07 October 2011


There's something about rituals that give connections between two people, and few of these are as powerful as food and drink. I remember my mother telling me stories of how her father (and, come to think of it, mother-in-law) would take great pains to make sure that the morning cup of coffee was just so. My mother, not being a coffee drinker, didn't have that connection to her mother-in-law. Her dad and her had different rituals, so that was fine, but when you come into a new house, there's something about that coffee drinking ritual that binds people. "How do you like your coffee" is almost code speak for, "I love you and want you to be happy."

This goes for tea, alcohol, and other such things that have such rituals associated with them. I can't count the number of times that I've sat across from a girl friend, while she poured her heart out over a long island iced tea, or a cup of tea. I've had some great conversations over a steaming pot of Turkish coffee, and a plate of baklava. Every time my boss gets a chance, he'll pick me up a caffeine free soda on the way to work, grab himself a soda as well, so that we can drink the beverages together in the morning. Again, it's not the actual beverage that's important, but the fact that you're both having versions of the same thing, together, to the exclusion of everyone else on the planet. This was the same thing when I was in Florida, and working around lots of people whom I genuinely liked. We'd all go grab a soda from the machine, and gossip furiously while sipping said soda.

Mind you, my boss is a confirmed coffee drinker. My friends and I do drink alcohol. However, in certain contexts (I don't drink coffee, or in the case of my friends at the old job, drinking alcohol at working hours is inappropriate), you shift the beverage to suit the needs of all the people there, so that it still gives that sense of belonging, of bonding, of togetherness. One of my dear friends, Dan, used to live nearby me, and would come over (in my eyes, too infrequently, in his, quite often) for food at my house, because we really liked each other's company. He doesn't drink alcohol, because he's a muslim. So instead, he'd bring over a nice bottle of exotic juice of various kinds, be it mango, passion fruit, whatever. Again, it was the sharing of something special that brought us together, in addition to the meal.

When I'm over to visit my brother's house in DC, I have a cup of coffee in the morning with my sister-in-law and my brother. In my normal life, I assiduously avoid caffeine. A soda can keep me up all night. However, for the sake of the ritual, I'll put that aside, and indulge. Frankly, after running around with multiple children underfoot, I fall asleep blissfully tired anyway, caffeine or no caffeine.

What am I getting at overall?

Rituals are important. They bind us to the people that we share them with, and they bind us to the people who came before us. We're in the midst of the major holy days for Judaism, are about to hit some major national holidays in the USA, and will have multiple other reasons to celebrate in the coming months.

This is where I encourage you to NOT take one thing with you that's vegan to your family's house.

Don't look at me like that.

Take MULTIPLE things.

Don't just bring one thing that you and your partner can eat. Bring a main dish, a couple of sides, and at least one baked good. Why? Because if you bring just the one thing, your contribution will get lost in the shuffle. If you bring a couple of excellent sides, a main, and a dessert, you'll have multiple things that folk will have a chance to try, and rave over. For example, if you're going to a Thanksgiving meal, offer to bring the mashed potatoes. 5 lbs of red or yukon gold potatoes, boiled. 2 cups of coconut milk. 1 head of roasted garlic. A good hefty few pinches of salt. A good grinding of black pepper. Smash together, and eat. So good.

Offer to bring a puffed tofu dish. Toss cubed extra firm tofu, cornmeal (enough to make a light breading), garlic powder, thyme, turmeric, plenty of salt, plenty of ground black pepper, a bit of turmeric for colour, and a good dose of vegetable oil. Toss everything together, and lay it out on a parchment sheet. Bake at 350F for 25 minutes, until all the tofu is puffed up and crisp on the outside. Don't skimp on the fat or the salt. It needs it.

Offer to bring a set of cupcakes, or cookies, or pie. There's a thousand and a half recipes out there that work very well. Make them and take them along. You will begin new rituals that form ties to the old ones. I love going with Steve to his family gatherings in Chicago. His family is lovely, and they look forward to my coming over, because they know I'm not going to bring twigs and bark, but rather things that are luscious and decadent. They know to expect things that leave them feeling full and happy, and remind them of the good tastes of home. This is not the time to break out the bark and twigs. Seriously. It's not. Eat that at home, with people that you know will appreciate it.

If you're going to take a salad, make sure that it's such a riot of colours and textures and flavours that nobody can resist. Throw in stuff that people always wanted to try, but were afraid of, like jicama, celery root, fennel bulbs, every colour of bell pepper you can find, lots of fresh herbs, citrus zest. Go nuts! Add walnuts, pecans, slivered almonds. The point of a celebration is that you enjoy things that you don't do every other day.

Because more important than the actual ritual itself is the people involved in it. Maybe the reason that the family's always done things just so is because they've never had any reason to change. Whatever it is that you do to make these social events bearable, do them. The best thing you can do for healthy happy vegans everywhere is to show the world that there /are/ healthy happy vegans out there.