We’re lucky to form a unique kind of family here at The Food Connection, both in immediate and extended ways, and this semester has been full reminders of how lucky we are to have each other. I should tell you all the story of the gaggle of the farmers supplying our UK Dining Salad bar program, or of my conversations with the patriarch of a multi-generation grain farm in Western Kentucky. The story of the surprise deliveries of experimental Okra from a grass scientist and the resulting crisp refrigerator pickles is another good one. However, those will have to wait because for now, I want to brag on one of our kids, and I’m sure none of you will fault me for that.
We have an incredible crew of student workers who keep our kitchen humming; washing dishes, setting up cooking classes, serving as petit sous chefs. We met Viktor his Sophomore year, and while I won’t claim to have favorites, what Chef Tanya and I appreciate ‘our Viktor’ is his diligence and earnestness. Now in his senior year, we’ve watched him transform from tentativness in the kitchen to holding his own with any recipe we throw at him, as long as there’s AC/DC blasting (which I am happy to indulge…mostly). I may also be partial because he sneaks me the heels of baguettes while I’m stuck working in my office, which he knows are my favorite.
A Class of His Own
If you know one thing about Viktor (besides the AC/DC thing) you know he loves to cook. If you know two things, you know he’s proud of his Hungarian heritage. We’ve long heard about his mother Katalin’s fabulous cooking, and the stories of how she carefully transcribed recipes from Viktor’s Hungarian grandmother over the phone when she was a young mother finding her way in the United States. When the College of Arts and Sciences announced this year’s theme was Year of Migration, we knew we had the perfect way to launch our annual cooking class series. What better way to welcome the campus to the Food Connection family then by celebrating one of our own?
The night of Viktor’s cooking class, the kitchen was filled with both familiar and new faces, and the warm scents of paprika and braised beef. Viktor and his mother spoke to us in English and each other in Hungarian as they moved from table to table deftly guiding the class through Gulyás (peppery beef stew), Nokedli (egg noodle dumplings), and Palacsinta (sweet crepes). Sounds of friendly banter were punctuated with yelps of joy as someone successfully flipped a crepe. The dish we shared at the end of the evening was a true delight; a rich stew, hewed red with dried peppers grown by Viktor’s grandmother, ladled over toothsome dumplings and finished with a bright dollop of sour cream.
In praise of odd families
It’s hard to say exactly what made that meal so special. I’m inclined to say there’s no one thing but rather a magical mix that can best be described as family; not only the bond shared by Viktor and his mother, but also the deep affection and pride we have for our students, the familiar bonds of community built with those who join us in our kitchen, and the farmers whose names we praise at the beginning of our classes and the land they steward. Woven through our bowls of stew were delicate ties of new and old affections, shared and personal histories, lands distant and near, and the work of making family wherever we find ourselves.
When I travel home to my parents’ place, I like to walk the stubbly cornfields and wooded marshland behind their house like I did when I was a teenager. Blowing clouds of breath into the dusk, my legs re-learn how to walk on uneven furrows, and the cries of blackbirds reminds me that our non-human world is also bound in family and home. The friends and neighbors who we’ve adopted over the years join us at our holiday tables and remind me that our bonds are where and with whom we build them. In our precarious times the best (and only) way forward is through an expansive understanding of who we are kin to, and who and what is kin to us: through a recognition that we are responsible for each other.
As we head into the winter holidays, I hope you all have the chance to connect with your families both by birth and by affinity. If you’re ever in need a place at the table, you’ll always find one here with us.