In Fear the Walking Dead, my current Sunday night TV show, a major character named Nick recently wanted to comfort a little girl whose father had been fed as a sacrifice to the infected dead. But the little girl speaks only Spanish, and Nick speaks only English, so he ended up communicating his care by giving her a Gansito–a little individually-wrapped snack cake he obtained at some peril to his life.
In The Tale of Despereaux, a book I’m getting ready to discuss with my children’s lit students, soup is a pivotal symbol. The cook makes a surreptitious batch of soup (which has been outlawed) as an act of courage and defiance. The hero–a mouse–draws strength for his climactic act from a few spoonfuls of the cook’s secret soup. And at the end of the story, the major characters, some of whom were formerly enemies, celebrate by eating soup (now legal) around a lavish dinner table.
I spent this past weekend at Virginia Beach with three of my dearest friends, and as we discussed on the last night, some of our favorite memories from the trip had to do with meals: the conversations around the table, the atmosphere in the restaurants (or outside on the patio next to the boardwalk), and, of course, the food. At lunch on Saturday, I traded my last fried shrimp taco for the rest of one friend’s macaroni and cheese, and we both got enough joy out of this simple swap that we were still talking about it hours later. It was an act that involved giving, receiving, and trying new things: some of life’s greatest joys.
I’ve told these stories because it’s hard to say what I want to say any other way, without resorting to platitudes. If you’ve ever been moved to tears by a gift of food (even a vending machine snack cake), felt disproportionately happy watching people eat something you cooked, or looked forward for days to a dinner party (or a pizza and movie night), you know what I mean.
This topic isn’t as simple as I wish I could pretend it is. Not everybody gets a warm glowy feeling from eating with other people. Some people have dietary restrictions due to allergies, illnesses, or convictions, and other people say insensitive things to them because they can’t understand (I have said these kinds of things more often than I care to think about). Others have eating disorders that make this a painfully thorny issue. And we can’t ignore the fact that millions of people don’t have enough food for basic subsistence.
So I’m not going to make sweeping generalizations like “Food is a universal language.” It’s not. But just like anything that functions as a vehicle of communication between people (only more so, because food literally becomes part of us), food allows us to make small steps toward understanding. Small steps like refraining from judging someone because of what they eat or don’t eat, or how they eat. Like accepting a meal without feeling obligated to give something in return. Like taking the time to know what a person really likes, wants, and needs. This is how we connect with people. This is how food speaks.