Foodway to Our Hearts

It's a known fact that on a practical level, food is fuel for the body. It keeps the human engine and all of its interconnected parts running. However, if physiological maintenance and growth were the only roles food had to play, what would happen to our long lists of food preferences?


Chile shrimp and rice. (Kim O'Donnel)

The emotional pull of food is complicated, personal and undeniable. When we humans come in contact with food, the switches to our five physical senses are activated, which sets the stage for an experience of emotion. These experiences are duly noted in the memory bank, and more often than not we share them with others.
I know this may seem elementary, but think about it. Everything you eat today likely rings some kind of emotional bell for you. Even more interesting to this cook is the noise of one's emotional food bells clanging with that of another.

I'd argue that we relate to each other -- as friends, lovers, spouses, family, strangers -- more through food than we realize, and because food serves this vital role to staying alive, our relationships with food and with each other are ultimately intertwined.

To wit, below are a few quotes that speak to food and its power on our emotions and our relationships with others:

"There is one thing more exasperating than a wife who can cook and won't, and that's the wife who can't cook and will." -- Robert Frost

"S is for Sad...and for the mysterious appetite that often surges in us when our hearts seem about to break and our lives seem too bleakly empty...The truth is that most bereaved souls crave nourishment more tangible than prayers: they want a steak. What is more, they need a steak." - from "An Alphabet for Gourmets" by M.F.K. Fisher

"Cake holds a family together. I really believed it did. My father was a different man when there was cake in the house. Warm. The sort of man I wanted to hug rather than shy away from." -- from "Toast" by Nigel Slater.

Everyone has one of these quips or food-relationship stories. Just last night, I was having one of my own. It was an ordinary day, meaning nothing particularly eventful or emotionally sparked. But it was rainy and dreary, and I knew the mood at home, by day's end, would probably need a lift.

I asked my sweetheart if he'd like Chile Shrimp (link includes recipe details) for dinner, a recipe I discovered nearly a year ago that makes him do a jig. The response was not "yes, please, " but "MMMMMMMM." Message received.

Hardly fancy or complicated, this southeast Asian-tinged dish is hearty, spicy and comforting over a bowl of rice. There was no salad or side veg, but an elaborate three-course meal was beside the point.

And then at some point, as we're lapping up the last of the sauce, the food is no longer pretty objects in a bowl. It's a metaphor. It's an experience. The tangible physicality has melded into experiential dust.

What remained, however, was a smile, wide at both ends, and two dancing feet, as he washed the dishes in thanks.

What's the food of your emotional triggers and relationships? Share in the comments area below.

By Kim ODonnel |  September 15, 2006; 11:56 AM ET Dinner Tonight , Kitchen Musings , Seafood
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I'm in a supper club with 9 of my girl friends, and we have a set of mottos:

1) Everything is better wrapped in bacon.
2) If you can't wrap it in bacon, offer it a cocktail.

Posted by: Wendy | September 15, 2006 1:17 PM

How long does fish sauce keep? I have seen several recipes in the past few months that call for this ingredient. I am eager to try it, but before I hunt it up in a specialty store, I'd like to know a little more.


Posted by: Curious about fish sauce | September 18, 2006 11:17 AM

Kim, I have an unrelated question, for either here on the blog or on the chat. I'm liking the propect of zukamole. I noticed that you call the squash 'summer' in one place and 'zucchini' in another. Did you use zucchini? I've always called the yellow squash 'summer squash.' Thanks, babe -- rely on you!

Posted by: Foggy Bottom | September 18, 2006 11:44 AM

Curious: Keep fish sauce in a cool place away from sunlight, and it will keep for months. If sediment starts to appear, it may be time for a new bottle.

Foggy: I did use zucchini for the zuke-a-mole, and even though I think flavor of yellow squash would work here, you wouldn't get the beautiful green shade that results from pureeing the roasted zukes. Oversight on my part: re: the "summer squash" reference. Thanks for catching.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | September 18, 2006 12:49 PM

I did see the recipe in the NYTimes. It reminded me of an outstanding crab dish at a particular "road-side restaurant" on Brickfields Ave in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The sauce is best sopped up with (white bread) toast. Of course, with crab, one gets to lick one's fingers!
Note: The Brickfields Ave "road-sde restaurants" do not exist anymore.

Posted by: swarthmore | September 19, 2006 10:44 PM

About fish sauce - incorporated into a dish, it is fabulous. But be aware that if/when you smell it in the bottle, you may think there's no way you can eat that. You'd be wrong, be brave and try it anyway. You'll be glad you did. :-)

Posted by: pat | September 20, 2006 10:40 AM


I appreciate the fact that you've brought up the least discussed aspect of food- as a lens through which to view the world.

My blog explores this aspect, albeit humorously. Its subheading reads, "Want to be nourished beyond your body? Looking for something more from your food? Read this blog and go to bed with a full tummy."

Thanks for the wonderful quotes as well.

From the Pit of My Stomach

Posted by: Candace | September 22, 2006 6:39 AM

I tried your chili shrimp recipe last night for dinner (and yes I washed my rice beforehand.) YUM! Very tasty. I want to put that sauce on everything now! Thanks for posting.

Posted by: Rachel | September 25, 2006 12:29 PM

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