Pass the Potatoes

FTLComm - Tisdale - October 20, 1999

It is hard to pinpoint when the custom of community meals changed, but for me the landmark time seems something like the fall of 1957, which of course means that for many who will read this, it must seem like this is the way it always was done.

Perhaps it might be useful to consider some background in this matter. Eating is one of the most life sustaining events in our lives and we have associated with this simple function, a very complex set of parameters and conventions. We tend to share this experience.

There are many reasons for this, but being a social being seems to be pretty close to the top of the list. Biblical terms like "breaking bread together" are a part of our culture and in fact, shared with all members of our species. "Sharing" a meal is a dramatic and significant bond between people. It is no coincidence that "doing lunch" has produced some of the most important business deals of all time and with ever significant event in our lives, a meal is the main experience. I and many others point out that it is the best way to measure the quality of any event whether it be a hockey game, a trip, a stay in a hotel, a visit to some friend or relative. The experience can be qualified and rated by "how was the food?"

We use food to put relationships of all kinds together, gifts of special foods, a special meal, a simple candy, all of these define a person's response to another on the most basic level. When I think of my father and all the things we have done together, the most endearing thing about him was his practice of occasionally stuffing cookies in his jacket pocket and if I happened along he would offer me one. His snack, shared with me, indicated he would sacrifice and provide for me, just as we are all attached to our mothers, for it was she who placed those meals on the table before us.

Sharing a meal in a big extended family, around a large dinning room table or sometimes with children's tables as well, is an art form and it is also a connection between us. In our family it was a Sunday tradition and with distance, it is now an event more for holidays, but those times are so important.

In rural Saskatchewan the sharing of a meal with members of the community was not restricted to weddings and funerals but every event would have a lunch which in most cases was a full meal. A Saturday night dance in a country school always had a fabulous lunch near midnight and every community event of any importance had a sit down dinner. The main thing about the little country fairs here and throughout Saskatchewan are the meals served and shared at them. The food and the social experience while eating is something that brings us and has always brought us, together.

Each year communities, churches and clubs hold fall suppers. This is a wonderful practice that has been with us since people began living here. (Aboriginal, First Nations people have elaborate and a rich heritage of "feasting" and anyone who has experience their hospitality will readily witness the change it has had upon them.) As a child in the fifties, I remember these events and how everyone would crowd around long rows of tables in one room schools and church basements and share in miraculous meals. We still do this, but there is a difference and that is what this article is about.

The first "buffet" I saw was probably in the fall of 1957. I have no way of knowing where the custom had originated but it was as foreign as for me to use chop sticks. I can vividly recall my mother, who was never one to hide her opinions, being quite miffed at the process and would for some years there after after, refer to meals served in such a manner in definitely negative terms. The practice was always to "share" the food. Platters, bowls and even roasters were placed on the tables in a pattern and everyone sat down to the meal and the "food was passed around". Just as it would be around the family table, a "sit down" meal. Conversation and banter could flow as things were moved around, the process of sharing was emphasised and you relied on each other and good manners to "pass the potatoes" or "perhaps we could have some buns down here".

The buffet is as uncivilised as livestock at a oat bin in the barn, or in the pen beside it, yet this practice has been with us now for decades, so that almost everyone considers it the only way to do things. When there are more people then table space, we even do it in our own homes with "family". We are missing something here and size of gatherings does not matter.

Between Kennedy and Kipling in Saskatchewan's South East, there is a Presbyterian Hungarian community called Beckavar. As a child I can remember being at several weddings at their huge hall. Johnny and Joe Yukaz, my cousin Ken and there were others, these were events a person would not forget. The food was just slightly exotic to my English background and just thinking of it has me licking my lips. Mashed potatoes in wash tubs or preserving boilers, whole legs of beef, pastries as light as feathers piled on platters the size of a croakinow board glistening white with icing sugar. Johnny and Joe's weddings were huge affairs with perhaps three hundred people. And everyone, moms, dads, kids and aging uncles and aunts, all sat down together, and "passed the potatoes".

Size and convenience have nothing to do with the emergence of this weird and cold buffet custom, but rather detachment is at the root of this sustaining custom. You stand in line like cows waiting for the bull and horned prime animals to take there turn at the food table, then you make your way to your eating place where nothing is "passed", you can make polite conversation but if not, fine. This is not the way things were or should be. If you are planning a supper, remember what fall suppers once were and put the food on the table and let folks "pass the potatoes."