Much of food is routine. We make the same meals, reach for the same ingredients, even schedule certain meals every week. Routine can be comforting and certain food routines can make a busy week less harried. One less decision can leave one with just a bit of space and energy for the million other decisions that go into the minutia of our lives. Routines can even be economical. My mom, a single teacher, with two growing girls (my older sister had already flown the coop) required simplicity and routine to make not only the week easier, but the food bill predictable and cheap. In small town northern New Mexico, some ingredients were harder to get, so Monday night spaghetti could be prepared with a little bit of hamburger meat, and if the weekly meal plan was basically the same, so, too, would be the grocery bill.
My mom wanted us to have home cooked meals, with all three of us sitting at the kitchen table. Even after a long afternoon sports practice and an evening of homework or TV ahead of us, we always sat down at the table together. My sister and I usually helped with dinner prep and switched off nights of washing dishes. My mom always made larger portions of dinner so we had leftovers that we could zap in the microwave for quick lunches or combine for at least one leftover night. My mom even scheduled the breakfasts. Oatmeal, cereal, eggs, and other simple ones rotated throughout the week. Sometimes my teenage self rebelled at this. Dammit, why couldn’t oatmeal be on Thursday? Because it wasn’t part of the scheduled plan. My mom wanted simplicity and ease, I wanted variety. The schedule was pretty well entrenched and I perceived this as rut, but my mom loved the routine. She loved planning and lists and calendars, perfect for a teacher who planned out her lessons far in advance. To this day, well over a decade into her retirement, and living alone, my mom still uses this idea for ease and simplicity. She likes order. I like variety, but I understand her comfort in the routine. While, “What’s for dinner? and What should I wear today?” can plague me, my mom always had the solution: a plan and a shape to the week for menu, budget, and even her outfits.
A writer I love, Kristin Armstrong, once wrote, that “Rituals are routines made sacred.” I have adopted this idea. Routines are what we think of for efficiency, or sometimes shear force of habit, but rituals are infused with intention and deliberation. I see now that my mother’s planning was infused with love and intention, a ritual for the daily meals.
I remember visiting a good friend of mine and his wife for a long weekend a few years ago. They both shared with me their lovingly detailed coffee rituals, and they each had a special coffee maker and explained the ritual that they loved for their morning coffee. I shared the delights of each of their routines and marveled at this two-pot-two-person household. My friend carefully measured the beans before he ground them, and his wife ceremoniously put her fancy-not-a-k-cup into her little espresso machine. Those coffee routines of my two friends were not just a stumbling around in the morning in the rush before work. These were rituals, made to find beauty and joy, not just a cup of coffee.
I have been staying with my sister for the last few months, and she has introduced me to her Friday night routine of pizza picked up on the way home from work from the local take-and-bake place. She started this routine with a former roommate, but she has made this her own ritual, the dividing line between the week and the beginning of the weekend. She comes in from the car to find her beloved dog Jupiter, a sweet tank of a pit bull mix who greets her at the door with a whine and the tippy tapping of his happy feet. She sets down her bag and the pizza and the weekend is almost ready. She greets Jupiter with some pats while she quickly steps out of her work shoes, washes her hands, and quickly unwraps the pizza, and turns on the oven to exactly 425. She changes and then sets the timer and slides the pizza in the oven so she can take Jupiter on a short walk. Sure, it’s routine and a quick solution for Friday night dinner with a $5 price, but she makes it her ritual with a salad, and adds chopped green chile to the pepperoni topping. It’s her unwinding with maybe a movie or her favorite show streaming in the background. The day and its frustrations melts away. The weekend begins.
Over the last couple of years, as COVID continues its, I have found beauty in the small rituals, particularly in the kitchen. I pause and take time as I clean the coffee pot and scoop in the coffee with chicory into the filter basket and pour the water into the back of the machine. I put the pot and in its place, and push the button for the time-set brew. Grocery shopping, always a favorite, has been my one steady outing. I wander the aisles, just lingering in the routine, the ritual of picking apples and arugula greens, eyeing the fish case, trying to remember if I have butter. A shared meal has more resonance than ever.
Washing the dishes, serving a friend a cup of tea, preparing my favorite chocolate chip cookies, making a grocery list are all things that I can do without thinking, on autopilot. Instead, food is where the ruts and routines break into rituals. Even a harried dinner is the space to pause, to savor, to remember the rituals. A glass of wine on the patio wrapped up in my treasured ugly cardigan is my favorite way to wind down (wine down, I call it). The chores of the kitchen: wiping down the counter, drying the last dish, moving the kettle from whistling to the cold burner so I can make a cup of tea, putting groceries away, measuring flour and sugar into a bowl, pouring a glug of olive oil in a heating cast iron skillet, scanning a battered cookbook and reaching into the coat closet turned pantry for grains in a glass jar, are all part of something else.
We make the same recipe 100 times, but still, banana bread is magical. I try a new recipe from the New York Times for a Dutch Baby and I am amazed at the ease and speed that my experimentation turns out just like the picture on the cooking app. My sister and Mom and I texted each other as we planned and prepared for our Thanksgiving, the ritual of old family favorites scaled down for the three of us. I prepare a batch of burritos for the freezer and comfort myself in the familiarity and the ritual for abundance in the freezer. We make dinner thousands of times, but when we share the tasks and the bread, it becomes ritual. A peanut butter slathered piece of bread is part of the ritual of packing lunches for little ones in elementary school. Shared food goes from quick and easy to loving ritual in a snap. We find ritual and love and sustenance with the ingredients of life no matter how simple and lovingly prepared.
Yes, we can feed ourselves in a quick routine, but we are nourished in ritual and intention.