April 7, 2013

There are those days that always seem to lie ahead for us. Births and deaths, of course, but especially those days when you can put a particular date on them for a long time in advance: weddings, graduations, retirements… Their advent looms over the present as we wait and prepare for their coming. My life may be more densely furnished with minor versions of such days than many people. To the life of a teacher scheduled with class preparations and final exam days I’ve added a sequence of travel days and days when I have to deliver a certain talk or presentation. My life is constantly one of making sure my ducks are in a row. And then the day arrives. The travel ritual of suitcase, check in and taxicab shifts from rehearsal  to performance; I’m in front of the audience and the piece that I’ve gone over in my mind repeatedly will be repeated one final time, but differently—“for real”. There’s a moment in the early minutes of these days when a certain “it’s here” feeling comes over me, and I sense that the game is afoot. Now’s the time to shift from planning and preparation. Now I simply reconcile myself to the fact that the event is going to unfold, and the experience of it is simply to be undergone.

Feast days are both instances and practice times for the experience of arrival. Like a lot of folks, we normally stock the pantry with a lot of generic stuff that can be whipped up as the notion strikes us. To that are added those perishable items that will be eaten sometime soon, maybe tonight. We plan the menu around these cornerstones, but the decision to do so is always opportunistic. Something struck our fancy, or caught our eye at the marketplace. The big feast days—of which there are comparatively few in the contemporary calendar—are different. They have a structure and import that requires advance orchestration: what we will have, who will be there, how will all the various moving parts will be coordinated?

Last week I completed a trip just in time to sit down at the table for the obligatory slice of Dearborn ham that anchors Easter dinner. This is not a longstanding tradition in the Thompson household. We had never heard of Dearborn ham before we moved to Michigan almost ten years ago. But it had been settled that this would the pivot for an Easter dinner with family, and it was a damn good thing that I was able to swoop in and not mess up that particular parade. It was bad enough that I was not around to whip the mashed potatoes (which we omitted in my dishonor). Thanksgiving and Christmas complete the set of feast day dinners for us. There are some other minor traditions (chili dogs at Halloween?) that don’t seem to rise to the level of a rehearsal-performance duet, and as a result they don’t much serve as much preparation of those other, even larger arrival days that punctuate our lives.

Anticipation. As Carly Simon said, it’s making me late. Keeping me waiting. And then there was that ketchup thing, if you are really obsessed with food culture.

But then there are also those mornings where you wake up, catch your breath, and it’s (almost) here. I don’t know of other people have that moment early on a big day/feast day morning, but you should. These are the good old days.

Paul B. Thompson is the W. K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University