Our Alsace-born grandmother, Grandmaman Marguerite, was a stout, stalwart, and beautiful woman with a crown of curled, lavender-scented white hair. She wasn’t raised in a fancy environment, but she knew about many fine things in life, such as embroidery and humble recipes for healthy, tasty, and fragrant eating and feasting. As I was too young to explore beyond her living quarters, I never saw it with my own eyes, but I knew her sauerkraut jar lived in the cellar permanently. I recall the texture of the pickled and milky, spaghetti-thin, shredded cabbage on my plate, the miniature black juniper berries, the succulent aroma of white or multigrain crusty and rustic homemade breads, splashes of colorful berries, apples, and bananas, eggs in their shells waiting in footed cups, and the broad smiles of everyone around the table. Foods without nutritious virtues just weren’t available.
My mother used the same approach at home, and I enjoyed eating there as well. However, I do not have the same fond memories of other tables.
Our other grandmother, Grandmère Pelican (named for her generosity) was an excellent chef. She preferred to prepare things she believe might be good for us, like a cooked brain, or savory sausages with potatoes. The colorless dishes came usually with the promise of a reward for eating what was on our plate. However, wy sister Bebelle and I would attempt a few polite bites, wait for her disappearance, and then make furtive swift trips to the bathroom with our plates.
What was the problem?
Her offer of a reward implied that what was on our plates wasn’t good and what was coming would be fantastic or at least better. Finely cut or mashed vibrant vegetables would have eased the experience considerably.
I also remember her perplexed comment when they visited, and I wasn’t hungry for a cake, “But every child always has room for cake!” While an excellent cook herself, she had a very different — we could call it traditional — way of cooking. Looking back, her family was on the pudgy and unhealthy side.
In contrast, Marguerite’s desserts were not cakes filled with icing or whipped cream, but fruits of diverse shapes and forms, especially small fruits like raspberries, blueberries, and gooseberries in various preparations — fruit mousses, or for a rare occasion, she added a meringue topped with a touch of freshly whipped cream.
As a child, I did not like raw apples, but I did enjoy applesauce or a compote of small pieces of apple mixed with some plain yogurt. Little sugar was used in any dessert. Sweetness is an acquired taste, not a requirement. The more sweets children are given, the more likely they are to develop a dependence and craving. A lesson we have now learned from hyperactive children.
My experiences growing up instilled in me the understanding that eating is at the center of our lives and creates a bond in families at tables across the world. TV-dinner style eating had not yet appeared and would have been out of the question, I am certain, even if we’d had a TV.
Including my parents, there were six of us, yet we all squeezed into a minute kitchen and sat at a table between the stove and the kitchen sink. In that homey space, which seemed to shrink over the years as our bodies grew, we shared simple meals.
A favorite meal was what we called “tartines” — slices of full-grain bread with various spreads like fresh butter, cheese, shaved ham, with a bowl of hot soup that fogged the windows. No one questioned the closeness; we could have moved our daily supper feast into the dining room we used for holidays and Sundays, but the proximity of the stove and perhaps the ease for my mother to serve a meal kept us there.
Those were unforgettable moments: Faces flushed with excitement as we recounted the events of our day, exchanged ideas, and expressed feelings of anger, affection, tenderness, and appreciation.
Mealtime made us feel wholesome. It was a significant, elemental feast to celebrate the end of a day. We gathered to hear the day’s events, and often had a good laugh over silly, trite, and everyday hassles. When other activities supersede the need to share a real meal, eating is often relegated to the list of mere necessities. But meals do not have to be elegant or time-consuming to enable family togetherness.
Suppertime in our family wasn’t elaborate but still created a special time at the end of the day when everyone could share disappointments, humorous moments, air family discontents, or acknowledge someone’s achievement. Much teasing was at play as well, be it the hair growing on my sister’s nose because of using our father’s shaver; our young brother, age 6, caught kissing a girl on his way back from school; our 11-year-old sister’s infatuation with a married gym teacher whose picture was discovered under her pillow; or love letters tucked inside a red envelope received in the mail from a summer romance, it all spilled out.
Not much could be kept secret during these precious gatherings; they formed the intricate threads of the fabric that keeps us together despite moves to other continents and the passage of time. Those stories will be told and retold at every family reunion, with new generations in tow, resulting in more abundant laughter at each narration.
Special bonds are not formed just around a table, of course, but through every shared experience with another human being. However, I believe that mealtime not only is vital and crucial to feed our physical selves, but also has emotional value and important long-term positive impact. Mealtime deserves a prominent place in every family.
With my loved ones, I used what had worked for me, and in my medical practice, I teach patients to provide their children with abundant, healthy choices. I warn and discourage against the common approach: “If you eat what is on your plate, you can have dessert.” Again, that phrase implies that what is on the plate isn’t the best.
Keep it Simple!
Most people like routine, and there is little sense in accomplishing chef-worthy spreads for weekday suppers.
Involving one’s family in the preparation is essential, as it gives an opportunity to teach. I recall the cooking sessions my cousin Sylvie and I had with Aunt Mireille, every day before supper. We were put in charge of tasks we had learned and practiced time and again. We felt proud to accomplish them and be praised for them. Simple things such as fetching herbs, chopping them finely, and preparing a vinaigrette for the salad, or preparing the more elaborate raspberry or wild strawberry mousse that involved picking the berries during the day, beating the egg whites, mixing, licking spoons, and finally serving our prized dessert.
In the next pages, I will share a few tips on each food category.
How do I know I’m buying the right food?
Learning to read labels is extremely important, yet buying fresh ingredients instead of processed food is the best.
Learn to prepare your own food, granola, unprocessed foods, pickled or fermented vegetables, and fruit compotes, macerations, stews, and attractive soups. By healthy, I do not mean boxes that say healthy or organic.
How do I tackle this issue: I am working and do not feel like cooking at the end of a long day?
That’s understandable. Cooking should be a pleasure, not a chore. Personally, I feel the same way after a long day. However, after sitting and relaxing for a short time, I seem to find renewed energy and a fresh desire to cook. It also helps to prepare nearly ready meals when you have a free day. For example, stews and soups are perfect for that. I also prepare ingredients ahead of time so that the final steps do not take more than 30 minutes. I suggest some of those meals in the next pages.
by Nicolette Francey Asselin, M.D.
In her book “Taste Buds” The Magic and Fun of Sensible Food, the author curtails objections faced by parents and offers a new bare answer, by describing her own experience, growing up in Switzerland, where she had developed sensible, sound and uncomplicated eating habits. In this narrative, the author offers simple but effective approaches and tactics to create healthy “Taste Buds,” for families and the medical profession.