I owned a successful restaurant in Beverly Hills for over 20 years.
But here’s some irony: I come from a family that, for the most part, can’t cook.
In my years as a restaurateur, I learned a great deal about what draws people together around a table to share a meal.
That’s how families and friends build and deepen relationships; that’s how we build food memories that last all of our lives.
My grandmother could make one thing well—Boston Cream Pie—from a box. I always joke that my mother could burn boiling water. But she could bake an amazing pie crust and great rum balls that my parents gave as gifts to their friends every holiday season. I still remember sheet trays of them drying on top of the refrigerator. My father always cooked the Thanksgiving turkey and then made a fabulous turkey carcass soup with barley—another great food memory.
I’m not sure why, but I’ve loved reading recipes since I was a little girl. I didn’t often cook while I was growing up, but I enjoyed reading almost any type of recipe. I imagined myself preparing the meal and how it appeared, how it smelled and tasted. I guess you could say that’s one food memory that fueled my future—and my love for the restaurant business.
I was speaking with a friend the other day about the importance of family dinners, and we got to talking about our food memories growing up and what we’ve done with our families to create food memories for our kids. Each of us grew up in completely different environments with completely different backgrounds, but we discovered that we had similar experiences, all centered around food. In fact, when we compared our food memories, we realized how similar we were and agreed on the valuable role that food has on friends and family, all the people who matter around our table.
When I was in middle school, my parents had friends from mainland China. I have a very clear memory of a beautiful set of chopsticks that they gave to my mother as a birthday present all the way from China.
This was in the 1960s when traveling between the U.S. and China was difficult (at best). It was also a time when people were escaping from China to almost any country that they could reach. I know that this family moved permanently to the U.S., so anything they brought with them was precious. My mother was honored and humbled to receive this special gift from them. She brought them with her whenever we went to a Chinese restaurant for dinner, which was fairly often.
My parents loved Chinese food, and eating with our Chinese friends. I remember a big “lazy Susan” in the middle of the table filled with the many dishes they’d order for us to eat.
There was always a lot of discussion about what was in a particular bowl. One of us would taste it and inevitably they would say, “It’s so delicious you have to try it!” With all of the tasting of the different flavors, the turning of the lazy Susan toward whoever wanted something to try, the chatter about what we were eating or who got the last bite of something wonderful, it was always a fun and crazy dinner.
Talk about a food memory. I loved those meals with all of their silliness and laughter.
I hadn’t thought about this particular food memory for years until a conversation with my friend. As a man of Japanese decent, he told me that when his family would have everyone over for a big meal, each invited guest would bring a special dish to contribute to the table, not a huge casserole or large bowl of salad, but small bowls and plates of a favorite food and recipe. And they would share. You could have just one bite to experience the flavors in each dish. He sentimentally shared with me that there was always so much laughter around the table and that the act of each individual sharing their favorite dish with those at the table always left lasting memories.
In my years as a restaurateur, I learned a great deal about the importance of that kind of soulful generosity.
For one thing, I learned to respect the food memories that arise each time people come together around a table for a meal. Food is not only a source of nourishment but also the stimulus for the connections we make with others. It brings us together; it is the one activity that allows families and friends to build and deepen relationships with one another. Food memories become an immediate catalyst for time travel, reminding us of special moments in our past so that we can learn to live better in the present and live optimistically for the future.
The great thing about food memories is that they can be made anytime, anywhere, and will stay with us for all of our lives.
Food memories don’t have to be something that happened in our childhood but can be created as adults as well. They can be as simple as spending time with a friend having coffee, perhaps every Friday, or a regular Sunday get together with family (whether it’s the family you were born into or the family you choose).
The important thing is to spend time sharing food with those who are important in your life.
It’s been proven time and again that spending time around the table with family and friends will lead to a longer, healthier and happier life.
It’s the food memories we create that are the basis for the good things that happen in our lives through strengthening our relationships.
Author: Fran Berger
Image: Beverly & Pack / Flickr
Editor: Sara Kärpänen