Each member, at every meeting, has a chance to speak out with honesty and be heard without judgment. Honoring the age-old, oral-history tradition, we’re helping to create a tradition: building new friendships and deepening existing friendships through the prism of food, friendship, and storytelling.
We’ve been privileged to hear stories from Recipe Club members in small towns and big cities alike, from stay-at-home moms to corporate executives, from those who love to cook to those who just love to eat. And with each tale, we’ve come to realize that talking about food — at least in the safe, intimate environment of a Recipe Club — is a powerful lens through which to understand your life, your family, your friendships, and your attitudes. Food in its entirety — as an ingredient, as a cooked dish, as something eaten, something fed, something given, something cherished — is intrinsically loaded with emotional content. It crosses barriers of race, age, gender, nationality, and culture because it ultimately relates to the most universal aspects of the human condition!
Take the story of Carolyn. In college, she had a mad crush on a boy. Since she was an excellent cook, her roommate persuaded her to throw a lavish dinner party, citing the old adage, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”
Working day and night, Carolyn created a perfect meal. Her pièce de résistance: a Baked Alaska. Heart beating and dessert about to be flamed (a stand-in for her burning passion, no doubt), Carolyn poked her head out the closed kitchen door to present her masterpiece — only to find her roommate and the boy she adored locked in a mad embrace!
Carolyn’s response: a slammed kitchen door and a sledge-hammer fist-punch to the Baked Alaska. And the satisfaction of feeling emboldened by a powerful rage — rather than being beaten down by the pain of betrayal, disappointment, and humiliation of the moment.
Or hear the tale of Debbie, who grew up in a food-friendly family of five. Decades after leaving home, Debbie still cooked pasta for five. The problem was, she lived alone. The bigger problem: she ate for five, too. Her Recipe Club tale chronicled her slow journey of learning to accept and embrace the fact of living alone, and of learning to nurture herself with the foods she still loved — but adding in healthy servings of self-respect.
These real, touching revelations (and many others, about subjects as wide-ranging as sharing with sisters, fighting with parents, finding self-confidence, coming out to a family, struggling with self-esteem, and the joy of not cooking when there’s someone else to do it) are all honestly expressed and respectfully received at the Recipe Clubs we run. While each story evokes its own response — laughter, tears, resonant recognition, surprise — all the Recipe Club stories we hear share some basic ingredients: food, feelings, family, friendship.
When we wrote the final sentence of our novel, The Recipe Club: A Tale of Food and Friendship, we thought we had completed the book. But now we understand that the story is ever-unfolding . . . and our journey has just begun!
Andrea Israel is a producer/writer for ABC’s Focus Earth. She was a producer/writer on Anderson Cooper 360, Dateline, and Good Morning America (which garnered her an Emmy Award). Her story In Donald’s Eyes was recently optioned for a film. Israel is the author of Taking Tea. Her writing has appeared in many publications.
Nancy Garfinkel is co-author of The Wine Lover’s Guide to the Wine Country: The Best of Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino (Chronicle Books, 2005). A creative strategist, design consultant, writer, and editor for magazine, corporate, and non-profit clients, she has won a host of graphic arts and editorial merit awards. She has written extensively about food and graphic arts.
For more information please visit www.therecipeclubbook.com