When conducted with ‘purpose’, cooking is a strategy that is effective at restoring and strengthening our social networks. Cooking for other people has the innate ability to foster social connectedness and a sense of belonging – creating community.
Whether we are individuals cooking in our own kitchen for our family and friends, a collaborative community kitchen, a chef in a Michelin starred restaurant, or someone in between, as cooks we are leaders and community builders, and our medium is the power of food. We bring people together and when we do – we satisfy everyone’s hunger-to-belong.
AN INTRODUCTION TO MY KITCHEN
I love to cook. I am always on the hunt to try a new culinary experience – I hardly ever make the same recipe twice. Food wasn’t always my passion. Growing up I could take it or leave it. My years in college were spent living on mostly lettuce and cottage cheese. It was not until I visited my future sister-in-law one spring weekend that my eyes opened to the powerful connections one can create when preparing and serving a home-cooked meal.
I do not recall with any great detail what my sister-in-law served the day I went to visit, though I do remember my eyes widening at the ease with which she made salad dressing. “Salad dressing?” I thought, “don’t you get that from a supermarket?” From that moment on, food, cooking, and sharing meals, took on a whole new meaning for me.
MY KITCHEN AND YOURS
Fast forward some years and my kitchen has become my sanctuary. I cook to calm my mind. I cook as a creative outlet. I cook as an expression of my love. And I cook to bring people together and satisfy our hunger-to-belong. Surrounding myself with food and giving myself the time to create is one of those extraordinary activities where the results are both tangible and emotive.
The notion that I was capable of creating community with food evolved slowly. At first, I simply relished the feelings that came with cooking meals and sharing my table. It was not action with ‘purpose’ on my part, but more from an attempt to build a community to which I would belong.
I have since transitioned from acting on that gut feeling to fill the empty seats at my table to purposeful action. I now consciously look for and take advantage of opportunities to share and serve food to others with the goal of fostering genuine connections. As a result, my cooking now extends beyond myself and my kitchen.
BEYOND MY KITCHEN
No matter the size of the ‘audience’, cooking brings community into our lives in many different ways.
- Cooking to perform a mitzvah: A mitzvah by its more popular definition is an individual act of human kindness or good deed. Those of you who cook can probably recall recipes that are described as, “labors of love” implying that the work is done wholly to benefit another – a mitzvah, perhaps? Like most forms of altruism including mitzvot (the plural), nourishing another person by cooking for them, fosters social integration and feelings of belonging and intimacy. One example of cooking as a mitzvah is preparing food to offer sympathy after a loss. This is an expression of solidarity and caring – a reminder that the mourner is not alone and has a community. At a time of loss, the gift of a meal is about strengthening community and building relationships.
- Cooking to build connections: Preparing and offering food to others creates a culture of giving and expands social and emotional connections. From a young child baking a birthday cake for a parent to an invitation to share a friend’s traditional gumbo on Christmas Eve, cooking is a way to connect and show love for each other. Taking this one step further, by ingesting foods prepared by someone else we are placing our trust in the cook and forming an intimate connection. Though as noted by Tunde Wey, in her essay, Inviting Discomfort to the Table, while creating a meal fosters connection, it must also be delicious in order to fulfill its mission of intimacy. As an aside, in my world even when something is not perfect or as delicious as I would like, my guests typically appreciate my effort even when they don’t fully appreciate the product.
- Cooking to collaborate: Cooking naturally lends itself to collaboration. Working on a meal or participating in a cookie-making session together helps to build and strengthen connections by increasing communication and building a sense of camaraderie. Collaborative cooking can occur on a small scale in a private kitchen or on a broader scale such as that found in cooking groups and community kitchens. Undertaking a collaborative cooking approach, community kitchens offer opportunities to connect and build community for people experiencing isolation, such as the elderly, the disabled, people who live alone and disadvantaged groups..
- Cooking to be social: Cooking in its basic sense is a set of skills focused on transforming ingredients into culinary masterpieces or an everyday meal. It is easy to overlook the fact that it is impossible to cook, even for oneself, without socializing with others. For instance, locating a recipe oftentimes has us consulting with friends or family. And a visit to the supermarket to pick up some missing ingredients offers a myriad of opportunities to interact with other people. Also, since the topic of food and cooking is an easy way to support a flagging conversation, oftentimes we find ourselves asking or answering, “So what are you making for dinner tonight?”
COOKING IS AN OPPORTUNITY
Harnessing the power food to create community when cooking, is an effective strategy to respond to our hunger-to-belong. All cooks, novice or professional, are in the unique position to build connectedness and feelings of belonging for ourselves and our larger communities. If we cook with purpose, with the idea of forging bonds, this strategy can more effectively restore and strengthen our social networks. So, let’s get cookin’!