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Boston Food Connections

Note: For anyone coming to this after the fact, on Monday, April 15, 2013, two bombs went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, and at least one was made using a pressure cooker.

A few days after the bombing at the Boston Marathon, I saw an article about reclaiming the pressure cooker. The article reminds us that while in this case the appliance was used for violence, its purpose is to prepare food, and “making food connects people.” Until then, I hadn’t considered that rather painful irony, and this prompted me to reflect on all the ways in which I connected to people with food while living in Boston.

My sophomore year at Northeastern University was the first time I had an opportunity to do my own food preparation. Unfortunately, I lived with three smokers, which meant that I didn’t want to spend much time in the kitchen. Happily, I had a couple of alternatives.

One was sometimes having meals at my brother’s apartment. I visited often, especially enjoying playtime with my infant niece, and if I was around in late afternoon, they would usually invite me to stay for dinner. I don’t think I ever said no. After all, my brother himself is a good cook, and so is his (now ex-) wife. Just about everything was homemade, including bread and I think even pasta, and I got introduced to a wide variety of ethnic foods, a far cry from the fairly standard New England fare I had grown up with, and certainly much better than anything I could get on campus.

The other option was going to a friend’s apartment. She was fortunate enough to have a single (I was very jealous), and she was also interested in doing more cooking. So I started going to her place once every week or two to try something new. Our results were mostly good, but even when they weren’t the experience was a lot of fun and brought us closer together.

Then I started in NU’s cooperative education program, designed to help students find work in their field as part of their education, to gain experience but also to see if they liked the work. It sounded great. The only problem was, I was scared to death of the whole prospect. At the time, I was just twenty pounds shy of my highest weight, which meant it was almost impossible finding good interview clothes. Plus, my low self-esteem and lack of self-confidence meant that even after I got a job, I didn’t feel comfortable taking any initiative. Since very few people reached out to help get me oriented, it made for a miserable start.

But then two things happened. One was that another student made brownies to share, and I watched in amazement at how cheerful everyone suddenly became, and how they were even friendlier with her. The other change was that my roommates moved out, and for three glorious months I had the apartment to myself.

And so I began to cook a little more, but more importantly to bake. My first foray was the one recipe I knew by heart, making chocolate chip cookies the way my dad taught me. As the aroma flooded the apartment, helping clear the last residual vestiges of smoke, I felt in a strange way as if I had finally claimed it, made it something of a home.

Then when I brought the cookies to work, they were an even bigger hit than I could have guessed. My department manager called them “heavenly,” and one of the guys liked them so much he was convinced that I had some exotic special ingredient or method. In fact, he even believed me when I said that I used magic while making them. (For the record, I didn’t, at least not apart from the magic of making food with care.)

After that, everything changed. The experience of people being nice to me and treating me with respect due to the cookies gave me the confidence to ask questions and volunteer more. Additionally, others started to include me on projects and cases. I continued to bring in cookies, brownies, cupcakes, and pie, and while all of it helped with the interactions, the cookies were everyone’s favorite.

All of this ran through my mind when I thought about Boston and food. I also found it interesting to learn that food was part of the early days of the marathon, where the prize wasn’t money but rather a bowl of beef stew (as well as a medal and laurel crown).

Those are the memories and images I want to hold onto, not the past week of fear and anger and worry for all the people I know who still live in that area, including my niece and her mom, stepdad, and little sister. And who knows? Maybe, just for the sake of it, I’ll start making more food with care, but this time using a pressure cooker.

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