Food impacts friendships

A Nosh of Jewish Wisdom: Worries go down better with soup than without.

Dear Helen:
I may have insulted a dear friend. Long story short she is a wonderful person and a terrible cook. Her mom didn’t learn to cook (a child of privilege) so she didn’t teach her daughter. My friend has always been a working professional, who fed her family lots of restaurant take-out and prepared food from markets. The most polite thing I can say about her attempts at home cooking is that they were unpalatable. She means well, but anyone who can’t follow simple directions for chicken soup without creating a grey boiled mess is not someone I want nursing me when I have the flu, which I just did.

Friend B on the other hand comes from a long line of kitchen witches with mad skills. Despite my “I have no appetite but thanks,” (which deterred the bad cook), she arrived at my door with matzah ball soup, meatballs and rice, blini and cranberries, lox and more. Maybe it was the soup or perhaps four days of vegging on the sofa and nursing gallons of tea, but I started to regain my appetite. I thanked her on FaceBook and now the noncooking friend is insulted. What can I say or do?

Dear Healing:
You can be honest. Tell her the truth: when she initially asked, you were so sick that nothing sounded good; also that your other friend simply refused to take “No” for an answer. You can explain why you complimented the good cook (“mad skills” and “kitchen witch” convinced me!) and explain to your bad-cook friend that somehow she knew exactly what you needed.

Be clear about how much you value her friendship, and do not be sparse in telling her why. In the middle of your praise you can say something like, “She may be a better cook or know what sick gals need. But you will always be a friend of my heart. Let’s not let some soup get in the way of what matters.” Give her a germ-free hug and let it slide. I suspect she will too.

Dear Helen:
This is a question of etiquette. I recently met someone who I thought might be a good friend. We and some other people met at our end-of-summer block party and started communicating about social issues. She invited us all to a dinner party so we could follow up, and maybe do some organizing around local issues like theft and fire danger.

I got there early and she put me to work in the kitchen. To say that her food and health habits are unsanitary is a polite understatement. I managed to eat as little as I could, but I don’t want to be in that situation in the future. Other than suggesting that we potluck or not have meetings organized around food is there anything I can do? Should I say anything to the other neighbors, some of whom I have known for years? I’m a nurse, btw, so my standards are high, but I’ve seen eight-graders with cleaner rooms.

Dear Appalled:
You should probably not say anything to your neighbors unless they are close personal friends. Even if you’ve relaxed your standards, they might still be higher than the average adult’s. Though using a middle-schooler’s room generally sets the bar low enough that you’ve convinced me to stick to my own water bottle anywhere I go.
The simplest solution is to schedule meetings at times that don’t involve food. If that’s unavoidable, suggest a potluck, watch who brings what and stick to foods from people whose kitchens meet your standards. At the ultimate last resort, say you need to temporarily brown bag because of health issues.

Instead of trying to change her, focus your energies on where you connected: doing good work in the world together. Neighborhood cooperation is the most basic level of interdependence, and sitting, talking and eating together is exactly the right path to healing not just your block but also the larger world.

A resident of Eugene since 1981, Helen Rosenau is a member of Temple Beth Israel. She’s a student of Torah and artist (, a writer (, and author of The Messy Joys of Being Human: A Guide to Risking Change and Becoming Happier.

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