“Food may not be the answer to world peace, but it’s a start.” — Anthony Bourdain
It was 750 miles from our home in Tullahoma to my grandparents’ home in Oklahoma City. Just about the time I had taken all I could of staying on the floor of the backseat, we would pull into the driveway, climb from under pillows and blankets, and greet the fresh air and happy faces of our grandparents.
Our noses were led into the kitchen to find the fresh oatmeal raisin cookies that had just emerged from the warm oven, along with baked custard (Page 628 of her “Joy of Cooking”) topped with the perfect amount of nutmeg in the refrigerator.
I never figured out how she did it, but my grandmother always knew when we were about to arrive, and those warm cookies spoke love to our hearts and stomachs. It seems to me, Grandmama knew what Bourdain would learn as he traveled the world: Whether a fancy dish or a warm oatmeal cookie, food brings people together.
While there is some discussion on origin of the dish, the name comes from the Greek word Laganon and is known in some places as lasagna and others as lasagne. For the purposes of this writing, I will stick with lasagna, though my mother’s recipe is titled lasagne.
My mother made really good lasagna when I was growing up, and just like the warm oatmeal cookies and baked custard, it was for me a comfort food. Seeing how National Lasagna Day is July 29, I thought it would be a good time to share her recipe and talk about the power of comfort foods in our lives.
How did National Lasagna Day happen? To be honest, I don’t know, but since people have been eating noodles for around 4,000 years, it seems safe to say lasagna has been a fan favorite for a while. The Italians who immigrated to America in the early 1900s brought the dish with them, and Americans have been loving its warm mix of tomato, meat, cheese and spices ever since.
Food is just like that, isn’t it? It brings people together. In the 16th century, we see the use of the word pot-luck, meaning “food provided for an unexpected or uninvited guest, the luck of the pot.” Today, we have potluck dinners, allowing everyone to contribute something to the meal. History tells us this most likely became an important part of life during the Great Depression.
Early in our marriage, we belonged to a couple of supper clubs, one through our church and one later in our neighborhood. Not as many mouths to feed, and everyone was assigned the type of dish they should provide, but a sharing of food, nonetheless.
Sharing meals, breaking bread together, is much more meaningful than you might think. I am not talking about letting your wife have a french fry off your plate, though that is a kind thing for a spouse to do. Research shows that those who eat in a shared meal setting tend to be more altruistic, caring people. It certainly is true if we sit down at a family meal with a casserole of lasagna, and we see how common it is in cultures outside of the United States to serve meals for the table.
Maybe we in America have grown too accustomed to expecting the burger cooked just our way, but in looking at the difference sharing makes, I can see the obvious value. The exception might be the child whose siblings took most of the food on the table before getting the portion they wanted, but for the most part, sharing a meal is a positive, and we might do well to seek out restaurants that serve items “for the table,” or get back to sharing meals in our homes.
Wanting to share our food starts pretty early in life. I think of all of the tea parties I’ve attended at toddler tables, encouraged to partake of the imaginary tea and food graciously prepared and offered by a sweet chef with chubby fingers. Maybe we should all take some time to embrace the attitude of sharing that many have lost along the way.
Today, at least in America, we tend to less often take a casserole to share with a family after someone has died or a new baby is born than we used to do. We are still offering food, however, but purchasing gift cards to restaurants seems to be more common. It would appear that while we still see the value in sharing food with others, we have lost the community feel that sharing an actual meal from the same dish offers.
In our community, we have been lucky enough to enjoy an event called Love Your Neighbor a few times a year (before COVID-19 scared many from social outings). While we are all encouraged to bring a dish to share, my favorite item prepared to share is called Zaatar Pita, also known as Shrak bread. I can smell it and taste it just telling you about it. If you live in my area, you should join us next time.
In case you fix some lasagna/lasagne on July 29 to celebrate, I’ll offer my mother’s recipe (with her permission), which I hear my sister-in-law still fixes to rave reviews.
LIZ BLACK’S LASAGNE
1 lb. sausage or Italian sausage
½ lb. hamburger
1 clove garlic, minced (or 2 Tbsp. garlic powder)
1 Tbsp. basil
1½ tsp. salt
1 lb. tomatoes
2 6-ounce cans tomato paste
Brown meat and spoon off excess fat. Add next 5 ingredients and 1 cup of water. Simmer, covered for 15 minutes, stirring often.
8 lasagna noodles
Mix these next ingredients in a bowl:
3 c. Ricotta cheese
½ c. Parmesan, grated or fresh and grate
2 Tbsp. parsley flakes
Salt and pepper to taste
2 6-ounce pkg. of mozzarella cheese slices (or grated if need to)
Pre-heat oven to 375. Layer, in large pan, ½ the noodles, ½ the cheese mixture, cheese slices, and ½ the meat mixture. Repeat, ending with meat on top. Bake for 45 minutes, or until bubbly. Let stand 10 minutes before serving — this lets it set so it isn’t runny.
Often, gathering with people to share a meal is a way to find common ground, putting aside political, religious and economic differences. As Bourdain saw firsthand, it might not solve all the problems of the world, but it’s not a bad place to begin.
Susan Black Steen’s column runs every Tuesday in Main Street Nashville. She is a writer and photographer, a native Tennessean and a graduate of Austin Peay State University. With a firm belief that words matter, she writes and speaks to bring joy, comfort and understanding into each life. Always, she writes from her heart in hopes of speaking to the hearts of others. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.