The Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium is always a wonderful time to see old friends, renew connections, and make new ones. It’s a wonderful learning opportunity to hear and see presentations ranging from the humorous to the academic about food, foodways, and the culture of food from around the country and around the world. Oh, and there’s good food to eat. Almost constantly. For three days.
During the close of the last big meal on Saturday night, I got to hear and be a part of a conversation about what makes food, well, good. And it all comes down to love.
Why did the food taste so much better when your mom made your favorite dish than that same dish tastes anywhere else? Why did the cup of hot cocoa that your grandmother made for you taste even better than a cup of cocoa you make when you’re using organic milk and fair-trade chocolate that your grandmother would laugh about the price of? Love.
That was food that was made to show love, to express the love they felt for you. B.J. Chester-Tamayo (Alcenia’s) says that what makes any recipe soul food is not the recipe or the ingredients. What makes it soul food is nothing more than love. She says that you have to love the people you’re cooking for to make real soul food. And she’s right. That love is as important as any spice and affects the meal just as much.
Then there’s the food made from love. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s there. Pepe Magallenes (Las Tortugas Deli Mexicana) says that the food knows when you love it, that it tastes better, cooks better when you love it.
Women making tamales in their kitchens in Mexico, Central America, and all over the US, show this everyday. Ask one of them for a recipe for the masa they use for their tamales. You won’t get exact measurements. It’s not something that can be put into words and numbers. They’ll tell you that you have to get your hands in it. You’ll know when it’s right by the way it feels.
When your making a soup, or a sauce, or a cake, or bread, you don’t just follow a recipe and let it go. When you love the food, you don’t want it to taste any bit less than perfect when you bring it to the table. You taste it, you add what it needs, and because you love it, it turns out right.
And then there are those people who do what they do for the love of it all. These are the bakers who get up at 4am to bake bread because they can’t imagine life without the feel of flour and water turning into bread under their hands. They’re the cooks who spend years working in kitchens that aren’t even their own because they can’t even think about not cooking. They’re the chefs who put their hears, souls, and every penny they have into building the restaurant they’ve dreamed of having because that’s just what they need to do.
These people aren’t in it for money or glory or fame. Their customers become loyal and then become friends not because they have a chic place or a cheap product. They succeed because the love they have for what they do comes through in every aspect of their food. You can taste it at the first bite, sense it from the moment you walk in the door. The people who got there before you are smiling; their plates don’t leave the table with much food on them; they’re making reservations for their next meal before they leave. When these people are doing something special, they don’t have to worry about what to do with their leftovers because there aren’t any. They’re the cooks who become institutions in themselves, who become such a part of a community that if they ever left, no one else could fill the void they leave behind them.
Working with food isn’t an easy job. It means sacrifice. It means grueling hours, missed holidays with family, scars that mark their successes and failures. For those of us who work 9 to 5 jobs, it’s almost impossible to imagine living a life like that. We question the sanity of the people who choose it. But for them, it’s beyond that. It’s a passion. It’s an obsession sometimes. It’s always hard. But they do it over and over and over again. Just for the love of it all.