We recently made a holiday pilgrimage to the Chicago area where the majority of extended family live. Although not an every-year occurrence, my father-in-law’s 80th brought all of his children together to celebrate a combination birthday (his and Jesus’). Handily, we also offered a heads-up to my siblings and so setting in motion a packed extended weekend of relational experiences.

Unsurprisingly the common denominator in all the festivities: food.

Despite summer being our much preferred road-trip season we decided to drive. This allowed us to add a stop in St. Louis to visit with some of my cousins. The evening we arrived we all lingered over a lovely dinner of small plates and wine – our voices and laughter mingling with the rest of the patron hubbub in a restaurant whose acoustics were on a par with its excellent food. However, the most hospitable “homey” feeling came when my cousin offered me free range of her kitchen (mi cocina es tu cocina?) to scramble up an egg breakfast before Keith and I hit the road again the next morning. Food preparation has always been a real love-binder among my family’s women, and her excitement as I puttered about adding ingredients as she thought of and offered them created such sweet inclusion for me in the familial fold.

Gatherings around the table with my extended in-law family have the potential to pose quite the comestible conundrum. Some of us eat low-carb, some low-fat, one vegetarian, and the youngest palates are a bit finicky. But it never fails that a wide variety of options on the table allow each of us to fill our plates with abundance of preferences without undue anxiety over special needs. The greatest internal battle is waged when approaching my mother-in-law’s homemade cookies, linzer torte, rolls, and cream cake. Tradition dictates indulging in these delicious offerings of love, and caloric or carb restraint tend to lose the hard argument against the flavor of Christmas nostalgia.

With my mom and aunt gone, one of my brothers is emerging as the main chef for my family’s events. Another cousin, who graciously hosted our convergence in her home, told me she strongly sensed the presence of my parents and aunt (her mother-in-law). I wholeheartedly agreed – even before seeing the cornucopia my brother laid out. But there, amidst the melt-in-your-mouth prime rib roast, green bean casserole, and pepper salad with feta and avocado, was confirmation: a spicy version of potato kugel. And, as if to pay more homage to my maternal relatives’ marvelous Jewish cooking, my brother’s rendition of rugelach had us revisiting that argument against over-indulging in dessert.

Food represents both sustenance and celebration, necessity and enjoyment – partaking can cut two ways. With allergies and preferences, diabetes and high-cholesterol, and divergent sourcing ideologies, it’s easy to lose focus in food’s inherent ability to bind us together and holistically fill so much more than merely our stomachs. No wonder the Bible speaks so much about it, or that both Jesus’ last earthly gathering and his description of the ultimate relational event were banquets.

After logging just over 3000 miles, and unloading the car, I set to preparing supper. Because food also says “welcome home.”

Thank you, Lord, for safe travels and filling my soul with family.