By Josh Leskar
When I moved away from my home in Florida, college-bound, I often found myself craving all of the home-made, delicious, heart-warming meals that my mother makes.
All five of them.
That's not to say that of all of her concoctions, only five of them were incredible - in fact, she's batting 1,000. She ONLY makes five things.
Well, six, if "making" reservations counts.
Once upon a time my mother would implore me to grab something – a Pop Tart, a Toaster Strudel, a cereal bar, ANYTHING – before I scampered down the stairs, out the door, and down the street with just enough time to play a round of hacky sack and catch the bus to school. On occasion, I would reluctantly pocket a pre-packaged meal, but more often than not, I’d decline. I simply wasn’t hungry, and if I was, there were more pressing issues at hand.
Like hacky sack…ing.
Lunch was nothing special and more-or-less typical: a sandwich of sorts, some fruit and a dessert. In the evening, our family dinners consisted mainly of my father grilling a protein on our infrared grill, Chinese delivery, one of my mother’s aforementioned "signatures," or the ever popular "fend for yourself” option, which often meant warming frozen pizzas or simply falling back on cereal.
Yet despite this hodgepodge of disjoined food options for any given meal, we almost always found time to have dinner together as a family. We had a tradition of completing the crossword puzzle throughout the day: my sister and I would start it in the morning before school, my mother would work on it during the day, and when my father finally arrived home from work (sometimes at 6:00pm, other times not until 9:00pm), he would help complete it, as we all took our seats around the dinner table.
Sometimes the murmurs of sitcom reruns or a televised sports game would hum in the background. Other times we’d play cards over our plates, trying our best to keep the two separate. Regardless of the activity, this was the one time each day during which we could talk about our days, our lives, and be together as a family.
We all need to eat. Yet in this fast paced world, it is often more convenient to grab fast food and rely upon microwaved, processed meals, eschewing the healthier, home-cooked, often tastier choices. However, as I see it, dinnertime provides the ideal atmosphere in which to simultaneously partake in something that is both necessary as well as enjoyable.
I’m not quite sure when the switch flipped, but by junior year of high school I relished the idea of cooking and baking, not so much because I loved the concoctions I created, but more because of the opportunity to gather those closest to me. Who is going to turn down free cake? Now, I view every meal - from park picnics to formal dinners - as a chance to highlight food’s greater potential.
When I made my latest move to San Francisco as a full-fledged adult, I arrived with two suitcases, one job offer, and zero friends. With a refusal to take a backseat in my own quest for a social life, I turned to the one pastime that I knew would help me explore this new city, help me meet fun and interesting people, and feed my stomach as well as my soul. These lessons I learned so long ago are the same ones that helped me start a new chapter in my life, and they will no doubt continue to help me moving forward.
Today, I teach at an after-school program dedicated to imparting the importance of cooking, while simultaneously teaching skills like math, culture, science and geography. But not a day goes by when I don’t attempt to also stress the importance of building a community of friends and family around the dinner table, and the unifying power of food, no matter what that food is.