Food in small places
You can’t fathom the level of mirth in a room where 120 tacos are consumed.
I’m the proud owner of a small house. It was built in 1929 on a plot of land that was once an orchard, about a 10-minute walk from Victoria Park in the heart of Kitchener, Ontario. The architectural style is called “Germanic Cottage,” and it was designed by an architect named Edward Reitzel, whose blueprints hang on the wall beside me as I write.
“Cottage” is indeed a fair description. Though it’s two stories, it’s anything but capacious. “Open-concept” wasn’t a concept in the late 1920s. The living room and dining room on the main floor are sufficient for the four of us who live here full-time – though of course two of the four weigh less than 40 pounds and don’t require much space – but when company comes over, things can feel a little tight. It’d be a mistake to try and seat more than six adults in our living room for a Sunday night cocktail. One of the things I’m learning as I hurtle into these prime “adulting” years is that it’s bad form to ask folks over 40 to sit on the floor.
But tack the word “young” in front of “adult,” and it’s a different ballgame. It’s been our practice to host students and young adults here for dinner the first Friday of every month for a few years now. I’ll spend the afternoon preparing vast quantities of food in my tiny kitchen, balancing sheet pans over the sink, stumbling over bags of basmati rice on the floor, boiling vats of pasta and steaming up the ground floor windows. We bring up some extra chairs, and append another table to the one in our dining room, and seat 15 or so folks, cheek to jowl. It’s a simple, yet glorious thing, inviting the kind of folks who often live alone, or subsist on cafeteria food, into my place for home-cooked food and fellowship. Folks from all over the place converge on this humble plot we own in Kitchener – a post-doc from Pakistan, another from Zimbabwe, undergrads from Jordan or Saudi Arabia, plus plenty of Ontarians with Dutch surnames. I’ve hosted loads of dinners over the years in large classrooms on campus, in fellowship halls and church gyms, but it’s never the same in those places as it is in my little dining room.
Laughter spilling out
The pandemic shut that all down, of course. And over the past year and a half I’ve mythologized, in my mind, the last Friday Night Dinner we hosted, on that first Friday in March 2020 before everything changed. It was taco night – I made pork carnitas, chipotle chicken and a from-scratch riff on the ground beef “gringo” style you find in those Old El Paso boxes. Plus chips and salsas and a veritable cistern of guacamole. Our voracious dinner guests ate 120 tacos. 120! I take that as a compliment on my cooking, but even more so as an affirmation of the sort of communion that’s made possible in small spaces over food. You can’t fathom the level of mirth in a room where 120 tacos are consumed. Over the subsequent months, as we decamped to the non-space that is Zoom, all that was lost.
Dearly missed, too, of course. And while gathering restrictions are still very much in place on campus this fall, capacity limits at my house are more flexible. So in October, we decided it was time to bring it back, and we welcomed folks in again (fully-vaccinated and symptom-free) for baked ziti and caesar salad. The hunger for that food was exceeded by the hunger for the connections made around a table and the decibel level in my dining room was a good measure of the delight therein, I reckon.
At one point, I could barely hear the person across the table from me, so I went outside for a minute and stood on the driveway in the twilight. The laughter poured out from the open windows like too much wine spilling over the sides of a glass, and I remembered reading once about how when Saint Francis and Saint Clare met for conversation, the little house where they gathered would glow like fire