What do you serve a guest that’s refreshing in the heat of summer? Something cold to drink, you say—like lemonade? It all depends on custom. Hot tea from the British regardless of the season; hot, sweet tea from Mideasterners or Africans; bread and salt from Russians. But why offer anything to drink or eat? What does it mean? The meaning is the difference between the actual thing offered and what it stands for. What is offered is a symbol of satisfying another’s hunger and thirst, of being solicitous of their basic needs.
The common definition of symbol is something that stands in for or represents something else. The word comes from the Greek, symbolon, a token used to determine something genuine. It refers to the Greek custom called the “hospitality tablet.” The tablet was a small object broken in two with each person saving a piece. When they met again years later, they, or even their children, were assured of recognizing one another by matching the two pieces, the symbolon. The symbol is what permitted them to reunite or repair the hospitality broken by years of separation. It was a material sign of caring for another in a harsh and contingent world.
Which brings us to Rebecca at the well. Recall the story. Abraham sent his faithful servant to the land of his, Abraham’s, birth to find a wife for his son Isaac. When the servant arrived there, he prayed that God would show him the woman intended for Isaac through a symbolic act of generosity. The servant would ask a local woman to give him a drink from the village well. Now offering water to a stranger in an arid climate and country where water was scarce would not have been extraordinary. It was an accepted custom of hospitality. However, if the girl not only offered the servant water but also offered to water his camels, she would be a match, a symbolon that she was the one intended by God to be joined to Isaac. And so Rebecca did and was.
But there’s more. After Rebecca gave the foreigner a drink and watered his camels, he asked if there was room in her father’s house for “us to spend the night”—meaning the man, his servants, and his camels. She agreed and he and his men (and camels) ate and spent the night at her father’s house. So she became Isaac’s wife, and “he loved her and was consoled for the death of his mother.” Is it surprising then that a woman Isaac never met before or chose for himself was a perfect match? Not at all. The symbol of her loving character was revealed beforehand in her generosity to a foreigner at the well. Her actions were a token or symbolon from God, a means of determining something genuine.
Which brings us to the generosity still symbolized today in the offering of food and drink. And not just to the guest or stranger, but for all who at times become strangers to us. These can be our family or friends or coworkers. Which brings us back to the symbol. We offer a symbolon, a loving meal or dish or drink to someone we don’t recognize; in other words, we acknowledge or accept, perhaps after years of separation, and renew our relation. The “hospitality tablet” joins us again. It says that what is broken can be reunited.
And that brings us to a symbol of quenching thirst in summer. Mint lemonade. A symbol that conjures up porch swings, lawn chairs, picnics, barbecues—places where we join together in hospitality. This lemonade recipe is for a syrup made with fresh mint that can be conveniently frozen or stored in the fridge and mixed up in a glass as needed.
Mint Lemonade (serves 10)
2 c sugar
2 ½ c water
Grated peel of 1 orange
2 oranges and 6 lemons juiced
1 c mint leaves packed
Cook sugar and water for 5 minutes. Add orange peel and fruit juices. Pour syrup over mint leaves. Cover and let stand 1 hour. Strain. Store in refrigerator or freezer. Use ⅓ c syrup per glass and fill with crushed ice and water.
Joanne’s Quick Tips:
The syrup stays slushy in the freezer, so you can scoop out what you need.
When you grate an orange or lemon, make sure not to include any of the bitter white pith.
Joanne Cutting-Gray, Ph.D., is an author, scholar, and lifelong student of cooking. She lives with her husband in Savannah, Georgia.