I wrote this last December and never published it. These Posts never feel finished.
1: an act of reuniting : the state of being reunited
There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered. – Nelson Mandela
I experienced 9/11 as a young cook living in Brooklyn and working in NYC. A huge part of my life was dedicated to cooking and becoming a chef. On 9/12, the day after the World Trade Center was destroyed, we all came into work at a restaurant in Greenwich Village. That evening, in the middle of dinner service I looked down at what I was doing, and was struck with the realization that it didn’t mean anything. The career path, the work, the politics, meant absolutely nothing faced with horrific loss of life just four miles south of us. Death, pain, sickness and suffering are the ultimate bullshit filters. The only thing that matters are people.
I don’t think it’s just me, life felt different in 2022. Especially during the holiday season. Maybe there is less humanity around. We could just be busier or more scattered to the wind. I think its all of the above, and more. Unfortunately this distance has made me weaker and brought me personally to a darker place and longing for more close human contact like the family gatherings of my childhood.
Dinner at Grandma’s house was like a banquet. There was always the traditional fare like Turkey, Ham and Uncle Curly’s famous gizzard stuffing, but my family had been in this area for over one hundred years and during that time some unique dishes had evolved. Like a casserole dish called Chilenean Pie. Chilenean Pie is certainly an acquired taste and is usually only appreciated by less than half the people that try it.
Here’s the layers, the bottom consists of small cubes of beef braised with tomatoes, next add pieces of roasted chicken over the beef. Sprinkle on some whole black olives and a layer of hard-boiled eggs (yeah, weird, I know). Then comes the grand finale, pour over a very thick layer of hot, and very sweet polenta. My Great Uncle told me that my Great Grandfather would grate fresh sweet corn right into the bubbling polenta when they had it. All of this was done is a large oval metal casserole dish. The entire casserole is baked in the oven for several hours and towards the end the lid was removed and baking would continue until there was a deep, rich caramelized polenta crust. This crust was highly sought after.
As a child I had a huge family. Seven Aunts and Uncles on each side and thirty six first cousins with Great Uncles, Great Aunts, Grandparents and all their cousins filled my Grandparents house for the holidays. It was standing room only on Christmas Day. The house was abuzz with conversation, running children and the constant cycle of people overcrowding the kitchen and getting kicked out. A Christmas tree was near the fireplace and there was a massive pile of presents spread out from it’s base spilling into the living room like Santa had crashed his sleigh.
There were other twists on common classics at the dinner table. Our tamales were tied tightly with a string at each end and shaped like a Rugby ball. They were made with pork and a red sauce. Hot (spicy) or cold (not spicy) were your options. They also had olives and raisins inside which is something I thought was totally normal until later in life. Enchiladas were a little different too. They basically consisted of flour tortillas dipped in sauce, and filled with cheese, onions, olives and eggs. They were very moist and had a strong onion flavor. My Grandfather insisted that they be baked with no cover so they would dry out a bit and have a crispy crust. I had never tasted another enchilada like this in my entire life until I was 40 years old and went to dinner at my girlfriend’s (now wife) family’s house for Christmas one year. I was blown away by the fact that their enchiladas were EXACTLY the same as my family’s enchiladas. Little did I know that my future wife’s Great Grandparents were friends with my Great Grandparents and the recipe was shared amongst them.
Homemade flour tortillas were common back then, and with those tortillas came palillies. Palillies are flour tortillas cooked the traditional way on the comal, then fried in hot oil and spread with strawberry jelly and dusted with some powdered sugar. We also did the balloon tortilla in the oven. These tortillas were baked in a very hot oven and the hot air inside would expand to create a tortilla that looked like a balloon. The outside would get hard and crispy. Pull it out of the oven and immediately spread soft butter on the outside. It would crack and collapse and the buttery shards were dipped in Uncle Curly’s famous chile.
It feels so far away now. We hardly get together anymore except to celebrate a new life or in remembrance of a life lost to us. The time and distance has weakened our families, communities and our country. Is there a way to get it back? Can we return to what we once were and recreate the spirit and feelings of our youth?
Thirty years ago we had more anchors in our lives that kept us centered to a particular place. Those anchors were usually the matriarchs of our families. They made extraordinary sacrifices to take care of the people they loved and to create a central, consistent place for those loved ones to gather. They were the suns in our family solar systems.
Unfortunately, the matriarchs of our childhood passed on and our families shrank in size, The type of women who constituted the glue of our lives still exist but there is just less human material to work with to create those special moments.
Some have died and many of us have moved away to start families in other places. Sometimes a marriage to a certain person can drive a wedge as well. There is also a different kind of separation in the air that is harder to pin down and even harder to overcome. It comes from multiple places and snowballs into a wall in our minds. It comes from politics, social media, disease, work, distance and the dislike of others for their beliefs and lifestyles. We are so busy in our lives that there isn’t much left in the day to dedicate to the special gatherings we once held (this is one that I am guilty of). Also, it takes an incredible amount of strength and stamina to maintain a large family unit.
One person has to do it. An individual has to make sacrifices to get the ball rolling if things are going to change. They don’t have to do it all, nor should they. Reunion is a process that takes time, effort, persistence and some failures. Families can build extraordinary moments together but it takes a family of participants to make that happen.
So how then? It can start small and they don’t have to be your closest relatives. Something as simple as a text message about a get together with a few close friends and family is a great start. A monthly dinner club using an email list for communication is a good way to get people together. You don’t have to pay for everything either. Start with a potluck and ask for volunteers to help with setup and clean up. Ask for donations of time and supplies that makes the host’s life easier. It doesn’t have to be completely planned and perfect. Just get it started and adjust course along the way. You never know what good things can happen until you get some momentum in that direction.
Change is a necessity.