Southern Foodways Alliance/flickr
Marshall, a dear friend, just wrote me that he recently attended a writers' conference in Carmel, and he asked if I knew one of the speakers from San Francisco and if I was familiar with a Southern writer who attended. As small as the world is, I did not know either, but knew of them both. What became most interesting to me is he added this definition of the word "phatic," and I was instantly intrigued:
"Phatic" was coined in the early 20th century by people who apparently wanted to label a particular quirk of human communication—the tendency to use certain rote phrases (such as the standard greeting "how are you?") merely to establish a social connection without sharing any actual information.
Reading this, I realized I did not know that when someone greets me with "how are you?" they might not really want to know how I am. The purpose is to merely establish a connection without sharing information. I can tell you that more often than not, I tell them exactly how I am. I am happy to say that overall I love my life—I can say that with such honesty.
Granted, there are days that are not as good as most, and I have my share of daily interruptions and annoyances. On occasion a family member will worry me or even let me down, but overall no real complaints. Much of what makes my life so great is how my life is so open for people to wander into it. For example, my friend who is consistent with keeping in touch and sent me this mind-stirring quote found his way to my kitchen door about four years ago to check into one of my guest rooms for the weekend, and within a short time a bond was made. Possibly by one of us just asking "how are you?".
I was in the middle of cooking a special dinner for my husband, who had been away for a couple of weeks, and he had made a request that was not the norm. He asked me to make a recipe he had read about in The New York Times. I don't remember whose it was ... I just let him describe it and went on to do my own version of it. If I remember, it was braised beef ribs that were cooked, taken off the bone, chopped, pressed back into a pan with the jus, chilled, cut into squares, and re-braised. I was standing over the stove when Marshall walked in. He was quite comfortable taking a kitchen stool and engaging in conversation, and I felt the presence of an instant friend. I asked if he would like to join us for a casual supper that Friday evening, and the friendship began.
My philosophy on friendship is "never keep score." I am convinced there is no way to keep everything divided evenly, nor should you in a true friendship. I prefer to believe we all do more for some than they are able to do for us, but there is always someone in our lives doing more for us than we can do for them. I also know that true friends are able to pick up where they last left off. So when they ask, "How are you?", it is a "friend-phatic."
When Marshall sent his note to me about the word "phatic" he also included a quote from Homer's Iliad: "The tongue of man is a twisty thing, there are plenty of words there of every kind." He said he liked the idea that the tongue is used for both word formation and tasting food. I have always found people who like words, spoken or written, enjoy the pleasures of food and wine. I find words can be as simple and direct as an egg on toast or as complex and seductive as champagne and caviar.
I am still stuck on "phatic," and it made me think about the concept of food-phatic. As when a server comes back to the table and says "how is everything?". I know many times it is an obligation and they really would not prefer an answer, but the beauty of the hospitality and food business is the open opportunities I have had in my life to ask questions of total strangers and make a connection. I will stand by when someone offers a greeting to establish a social connection—I will take it to the next step and they probably will end up at my table. It is how I have made most of my genuine friends: I was standing at the table and I used a food-phatic—"How is it?"—and then with more conversation and more than likely a bit more conversation about food, we were fast friends, for life.
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