The Gifts of Gathering

Now in Season Summer 2012 Issue

The Gifts of Gathering

By Terese Allen | Photo By Jim Klousia 0

Food and Meaning at Family Gatherings

My big family holds a reunion at the beginning of August each year. With eleven siblings and four generations (yes, you read that right), we are too large of a group to gather at Thanksgiving or Christmas—no indoor home setting would hold us all. Thus our most important holiday is in summer, when we cook, eat and celebrate outdoors. And that makes this locavore happy, for when my relatives and I reconnect during this time of year, we also reconnect with the bounty around us.

The weekend starts with that icon of a Wisconsin meal, the Friday night fish fry, flanked with old fashioneds and pitchers of Leinie’s. For the main event on Saturday, the entrée is often something slow-cooked in vast quantities, like booyah, the chicken-and-garden-vegetable soup that, being from Green Bay, we grew up eating at taverns and church picnics. Or we might grill sausages from a local butcher shop: bratwurst, naturally, but also Belgian trippe (a pork and cabbage sausage) and Polish kielbasa, to honor our ethnic heritage.

No matter what the main course is, the spread always includes sweet corn, purchased at the nearest farmers market by the earliest risers in the family, and later shucked, boiled, and butter-glossed. The green thumbs in the group offer up righteous homegrown tomatoes, cukes, cabbage, and beans, which—with a team effort of knife-work—become a kaleidoscope of salads and slaws. Desserts—everything from sliced cantaloupe to Door County cherry pie—are so copious and lush they would make Willy Wonka proud.

As at similar reunions around the world, when my family works together to produce and then consume the plenty, we do much more than have a meal. We tie our bonds. We animate the copious gifts we’ve been given—life, land, sustenance, love. We feed ourselves physiologically, emotionally and spiritually; that is to say, fully.

It’s much the same at other summer celebrations, from outdoor weddings and block parties to ethnic and harvest festivals to county fairs. The food at such gatherings is at once staple and symbol. It communicates both diversity and unity. It reminds us who we are and that we belong.

During summer’s official national holidays—the triumvirate of Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day—we mark the beginning, middle and end of the season. We recognize, as folklorists Theodore and Lin Humphrey have noted, that “America is a land of plenty, a plenty which can and must be shared with others.”

Still, it’s not as serious as some of this sounds. After all, this is summertime, when outdoor cooking and eating is recreation. And let’s face it, folks: in Wisconsin, the season is so short, we might as well call the whole thing a holiday.

Don't miss out on these amazing summer recipes by Terese:

Wisconsin-Style Butter Burgers

Smoky Devils

Party-Time Strawberry Ice Cream

Green Onion Potato Salad

We would like to extend a special thank you to the artists who lent us their wares for the recipe photography that accompanies this article and recipes. The ceramic clay plates are by Devorah Yahn and the hand-turned wooden bowl is by Peter Doval.

Terese Allen has written scores of books and articles about the foodways of Wisconsin, including the award-winning titles "The Flavor of Wisconsin" and "The Flavor of Wisconsin for Kids." She is co-founder and a longtime leader of the Culinary History Enthusiasts of Wisconsin (CHEW). If you want to get Terese going, just ask her the best way to fix an old-fashioned, how to hunt for morels, or why fish fries thrive in our state.

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