A topic everyone talks about

I have a trademark habit that always causes my adult children to roll their eyes. I ask people, including many strangers, "What is your favorite vegetable?"

After that, if the person is game, I proceed to, "What is your favorite way to eat potatoes?" Then, if time permits, I might ask, "What is your favorite meal?"

When I was sitting in the waiting room at a hospital on a recent morning, a woman and a young man were sitting across from me. I could tell from their conversation that they were mother and son. An older man, who was waiting for his wife, sat alone, staring at the wall.

I put down my three-month-old magazine, and asked them, "What's your favorite vegetable?" They all looked at me.

One said, "Are you asking me?"

I said, "I'm asking anybody."

"Hmm," the woman said. "I love collard greens with a ham bone."

The son laughed. "I don't eat vegetables," he said.

I looked at the other man. "Do you have a favorite? I love asparagus."

"Actually, I love corn. Does that count?" he asked.

"Ooh, I love corn," the woman said.

"Especially corn bread," I said. "With butter and honey."

From there we went to potatoes and meals, and before long our mouths were watering. Talk of desserts nearly sent us over the edge. Bread pudding. Caramel sauce. Do you really put chocolate in your chili? Then the man's wife came into the waiting room. We said goodbye and wished each other a good day.

Food had done it again.

I've asked cab drivers, receptionists, and many others about their favorite vegetables. I've found it to be a very inoffensive conversation starter - much safer than asking for their opinions about Iraq.

Food brings an enjoyment that few other things bring. And there's commonality: Eating is something we all do.

I love to hear someone go "mmm, mmm," when talking about their grandma's fried chicken. I delight when someone leaves their problems for a few moments to tell how they put sausage and meatballs in lasagna.

I see their eyes fill with memories as they talk about turkeys, corn bread, stuffing, and candied yams (some love the marshmallow topping and others utter disgust at the idea). They discuss whether jellied cranberry sauce is better than whole cranberry sauce. I've talked about creamed onions and asparagus with people whose names I will never know. I've never met anyone who won't come on a food journey with me. The calories are virtual, but the memories are real.

When I visited my future mother-in-law in Cleveland, I was astounded to learn that she served ham, roast beef, and lasagna at a family gathering. Three entrées! In Cincinnati, if roast beef was the entrée, that was it. Cleveland was a three-entrée town. I was going to like this place.

I discuss food with my friends and sisters. We describe what we're making for dinner, how a bit of chipotle sauce added to ground beef makes tasty hamburgers. None of us is a professional chef, but we speak of things like deglazing, roux, and balsamic vinaigrettes. We celebrate food.

Food has taken a hit in the media recently. It is almost politically incorrect to admit you love butter and cream - or chocolate and Hollandaise. But talking about food is a pastime for me just as talking fashion or sports is for others. It connects me to people. Talking about food can chase away melancholy or make a seemingly insane world bearable.

Another question I often ask strangers is, what three people, living or dead, would you like to have over for dinner? I always chime in with my three: Abe Lincoln; my father's mother, whom I never met; and a person who could talk food like nobody's business - Julia Child. Bon appetit.

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