“Food brings people together. It’s just amazing…” The cafe is closed, nearly empty of customers, and I’ve made my way over to table one, where two retired English teachers from my high school are lingering over their coffee and pie.
They are here this afternoon, reaching out to each other, reaching out to the world around them. They’ve both recently lost their husbands, and they are charting new ground, negotiating the minefields of loss and sadness while on paths to self-discovery. And in this moment, I need them both. I need their grounded wisdom, their humor, their random observations about life.
But this comment, that “food brings people together,” is like a punch in the gut. Because for the last hour or so, food was tearing apart the family at table four.
The Frettersons were in. They live in Westchester, and they have a summer cabin up here. Mr. Fretterson often comes to the cafe on his own, grabbing a coffee, a pastry and a couple steaks before heading up to the cabin to work on it. He jokes with the rest of us, smiles broadly, and has an easy time fitting in. But when Mrs. Fretterson joins him, the air changes. The pressures of Westchester County have taken their toll on her.
Mrs. Fretterson is glossy-magazine beautiful. Her two young children are stunning. And whenever she sees me, she reminds me that she doesn’t feed them dairy, sugar, gluten, or anything that’s NOT organic. She also doesn’t believe in eating too much meat, although she admits to taking a bite now and then.
This was the first time they came to the cafe as a family. Martina, our exchange student from Spain, was still with us and helping out that day. She waited on their table. A few minutes later, she comes to find me in the kitchen, her eyes wide, her voice slow and cautious.
“There is a family out front….and the mother wants to know if all of your ingredients are organic.”
The cafe is busy at this moment, and Bob’s at the farmers’ market, which means I have to handle prepping food and washing dishes in the back all by myself. And without him to buffer my edgy side or to see to kitchen details,I turn into Tough Mama, focused on tasks and not on feelings. “When I can source an ingredient organically, I do.” I gesture to the chili with my thumb. “The beans are local and organic, the beef is grassfed from the farm, the tomatoes are organic, the garlic is local and organic, the spices are organic, but this week, the onions aren’t.” I point to the salad. “It’s all local. Not organic.” She disappears and comes back a few minutes later.
“The family wants to know what is in your gluten-free flour.”
I sigh. “There’s sugar in the pastries. Mrs. Fretterson doesn’t give her children sugar. So pastries are out. She’d do best with the chili.”
“The ingredients are not completely organic.” Martina reminds me. Even with a language and cultural barrier, she is able to see the humor in the situation and sings that last word out to me.
I’ve got three guest checks tacked to the wall, and my dish bin is full. If I were at the farmers’ market or standing at the kitchen table at the farm in the old days, when my only job was to sell meat and talk to customers, I’d make time for her. Back then, I was able to make time for all my customers, no matter how silly or challenging their questions. But in my decision to create a public community space, the glaring irony is that I rarely have time to interact with the public. I look up from plating a bowl of chili and bark the flour ingredients off to Martina. Behind her, Mom is closing in, a “be careful” smile on her face. Seeing it, I pull my lips into an insincere grin. My eyes are still fierce. Satisfied that this is the best she’s going to get from me, Mom moves to the side to reveal Mrs. Fretterson, bouncing up and down on her toes at the edge of the coffee bar, eyes wide, smile broad.
“It’s just that I need to know which flours you’re using, and if they’re organic?”
The invectives in my head are inhibiting my ability to speak. Apparently the Frettersons haven’t come in for a meal. They’ve come in for a treat. And Mrs. Fretterson wants me to come up with a sweet treat for her and her children that does not have dairy, gluten, or anything non-organic. Fruit? I think. Nope. Local, but not organic.
It occurs to me that I can lie. It would make it all so simple. And I wonder if that’s what Mrs. Fretterson wants. Maybe she needs to assure herself that she is adhering to the principles of whatever blog or book she’s following that insists that the only way to raise healthy, intelligent, toxin-free children is to regimentally adhere to an organic policy for all food and clothing. Maybe the simple truth that the world is too complex to meet these standards at all times, or that there’s a thrill to be had when accepting some contradictions, is more than she can bear. I look out front and see Mr. Fretterson watching me. His eyes seem pleading and apologetic.
