Drew Robinson is the pitmaster at Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q. He previously wrote about why barbecue matters.
My friend John Egerton told me once that sometimes when people have lost a loved one or are in despair all you can do is take them a bowl of potato salad and tell them you’re sorry.
He went on to say, emphatically, that there is great power in that sort of action. John spoke specifically about Southern foodways at that moment, but there was a universal truth in his message. I know from personal experience on the receiving end that is true and it is even more powerful when that compassion is delivered in numbers.
Community is an interesting thing in the sense that as humans, we depend on it to provide a certain sense of our well-being, yet at the same time we struggle to define or reinvent our place in it. Given the opportunity to look at our place and function in our community, people have the chance to see their value because what a community is really composed of is relationships.
In difficult times and when tragedies befall us, it is most important as individuals to reflect on what our relationship is to our community and to fulfill that role by whatever means we have at our disposal. The culinary community has a unique opportunity at those times to be on the front line of trying to help revive and nourish people in need. Food can very quickly comfort and console people and help give them a little strength to start rebuilding or recovering from what has hurt them.
As a cooks and restaurateurs, my partners and I at Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q have found ourselves in the position to recently reflect on this very topic when tornados devastated our home state of Alabama. You feel an immediate sense of helplessness when you see mass amounts of acquaintances, friends, and neighbors suddenly stripped of everything. If you are lucky, that helplessness gives way to an involuntary reaction where you just try to do what you know in order to help ease the burden if even just a little bit.
Being in the restaurant business our reaction was to start feeding people. We loaded up our rigs and cooked because that’s what we know how to do. We shared plates of food and handed them out to people who knew how to give medical care, or bring order to chaotic situations, to those who were clearing electrical lines, organizing shelters, and so on. Even more importantly, meals were offered to the people who lost everything. It’s what we know how to do, so that’s why we did it.
Did those meals solve people’s long term problems? No. But the meals eaten around makeshift tables provided a place for everyone to come together and established time for some to begin shoring themselves up to move forward.
It was encouraging to see people use their skills to do what they know; the net result is most important to the community and it is what is most impactful in times of hardship and tragedy. As a cook, it might be thoughtful to try and rebuild someone’s home, but it probably wouldn’t be very helpful if you don’t know anything about home building.
This past spring Egerton’s wisdom pointed us in the right direction. We knew we could offer some potato salad to someone who was in need or hurting and let them know we were sorry for their loss. Food is important and powerful, it helps us remember our place or maybe even redefine our place when that’s what we need the most.