My editor’s letters are usually not seasonally driven, due to the five-week delay between proofing and publication. As I write this letter, for instance, it’s two days after Christmas. But you’re reading these words in February, with the holiday season behind you, along with the inauguration and (I dearly hope!) the worst of the economic crisis. I’m not writing about Christmas, politics, or finances, though. I’m writing about something more timeless, the sentimental power of food.
Much as I love the holidays, they can be a little too heartwarming, what with the rescreenings of It’s a Wonderful Life, the rereadings of “A Christmas Carol,” and the endless replaying of the same holiday songs. So I steel myself against the sentimentalism of the season.
This year my family drove up to Vermont the day after Christmas. We were looking forward to trying a new restaurant, but it turned out to be closed. It was late, the roads were messy, and we were far too hungry to drive all the way home and start fixing a meal, so we decided to treat ourselves at a favorite little takeout place called Gimme Pizza. I say “treat” because we don’t go out for pizza often. Gimme Pizza has no place to sit, so the pizza is invariably cold by the time we get home. Even so, it’s good enough to warrant the occasional trip.
We called in our order and detoured to North Bennington. Our anticipation soon turned to dismay when we discovered that our favorite joint had been replaced by a tasteful new place painted in rich southwestern shades of adobe and gold, with a menu touting healthy pizzas (definitely not the kind we favor). We entered, crestfallen. But when we learned that Gimme Pizza had moved to a new location, we eagerly hustled back into the car.
Happily, our pizza was awaiting us. Even more happily, the new site boasted tables where we could sit to enjoy our meal. As we were leaving, we told the owner, Jimmy, how worried we’d been that he had gone out of business. Jimmy is a loquacious sort, and we’d always enjoyed chatting with him in the past. But this evening—maybe because it was Christmas, or maybe because he wanted to impress his story on our eighteen-year-old daughter—he began to tell us his tale.
Jimmy had been forced out of the old location when his rent was quadrupled. The building’s new owner wanted to open his own pizza kitchen there, and he had the money to do so. But Jimmy refused to give in to bad luck and used his life savings to open a new place. This wasn’t easy: his savings represented twenty years of kitchen labor, seven nights a week, and he had reasons to believe in nest eggs. Jimmy confessed he was a high school dropout. He had gotten cancer in tenth grade and after a rough year of chemotherapy hadn’t managed to get back on his feet academically. After that he floundered, hearing from people all around that he’d never make anything of himself. Except that he did. Jimmy went to culinary school and discovered there was something he could do, and do well. That gave him the confidence to go back for his G.E.D. It also gave him the opportunity to travel and cook in Las Vegas and Italy, places he had never dreamed he would see. Most important, cooking connected him to people and gave him an outlet for his natural generosity and conviviality. He found respect in the community, a way to give back.
Jimmy had a lot of advice for our daughter, the most important being to live her life so that when she is older she’ll never think “what if,” wishing she had done things differently. But even though his comments were directed at her, I was learning a lesson, too, and counting a blessing. Jimmy’s tale reminded me of the transformative power of food. He and I may have different levels of education, but we both owe a lot to our love of the kitchen. Whether making a pizza or a coulibiac, our essentials are the same: fresh ingredients, generosity, and fondness for the people we cook for. Jimmy is living proof of the ways in which food can connect and open us up to new experience.
I couldn’t help wondering about the name he had chosen long ago for his shop, which echoes the Rolling Stones’ famous “Gimme Shelter” cut on their 1969 album, Let It Bleed. It’s an antiwar song, but it is also a song about the power of love, and its title became a metonym for the Stones’ own spiritual journey. As we drove home, replete with Jimmy’s pizza and love, I decided I needn’t steel myself against the sentimental. After all, when food is prepared properly, it always expresses sentiment, and I’m open to whatever is sappy about that.
May 2009 be a wonderful year for all of us.