Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Rites of Passage meal

poetrysciencetalks:a monthly salon where I serve a meal before an evening's talk and try to make the menu reflect the presentation.

This month’s poetrysciencetalk featured Mackenzie Amara, a grad student in Clinical Psychology at Teacher’s College, whose area of interest is mind-body theory. She is working on a project looking at the occurrence of major depressive episodes in emerging adults and the relationship of this to developing a spiritual worldview. She’s a tattooed Millennial with a past history of adolescent turmoil that so deeply traumatized her she lost, she feels, several years of her life. She is passionate about helping teen-agers have an easier time than she.

Youth haze as sport, gang bang, use guns, drugs, and drink to excess.  College tuition is prohibitive. There are no jobs. Dis-ease is inflamed by the belief we can fulfill ourselves acquiring material goods. High-speed communication makes us think we can know any and everything. Mackenzie thinks we are adrift in a rapidly shifting landscape with little to ground us, and blurry expectations.

Historically, ceremonial rites of passage fostered transformative growth by subjecting initiates to terrifying tests of endurance and strength. In the process aspects of the self metaphorically died only to reemerge transformed before being reintegrated in a new role within prescribed possibilities. Elders gave us just enough rope to leap without hanging, tested our mettle, then guided us back to the fold. I’m not sure this was all good, by my cultural standards it seems limited, but there must have been tremendous fulfillment completing the ritual, and comfort knowing the expectations.

The pst supper was to play with the idea of rites.  Celebration foods are easy to come by and some also serve to mark passages. Our main course was couscous with seven vegetables. Folklore has it that each grain of couscous represents a blessing while the number seven represents completeness, as G-d created the Universe in so many days. This North African dish, eaten by Muslims, Christians and Jews alike is popular at any kind of gathering—it is celebratory, humble and comforting.

Hot round pancakes eaten on Fat Tuesday symbolize the sun and represent Light and Fertility conquering Winter’s darkness. I made crispy golden discs of Spanakopita filled with herbs and greens. Also hard-boiled eggs stained red with beet juice—ersatz ritual, a show without meaning to represent our current lack of traditions. For dessert: iconic layered birthday cake with icing.

Mackenzie wondered if the meal could represent the stages traveled during a rite of passage: separation, initiation, and re-integration. I picked peanuts as a representative food. Peanuts stand variously for health, growth, and prosperity. I liked that you needed to crack them to separate the nuts. Along with a bowl of roasted peanuts I served shots of Coke with salted peanuts. This is a Southern tradition, a unique quirky regional treat passed from one generation to the next. Peanuts baptized in cola effervescence, a marriage of salty and sweet. Down south they push the nuts directly into the pop bottle before taking a long refreshing slug. Instead I served tiny plastic shot cups reminiscent of Kiddush during an Oneg Shabbat. I liked the action required to imbibe, lifting the cup, tilting back the head, simultaneous eating and drinking—made me think of Alice's trip adventures in Wonderland.  Finally, peanuts decoratively encircled the cake, integrating flavor and aesthetics into the chocolate buttery sweetness of the buttercream. 

It’s well and good thinking about food as symbol and metaphor—this menu used ingredients and the process of eating them as a kind of word play, one thing representing another. Given that the pst meal serves as a preamble to the speaker’s presentation, it was more than adequate to spark interest in the topic. I’m wondering though how food can be used in a deeper way to create an embodied experience that functions the way a rite of passage does, by transforming the initiate. 

Over time tastes change. We graduate from soft and bland to complex flavors and textures; baby food companies have lines of products based on this—but transformative eating experiences also incorporate memory and social interaction. When I think of my own life it is seldom a particular food that stands out—though there have been moments where tastes, smells or acts of cooking have roused forgotten memories, and foods have become emblematic of certain times—the Spring of first love summed up with North Indian stir-fries, my mid-twenties tasting of cigarettes and whisky spiked coffee, and so on. Done mindfully, cooking roots you in nature, and ties you to culture, family, and your body. Participating in daily family meals reinforces social values, but they’re not particularly transformative.

When I think about ways food has helped me grow while also rooting me to a community, I think of the potlucks I’ve made a part of my life each place I’ve lived since leaving my mother’s home. These are casual work-a-day evenings (sometimes as often as once a week) cooking with friends and friends of friends; the group evolving through each transition—college, marriage and divorce, growing kids, empty nest. People bring covered dishes, but also ingredients so there ends up being collaborative cooking. Children contribute too—helping in the kitchen or setting and clearing the space. Usually the kitchen fills with women--though sometimes men join.

Participating in these meals feels like stepping outside the confines of regular life into a liminal space where traditional familial roles, the division of labor, even the foods on our plates operate differently. I love that they transform supper into a feast, that they’ve created family beyond my own family (but without the tensions) and that my sons now set tables in their own homes to include their larger communities—that it is a given for them, our tradition of collectivity.

Mackenzie believes the traditional rites of passage eased transition from adolescence into adulthood. Without an equivalent in our culture we remain perpetually adolescent, unable to undertake adult responsibilities. She spoke of a need for our “Elders” to step up and catch the teen-agers as they make their precarious leap.

The space we sail through before landing is filled with such glorious potential. Its in this liminal place that transformation occurs and it is worth pausing a moment to take it all in before getting caught up in the landing. A place at the table with a shifting community of friends opens the world, fans our hunger even while offering nourishment and comfort, then sends us on our way. It too is a place worth pausing.


  1. Your reports always make me want to have been at the event, seeing it unfold. Then, I could read your post and compare notes.

    1. thanks Simona- it would be so wonderful to have you here in NYC--for the events of course, but then for all the running about food touring we could do.