Long-Distance Food for the Hungry Heart

SEVERAL times a year between September and May, the college student in our family receives a package from home labeled "Fragile" and "Perishable." Nestled inside are dozens of freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies, individually wrapped in waxed paper to keep them from crumbling while they travel the 1,100 miles between our house and her dorm.These "care packages" never fail to surprise and please the recipient and her friends as they share what futurist Faith Popcorn calls "Mom food." The parcels are as full of love as they are of chocolate chips - a faraway parent's way of saying, "Thinking of you as you study... ." As a gesture, these simple cookie packages also make a 20-year connection to the long-ago spoon with baby food gently tipped toward an infant daughter's lips. This is the season when everybody seems to want to reach out and feed someone. For weeks, mail-order food catalogs have been arriving at the door in mouth-watering abundance, whetting readers' appetites with glossy photos of everything from Australian glazed apricots ($25 for two pounds) and Italian chocolates ($18 a pound) to Norwegian wild salmon ($98 a side) and Russian caviar ($2,280 a kilo). Every year the catalog foods become more exotic, the packaging more resplendent, and the prices, well, more pricey. But what could be easier than calling a toll-free number day or night to place an order, assured by a soothing voice on the other end that delivery will be speedy and the quality guaranteed? This is also the time of year when Floridians are lining up at citrus growers' outlets to order oranges and grapefruits for shivering friends and families up North. "We're here in the sunshine, you're there in the cold," they seem to be saying as they print addresses on order forms and sign gift-enclosure cards. "Wish you were here." That heartfelt sentiment often travels across the miles with the special-delivery cookies, steaks, and fruit baskets, an invisible message tucked inside the box. On one level, mail-order food offers an expedient way of checking off names on holiday lists. At the same time, no matter how fancy the jellies and cheeses and honey-cured hams might be, these upscale gifts still reflect a primary instinct to feed and nurture. For some gift-givers, these exotic foods also represent a holiday feast in transit. Unable to be present at the Thanksgiving groaning board or the festive Christmas table, a sender must settle for putting a meal - or at least part of it - in a package and shipping it air express. This year the catalogs' epicurean treats stand in sobering contrast to news accounts of food shortages in Eastern Europe. How many million Russians, weary of waiting in endless lines and confronting empty shelves, would look with disbelief at these four-color feasts, unable to imagine that they exist only a phone call, a credit card, and a courier service away? Closer to home, appeals from charitable groups and food pantries grow more urgent. It is a long way from the bounty of these luxury foods to the reality of soup kitchens, or even the sparsely stocked cupboards of middle-class unemployed workers. Those who are hungry and those who are fed - this marks the stark dividing line for the winter of '91, a discrimination that is hard to tolerate in a land of plenty. International rescue agencies often sharpen their fund appeals by indicating how many hungry people in Asia or Africa or Latin America a $25 donation will feed. But something more is taking place here than the sharing of food by the well-fed with the hungry. There is another kind of sharing that cannot be measured by either nutritional values or dollars and cents. People starve in the heart as well as the belly, and particularly during the holidays a gift of food is a gift of a place at an invisible family table. Celebrating the sharing of food as a sharing of love, the poet Conrad Aiken wrote, "Bread I broke with you was more than bread." The same could be said of bowls of soup in shelters for the homeless or bags of rice for famine victims, or even chocolate-chip cookies for students sleepily cramming for exams in a midnight dorm.

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