Why your friends are as essential to your life as food and water



Friendships, we have come to conclude, are a lot like spices. They add flavor and enrich our lives in varying degrees, depending on the particular seasonings we choose and how much we sprinkle into a recipe.

There are the “go-to” spices like salt and pepper that we might add into foods every day and even with every meal—atop our scrambled eggs in the morning, on our avocado toast at lunch and then into the stock for our roasted chicken in the evening.

We also keep on hand essentials that might add more kick–cayenne, garlic, onion powder and Spanish paprika. Some, like the paprika, also add more color to our culinary efforts. We tend to use these spices less often yet relish having them to make a bland recipe come alive, maybe, on a particular day when our spirits are low or the reverse—when we’re in a celebratory mood.

And then there are the healing, healthy spices like ginger, cinnamon and turmeric. We read about them in our health-oriented food publications, see them on health-food store shelves and hear about them from our health-conscious grown children who suggest them as a way to extend our lives.

Of course, there are the other spices we use sparingly, maybe, because of a high price tag such as saffron or poppyseeds or because they add fluff that only works with certain foods and at certain times. Put anise, caraway seeds and juniper berries on that list.

We’ve each stocked our pantries with a wide variety of spices much like we realized we do with our friendships, a topic we discuss in our latest book, Not Dead Yet: Rebooting Your Life after 50. We’ve filled our lives with a variety of friends. Friends have come into our lives in different ways, at different times and for different reasons. Each offers a distinct flavor or way of connecting and enriching our lives. We hope we add to their lives, too.

We treasure these relationships and work hard to stay in touch with our significant friends whom we need for daily, weekly, monthly sustenance or maybe a once-a-year checkup! We call, email, text, facetime or Zoom, or meet in person when possible to have meaningful exchanges. We keep their confidences and trust, and they keep ours. Even after 33 years of working together and being good buds, Barbara and Margaret still say to each other when sharing a secret, “You know not to tell anyone, right?” They do but feel it’s more of a pact if they utter the words out loud.

We also make ourselves available when these key friends need us, sometimes in person but most definitely in other ways. We share a rare history with long-time friends—grade school, college, first jobs, to name a few ways we met. They add joy and we thank the fates that they are in our lives. But then there are new friends we’ve met as we’ve become more evolved.

Both kinds may be as dependable as an Amazon delivery. With them, there’s typically no tit for tat, counting who does more. It all balances out just as using the right amount of a spice does. It’s not always the same. Sometimes, nutmeg (grated fresh) plays the major role in flavoring a dish; other times it’s only part of the line-up and cumin is the star. This can all change with tomorrow’s meals or friends’ needs.

If we don’t like how a spice flavoring a dish tastes, we acknowledge it and feel comfortable taking a stand and using a substitute. It’s the same with friends. We may not always feel comfortable speaking up to friends when they are unkind, discount us in some meaningful way or leave us out, often unknowingly or because they’re having a rough patch. Sometimes, they may even get angry or yell at us, and we feel entitled to yell back or speak up firmly. Is the fiery discourse akin to the hot spices in Northern Chinese food we sometimes crave? Is it even necessary to turn up the heat? We don’t seek it out, but it happens.

With a deep or big friendship, we know there can be cracks in the surface which usually can be repaired if we take the time to be patient, honest, kind and authentic. It’s no different than revising a recipe that no longer works for whatever reason—it doesn’t fit our diet or how our tastes have changed. Barbara is on to an entirely new brisket recipe that’s spicier than her former tried-and-true one. She also now cooks her roasted chicken at a high temperature like Zuni’s restaurant in San Francisco. And though she has a favorite chocolate cake recipe from Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock’s Southern Cooking book, she keeps searching for new different ones—with boiling water, coffee or cinnamon.

However, the sameness, longevity and strength of a recipe or relationship convinces us to keep some variation alive rather than let it fall flat like the fabulous popovers Margaret has learned to perfect (as good as Neiman-Marcus’, says Barbara who’s eaten them and says they don’t need any strawberry jam butter.)

Yet, as we do in any relationship or in our cooking, we pick our battles. Nobody is perfect and sometimes a good or very good recipe is good enough. We try to keep in mind the old chestnut, “If we expected them to be perfect, we’d have no friends.” And might we add, no good dishes to eat and enjoy.

Margaret (Meg) Crane lived most of her life in St. Louis, was associate editor of the Jewish Light in the early 70s and from 2001-2012, was senior writer for Jewish Federation. Two years ago, she moved to New York City to be closer to family living there. Barbara Ballinger, originally from New York, lived in St. Louis for 23 years and worked at the St. Louis Post Dispatch. She now lives in upstate New York. Follow their blog here.