Coping With Tough Times: Start With Dinner

Apr 16, 2013

Credit New World Library

"I think feeding the deeper hunger and serving the world starts with what you serve for dinner," says writer Ellen Kanner. She admits "that's asking a lot of dinner."  Feeding the deeper hunger is the unifying theme of her new memoir and cookbook, Feeding the Hungry Ghost: Life, Faith and What to Eat for Dinner.

Kanner is The Huffington Post's "Meatless Monday" blogger and the syndicated "Edgy Veggie" columnist. She'll read from Feeding the Hungry Ghost on Thursday, April 18th, at History Miami. Wine and light bites inspired by the book will also be served.

Below is an excerpt from Feeding the Hungry Ghost


Abridged excerpt from the book Feeding the Hungry Ghost: Life, Faith and What to Eat for Dinner. Copyright © 2013 by Ellen Kanner. Reprinted with permission from New World Library

Author Ellen Kanner grew up in Miami. Many of her seasonal recipes are based on South Florida's growing calendar.
Credit Image 1st

We are four months into the new year, at the point where the rubber hits the road. We made incredible resolutions when the year was shiny and new. Everything that seemed possible now seems as tired and stale as the juice fast we tried and gave up on after three miserable days. Not only have most of us not shed pounds and added tone, we have the added weight of guilt and remorse. 

And yet guilt and remorse sell. We’re attacked by ads shaming and shouting at us to lose weight, join a gym, get six-pack abs. I’ve got nothing against a six-pack, but I hate all those “new you” things because I’m not so bad and you’re lovely the way you are.  And I hate cleansing diets, especially those sold in kits comprising little more than a bottle and a powdered, unpalatable mix of mystery ingredients.

I have made absurd, unattainable new year’s resolutions. And they only wind up frustrating me and making me feel like a loser. So for quite a few years now, I’ve resolved to embrace chaos. Because it’s coming at us whether we like it or not. I’m still not great at it but have grown more comfortable with the concept; there are things in the world beyond my personal control — oil spills, war, hunger, illness, stuff like that. I hate that I can’t fix these things, but I am learning to be — oh, who am I kidding? I’ll always worry. I don’t like to worry, but I’m good at it. However, because I’m learning to embrace chaos, I’m okay with my own worry. I can even let some of it go. A little. Then I worry some more.

I envy people who take comfort in faith — the defined, institutional kind — that God will provide, or if something really wretched happens, it’s okay because it’s God’s will, or — inshallah — that it will happen as Allah wishes. These are especially the times I’d like to ask God, Allah, or whoever’s in charge, just what the hell he’s after.

I’m not entirely sure I believe in God. I understand he/she believes in me, which I find most cheering. I think if there is a God, it’s big hearted despite our quirks and craziness, able to focus on the big picture, see what we’re doing and basically shrug and say, “Oy, what can you do?” I was raised Jewish, but Reform. Really Reform. My husband, Benjamin, thinks my family’s so Reform, we deserve another category — Mellow. Benjamin was raised Lutheran, and in his childhood did refined things I associate with WASP-dom. He attended cotillion. His family ate Jell-O salads. They belonged to a yacht club.

But in both his case and mine, the formal religion part just didn’t take. What resonates with Benjamin about Judaism is latkes. At every Jewish holiday, he asks, “Is this the potato pancake one?” What resonates with me is the more secular part of Judaism, the concept of tikkun olam, healing the world, the social responsibility part.

Lettuce sprouting (stock photo)
Credit Trina Sargalski

For a long time, I thought the only way I could serve humanity is by running off and joining Doctors without Borders. Just how I, with no formal medical training, was going to help them was a little hazy.

So I started doing small, specific things that didn’t require a visa or medical degree. I joined a massive volunteer effort to help kids plant an organic garden in their public school.  We dug up the patchy sod — hard, hot, hand-blistering work. We planted the seeds. We grew fat, red tomatoes, glossy eggplant and a tangle of greens including callaloo, a green gift from the Caribbean. I showed kids how to cook it. I watched them eat it — a vegetable!

The kids liked it, not because it was good for them, but because they made it happen, from planting the seed to harvesting it and braising it with chili and garlic.

Cherry tomatoes from Bee Heaven Farm (stock photo)
Credit Trina Sargalski

Hanging out at the farmers’ markets, working with some amazing chefs and organizations and initiatives that bring what our farmers grow to the people who need to eat it — this is my idea of a good time. I can’t promise it brings me to salvation. But it helps bring me back to myself, plus I get to write about it and turn readers on to a good thing or two.

That’s how I met my friend Marcel, genius of soup, specifically soupe joumou, the beloved soup with which Haitians start the new year. It’s not enough for Marcel to make it; he has to feed everyone he knows. So he makes a vat of it on a hot plate in his studio and serves it up all day. Even in dark times.

The 2010 earthquake devastated his homeland. He lost his auntie, uncle, and cousins, all with a shake of the earth. This is when the fetal position comes in handy. Instead, Marcel wanted to make soup. He needed to make soup. When I arrived, his place was flooded with afternoon light and was so jammed, I couldn’t see the host for all the guests clustered around him, cradling soup bowls, talking, eating, laughing.

Finally, I found Marcel in his makeshift kitchen, holding court and presiding over the soup pot.

I gave him a kiss and picked up a bowl.

“It has meat,” he warned, remembering I’m a meat-free kind of girl.

“I’ll eat around it.”

We looked at each other. He beamed and ladled it, rich and golden, like liquid sunshine, from a battered aluminum pot.

Soupe joumou is the triumph of spirit over tyranny, heart over privation, and a damn fine way to warm body and soul. This is a soup tapping into the collective unconscious of a people, evoking stronger feelings than Proust’s madeleine. I wasn’t going to let some bits of beef get in the way of that.

We all love to ring in the new year with its promise of new beginnings, but in Haiti, it’s especially cause for joy. New Year’s Day is Independence Day, the celebration of that New Year’s Day in 1804 when Haitians ended over a century of bloody rule by the French and were no longer colonial slaves but a free people in their own country.

Haitians celebrated by eating what had been forbidden them — meat, cabbage and squash, the latter two grown on their own island. Haitian slaves had grown and cooked these foods for their French masters, while they themselves had survived solely on rations of salt cod and lemonade.

Soupe joumou sustains and is sustainable. It’s made from what is local and available. The Haitians adapted the soup from their French masters, heating it up with habaneros and ginger and making it their own. Some eat it on New Year’s Day for good luck. Others, like Marcel, eat and serve it knowing its history. It is his connection to place and to people, his source of sanity and serenity.

It isn’t that life hasn’t lobbed a lot of crap Marcel’s way or that he’s weatherproofed against it. No one is. It’s how we bear up that matters. And Marcel, on the anniversary of losing home and family, somehow managed with grace and made soup. That’s enough of a superpower for me.

RELATED: Make Ellen Kanner's recipe for Haitian soupe joumou