It’s a simple thing. Tell Mrs. Fretterson that all the ingredients in the gluten-free flour blend are organic. I don’t even have to lie, technically. All I have to do is say “yes,” and go load the dishwasher. And Mr. and Mrs. Fretterson can have a lovely afternoon with their children, in a darling little cafe that does everything right, just like the organic cafes must do in Westchester.
But it’s bullshit. Life is complicated, and relationships matter. And the local distributor who is willing to drive out to the middle of nowhere to my cafe, who tries to source everything organic, can’t always get me the ingredients I need with an organic stamp. And the local farmers who are my neighbors and whose relationships I value, aren’t organic. And I’m going to buy the non-organic berries from them before I buy the imported organic ones. As much as I support organic principles, as much as I want everyone to treat the earth with respect, as much as I want my children to grow up with unpolluted bodies in a toxin-free world, there comes a point when we have to face the world we’ve been handed. And this is the community where Mrs. Fretterson wants to vacation. It’s gritty and imperfect, but we do our best. And she can take it or leave it.
“No!” I shout out over the hiss of the steam wand and the whir of the coffee grinder. “No!” I shout it again, even louder, over the din of people laughing and talking out front. There is a moment of quiet out on the front floor. Mr. Fretterson’s face falls with the brutal truth of my words. “Not organic!” With the quiet, my voice is now loud and clear.
I return to dishing up coleslaw. I leave Mrs. Fretterson to her dilemma. Stay or go, I think to myself. Leave a bad review online. Do what you must. I’m not friggen lying about what we do here.
But now, sitting with my English teachers, I’m feeling sad. Poor Mrs. Fretterson. She is trying to do what’s right. We all want to give our children perfect childhoods. We all want to avoid the mistakes our parents made. And, goodness knows, I’ve walked in her shoes myself, my inner perfectionist throwing mud on countless family gatherings as I tried to feed my own babies right.
“It really does,” my English teachers call my attention back to the conversation. One of them repeats the mantra. “Food. Really does bring people together.” They are considering the power of food to heal political differences, to integrate immigrants into communities.
Saoirse brings some plates by. She and Martina are talking about the Frettersons. “He finally just put his foot down,” Martina is telling her. “He ordered croissants for each of the girls. And a macaron for each of them!”
“And what did she do?” Saoirse asks.
“She ate a jar of organic kim chi. And tried not to cry.”
I want to interject in the conversation with my English teachers that they’re flat-out wrong. Food tears people apart. From the temperence movement forward in this country, people have had ardent opinions about food: what’s toxic, what’s healthy, what’s good for the planet, what’s bad for humanity, what’s good for the heart, what’s bad for the humors. And people like me are stuck in the kitchen throughout time, trying to figure out what the hell to fix to get them to all sit down together.
But something strikes me. The Fretterson’s stayed. They didn’t storm out of the cafe because we failed to meet Mrs. Fretterson’s standards. They didn’t have a good time, I’m pretty sure. But Mr. Fretterson came to find me as they were leaving. “Thank you,” he said. “And I’m sorry.”
And I’m struck how, in spite of the fall-out, some part of them chose to be in this place….Where Becky sits on the couch and does jigsaw puzzles, where Ron reads the paper and teases our family mercilessly, where Anita comes in each week and buys three half gallons of milk, where Justin works on his novel, where Debbie sits down with a cappuccino and talks about theater, where Rob grabs an Americano and ponders the plagues of American culture, where John places his to-go order over the phone, amusing the girls by pretending to be a woman named Doris Dookenwaffle, where two retired English teachers sit down to consider the power of food to move us through life’s greatest challenges.
We clean up and go home, and my mind is realing at all that transpired. Maybe food really does bring us together….even when bitter truths are on the menu.
It’s dark when Saoirse and I arrive the next morning. We flip on the lights, I pull out the croissants to begin proofing, then walk over to the computer and type up a sign. I tack it to the wall behind the register.
WARNING: This facility serves nuts.
(You might be one of them.)
(And we love you for it.)
Maybe the Fretterson’s won’t come back. But if they do, we will welcome them.