Even in the most devoted cook’s life, there comes that inevitable time when, for reasons of anything ranging from the worst tragedies to the most simple ennui, you just can’t focus on fixing a meal. Even for those of us who love to cook, and think of it as a high point of the day–sometimes you just wake up and can’t do it. Or sometimes someone who lives around you wakes up and just can’t do it. Maybe someone broke a limb, or a car broke down, or you’ve just spent a week cooking for a house full of guests. At any of these times, what comes into its own is the Neighbor Meal.
The Neighbor Meal is one of the warmest, best, and simplest ways of connecting yourself in…well, the neighborhood, however you define that. And you can define it a lot of ways. The immediate vicinity. A group of friends. A group joined together by a common interest. Any group, really, that is connected by a thread of community. And the best way of strengthening that thread is to give or exchange food.
We have a lot of Neighbor Meal traditions out here in the little alpine valley where I live. When a woman has a baby, we do a roster so that she gets enough food to feed the rest of her family for a short period while she settles in with the newborn. (My split pea soup–see below–goes over big here, especially with families with kids. And you can freeze it ultra successfully.) When someone is ill, we all go on the alert and bring food. If someone goes to the hospital, we leave food at their home for the remaining family. All of these things.
I have noticed, in the preparation and presentation of the Neighbor Meal, that the person getting the most out of the gift of food is not always the recipient Neighbor. Quite often, it’s me. I’ll never forget the courtesy with which the Indigo Ray, in the hospital for an operation on cancer many years ago, received a demented, distracted box of lemon squares. I’d completely forgotten that she didn’t eat white sugar or white flour, in my total freakout that she was in the hospital at all. But she accepted the gift for what it was: a way of soothing myself, while I fooled myself into thinking I was soothing her. And I suppose just the fact that I had brought something and was trying to hide my own upset strengthened the thread, too.
And then there was last year when I went to a friend’s house, where she was slowly dying of a terrible disease. She who had loved food as much as I do, she couldn’t eat solids any longer. I spent two days making three different kinds of soups, liquidizing them carefully, with a necessary obsessiveness: any little bits left unstrained would be a positive danger. The next time I saw her, she could no longer speak, but she wrote out appreciative thanks about the soups, which she claimed to have eaten for a week after I went back to the States. I didn’t believe her. I knew those soups had been pecked at by her distracted husband, and then thrown away. But I loved her even more for the grace that knew I needed to be needed right then, and that the only way I could express my own love was in the kitchen. I loved her all the more for knowing and acknowledging that, and the last time I saw her, the day before she died, she wrote vigorously on her white board again about the soup and how good it was. That was all for me. I had meant to comfort her, but she was comforting me. Although maybe, now I think of it, her comforting of me was a comfort for her, too.
So the thread, complex and beautiful, is woven.
I thought of this last night, when, tired of myself, which meant, inevitably, tired of my own productions, even my (gasp!) food, I gratefully turned to a hamper that my neighbor across the street brought over on Christmas Day. Homemade tamales. Spinach enchiladas. Spicy Spanish rice. Salsa verde. I heated them all up, tossed what lettuce I had with a diced avocado, minced green onions, walnut oil and a squeeze of lime, and crowded everything on a plate. And it was not just entirely delicious (I’m lucky to live in a neighborhood of Extremely Talented Cooks), it was comforting, too…to think that she had packed that basket and brought it over just when I needed it. I had needed it, and the fact of being a part of that neighborhood web fed me as much as the delicious food on my plate. And I think she liked bringing it, too.
(And in case you want a simple Neighbor Meal to take to someone, here is my recipe, cadged off a bag of split peas, for The Perfect Neighbor Meal Split Pea Soup:
Wash and sort a pound of split peas. Put in a large soup pot with 8 cups of water, 1 cup chopped celery, 1 cup chopped onion, 1 1/2 cups chopped carrot, a bit of dried thyme rubbed between your fingers, a bit of red pepper, and a bay leaf. Bring to a boil, and them simmer for about 45 minutes to an hour, until the peas are tender. Salt. You can mash the peas with a spoon, or blend the soup in a blender or processor, or (what I usually do) just leave them the way they are, since when you reheat the soup, the peas will cook some more and start to dissolve on their own. (It tastes best at this stage, and best of all after you’ve frozen the soup, thawed it, and reheated.) At the last minute, add fresh ground pepper, and serve with grated cheddar or a dollop of sour cream on top.
If you want, you can add a ham hock to the start of the process. But it’s absolutely swell without, and that way you don’t have to inquire if the neighbors at the receiving end eat ham.
There is no child in the world who doesn’t love this soup. Trust me on this one. And it will comfort you to make it almost as much as it will comfort them to eat it. Trust me on that one, too.)