Chronicle Books

There is poetry in food, kindness in the act of preparing it, and peace in sharing it.

There are gray areas: years ago, I’d heard about a restaurant where hundreds of samurai swords hang, point down, from the ceiling, directly over the heads of the diners while they eat.

This is not kind; this is sociopathic.
But in the act of preparing the most mundane grilled cheese—choosing the cheese, buttering the bread, warming the pan, pressing down the sandwich with the flat of your grandmother’s spatula so the cheese melts and the bread tightens and crackles and smooths like solid silk—lies an inherent and basic subconscious attention to detail that exists almost nowhere else in our lives, except in the small daily rituals that we all have. You squeeze your toothpaste onto your toothbrush in exactly the same manner every single morning and every single night. When you step out of the shower, you towel dry your hair before putting your makeup on. You shave one side of your face before the other, and that’s the way you’ve done it since you were in college. Mundane though they may be, these are the rituals that make us who we are. But they don’t necessarily make us kind. The act of preparing food for ourselves, and for others, does. And the act of conviviality, of sharing it with others—Marion Cunningham called it modern tribal fire—is what makes us human, whether it is tarted up and tortured into vertical excess, or nothing more than butter spread on a piece of bread.
Read a free excerpt of James Beard Award–winning author Elissa Altman’s new memoir, Poor Man’s Feast, on our Facebook page.
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