Friday, November 21, 2003
Doris Day’s Advice for the Long Winter Ahead
When I was a younger person with a darker heart, I sometimes joked that Doris Day was our country’s leading philosopher. I was thinking mainly of her 1956 hit song, “Que Sera, Sera,” where with each chorus she waltzingly instructs us, several times and in two languages, that “whatever will be, will be.” The future, she points out, is not ours to see. So, que sera, sera. But as with many other things in life, I was wrong about Doris Day – syllogisms were not her strength, she wasn’t a philosopher at all, she was a movie star – and I was wrong about the song.
At first I misunderstood its infectious powers. In the early 1960s, when I was just a little boy, I asked my mother—Mom, why do you keep singing that silly Doris Day song? At any moment my mother was likely to let out a few bars of a favorite tune from her courting or newlywed days. From those lyrical interludes I learned that mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy, I learned the enchantments of old-fashioned love songs like “You Belong To Me,” and, thanks to her, I was exposed to the philosophy of que sera, sera.
I came to think, frankly, that the philosophy was absurd, heretical, or maybe some kind of communist plot. It was certainly un-American. You could not master a continent or plow the prairies or build Hoover Dam or even fashion yourself a successful little retail operation out at the mall by waiting for whatever will be, to be. But as we grind our way deeper into the R months, those wintery and near wintery months that contain the letter R in their names, folks in Michiana know the weather’s gray grip on the psyche. No matter how fatalistically we hunker down around the heat vent this winter, we will need some kind of relief. I see now that Doris Day had the key.
I realized this last Saturday evening. A shifting crowd of people, mostly from my workplace, have a monthly serendipity commonly known as a potluck dinner, and it was our family’s turn to host. Nightfall had swept away the grayness of the afternoon, and I was waiting hungrily for the first cars to pull up. I looked out in time to see two groups of guests walk into the circle of lamplight, bearing a shiny lidded pot, a cloaked tray, and a mysteriously bulging bag of food. This was the que sera moment. In the next half hour more cars pulled up, more friends and acquaintances carried their offerings up the front walk. The evening’s theme was the food of Tuscany and Provencal. Soon the dining room table was groaning with serving dishes, the house was warming, and the air was rich with familiar and unfamiliar aromas.
The que sera approach to potluck menu planning worked beautifully. There was a dish of pear and cheese chunks that quickly vanished; there were marinated vegetables, there were two dueling pots of soup, one based on cream and the other on broth. There were long loaves of bread and blocks of strong cheese. There were Italian beans and Italian beer, technicolor salads, brilliant stuffed peppers, green and black olives. There were chocolates in a bowl, there was antipasto and tapenade, there was a region of the kitchen counter devoted entirely to red wines. For dessert there was tiramisu and cake and a rustic open-faced apple tart, spiced with roasted pine nuts, called a galette.
Forty-three people were in the house at the height of the evening. Some of the regulars didn’t come, some people joined the group for the first time, and there were kids and even brand new babies in the crowd. And the conversations were as varied as the food. Potluck philosophy has its limitations, sure – you probably can’t build anything bigger than a barn with a potluck crowd. But you can certainly create some of the social glue that makes a community come alive. The philosophy of potluck, it turns out, is just a tasty and sociable version of que sera, sera, suited to our times.
In the second verse of her song Doris Day asks a question that seasoned Midwesterners know better than to ask during an R month: Will we have rainbows day after day? Well, of course that future will never be. But no matter how long and gray this coming winter is, it won’t matter as much if you find yourself a potluck group, as we did, or start a new one of your own.