When I first told my co-workers in 2013 that I was leaving Cincinnati and moving to Columbus, they all said, ‘Oh,’ paused, and inevitably commented, ‘They’ve got some great food up there.’ Each time, I thought for a split second how odd it was that that comment was the first to be blurted out about Columbus, but I had more important things to think about: We were moving in two weeks for the job my husband was unexpectedly offered and had no place to live; I had no job lined up; We had not packed a single thing.
When I consider my upbringing and history in relation to food and mealtimes, it’s not surprising to me that I was unenthused by the prospect of good food. I– surely like most people except teenage boys and the truly hungry– don’t spend a lot of mental energy focusing on my food, much less the role it plays in our lives in a wider sense. It has always blended into day-to-day life, like when I was growing up: My dad is a cattle farmer and I lived on a ranch in Indiana as a child. In the larger picture, we were providing food for local friends and families by cultivating crops for livestock feed and fattening and slaughtering cows for fresh beef. However, it never felt like that. What it did feel like was being woken up at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning to chop and stack firewood; it felt like pitch-forking steaming piles of corn silage on the hottest day in August; It felt like doing the same laborious tasks everyday with no vacation. Ever. The bigger idea of what we were doing – the romantic, rural-life vision that always seems to grace the covers of magazines called something like ‘Farm & Table’- got lost in the daily tasks. Furthermore, money and time were always at least a little tight– my mom is a nurse, so two blue collar workers with four kids, 100 head of cattle, almost 300 acres, and all the entourage a farm requires was enough to make even the 1% sweat. My mom shopped at Aldi, a local discount grocery store, and made simple and fast dinners using our beef, a starch, and maybe a vegetable we had canned from the previous summer. We didn’t even use halfway elaborate spices– just simple, straightforward country food. Making and eating dinner was almost like another chore to be checked off at the end of the day.
My indifference towards food continued into college when I moved from the country to the University of Cincinnati, an urban campus near downtown Cincinnati. I was on my own for the first time, so of course I binged on the traditional student diet of pizza and beer, right? While I certainly consumed my fair share of junk, but I’ve never been one for extremes. I’ve always been responsible, a rule-follower, and a straight-A student. When I was in grade school, my mom always told me to eat everything on my lunch tray, and if I didn’t like something, I still needed to take three bites– a rule I adhered to religiously. I think I was the only kid at Manchester Elementary who would force herself to sit there and suffer through just one. more. bite. of cold lima beans. At college, I wasn’t much different, but instead of my mom’s admonition to eat the minimum requirement of vegetables, it was her health food and fitness lectures. I was staunchly against the Freshman 15 and except for the occasional late-night study break snack or greasy brunch, I used my dining hall credits for the salad bar and cold-cut sandwich counter. I worked out, went to class, ate largely the same foods– wash, rinse, repeat.
I began to feel differently about meals and sharing food with others when my community majorly changed. I was studying architectural design and beginning our sophomore year, we were required to go to school and work at design offices on alternating semesters until graduation. While working in a new city every six months can be invaluable and an absolute blast, it can also be lonely. My classmates must have felt similarly because, upon each return to school, we were desperate to see one another, catch up, and be a part of a familiar place and community again. Instead of house parties, we began hosting dinner parties, cooking huge vats of chili for ten people or making a ridiculous number of homemade pizza for half the block. In addition to participating in the giant, pseudo-family dinners, I moved in with my long-time boyfriend during my senior year. I was no longer living alone subsisting on peanut butter toast and health food – I was part of a rotating dinner club and assuming the responsibility of Family Grocery Shopper and Chef. I began to research, shop for, and memorize good recipes, and the friends I cooked for and ate beside became like family.
In quick succession during the summer of 2013, I graduated, got my first job, got married to the wonderful senior-year-live-in-long-time-boyfriend, was unexpectedly confronted with said-husband’s job offer, and moved to Columbus. We found that the rumors were true: Columbus really does have some great food. Once again, my community had shifted and I was looking for a way to connect with my new home and find friends, and- among other tactics – I used the sharing of meals to explore my neighborhood and meet people. We went to a young professionals’ happy hour in the nearby Brewery District; co-workers invited us to their favorite restaurants around the city; we crammed as many friends as possible into our German Village apartment for home-cooked favorites and bottles of wine. In addition, we love being within walking distance of wonderful cafes, picnics in Schiller Park, and romantic summer nights spent on Lindey’s patio. We hope to buy a house in the coming months, and our proximity to food– as well as other shops and things to see– has literally influenced where we want to live and what we want to buy. And best of all, my burgeoning interest in cooking great recipes, exploring good restaurants in the city, and respecting the role that share meals plays in our lives has lead me to this experiment. I’m looking forward to what I’ll learn about myself and others during this project.