Food = love
I write a lot about my father, and what I observe in his nursing home. The “food” I sniff and get no scent from. The thickeners added to his drinks, the cans of Ensure.
My father is a champion eater. He’s also very funny.
My mother said she married him because he made her laugh.
I can guess why he married her. My mother was a fantastic cook. It was what she did when not writing or drinking. Of course, as drink is wont to do, it eventually eclipsed everything else. But in the early days, my mom was a respected journalist and a tremendous cook with very high ambitions and standards. For both pursuits.
For a child growing up in the 70s, it was no fun at all.
Wonder Bread was absolutely out of the question.
I loved the peculiar feeling of the bread sticking like gum to the roof of my mouth when I was offered a bite of a friend’s peanut butter and jelly or bologna sandwich. I had to use my fingernail to peel the bread from the roof of my mouth. Or else let it disintegrate over hours, the way the host did every Sunday at church. I played a game. How long could I keep the communion wafer (Christ’s body, in other words) pasted to the roof of my mouth?
Our sandwiches were made of dense, seedy wheat bread. Moistened with homemade mayonnaise. Egg salad sandwiches with turmeric and capers. Flat-leaf parley before anyone knew it existed. Healthy sandwiches packed in neatly folded brown paper bags with our full names written in circumspect script.
My mother cooked as often as she could.
Her refrigerator was a sight to behold. She never cleaned it out. Never once. She left that to my father. He’d open the door when the stench became over-powering. He’d bring the big plastic garbage tub from the driveway and make a great show of throwing out ancient leftovers that had grown all manner of psychedelic structures, strata, atmospheres.
Some of the molds were airy, like nearly invisible dandelions with little grey tufts for heads that looked like they’d dissolve if you as so much as disrupted the air around them. Others bled rivers of fantastic blue or pink pus. Still others rose like mushrooms into the sky, pushing against the saran wrap that constrained them. Needless to say, the foods they were feeding on were always unrecognizable.
My father made it a big show. He’d shriek and whimper and make loud protestations of disgust and horror. It was exciting. We’d gather around to see each specimen before he slipped it into the maw of the green plastic garbage bag.
My mother would sit on a nearby barstool looking abashed, but amused. It was an interesting expression. Like she was trying to be mad, but was laughing, and trying not to laugh. Maybe she was ashamed, but my father was so ridiculous and funny that he cracked that shame and made her laugh. Or chuckle. They were chuckles really, barely suppressed laughs.
It was a generous thing to do, what my father did. It was a game of theirs.
My point is, my mother cooked all the time and never, ever cleaned. That was someone else’s job. I tell you, I never once saw her wash dishes.
She had all of Julia Child’s books and was infatuated with the woman. We had all manner of consommes and aspics. She also cooked liberally from four other shelves of cookbooks from every culture you can imagine. I remember Korea, Japan, Mexico. This, in the 70s, mind you.
She cooked every night, which I now realize was quite an effort — working full-time in a high-pressure job surrounded by men waiting to pounce, to prove a woman couldn’t be a journalist. Especially not a woman with children.
And my mom, incredibly, had four.
And a merchant-marine husband who was gone for months at a time, shipping. Or, when he was working on land, it was to help plan and run foreign ports: Kuwait, Yanbu, Chittagong, Zihuantanejo. He was rarely home.
But where was I? My mother. And food. And my relationship to food. And what I do with food. And what it means. And the messages I give my kids, ad infintum.
Food is love.
My mother never put me to bed. She never tucked me in, as far as I can recall. When she tried to do motherly things, she was self-conscious and awkward. I remember when she’d gather us to read Halloween stories. In addition to Christmas (sometimes), it was the only time she would read to us.
Because it was so strange, I remember being nervous as she read to us. We didn’t want to upset anything. We’d gather as close as she’d allow and listen as she read Halloween stories on her bed. There were two or three brightly illustrated hard-bound books. I don’t remember the stories.
What I remember is the feeling of ceremony about it. Mixed with a feeling of dread. Confusion. A sense that this was strange and wonderful, and that it was fragile. It was critical that we not upset anything. We sensed our mother was uncomfortable. It was my job to put her at ease.
I didn’t know how.
But we could, and did, eat.
We ate things other kids didn’t. We ate everything. I remember kneeling at the table, pretending to be a dog begging for scraps of sushi, carpaccio, oysters, when I was really little, still wearing footie-pajamas.
I remember bites of sauteed chicken liver, pate, cornichons, cantalope with paper-thin slices of prosciutto. Raw eggs in soup and curries heaped with condiments lovingly prepared and presented in polished wood bowls. Deviled eggs dusted with smoked paprika. Long-simmering stews, osso bucco, polenta. Lots of French food. And cakes, particularly the Vincent Price cake for birthdays — a dark chocolate cake with mocha-rum icing. And a very rummy rum cake with crunchy pecans on 4th of July.
One Thanksgiving, my mom served pumpkin soup in individual hollowed-out pumpkin gourds. My cousins threw their soup out the window. At the time, I laughed. Our mom was so ridiculous. Now, that memory makes me angry.
Because we missed it.
The point is, there is no more elemental way to show love than by nurturing and sustaining those you care about.
And you don’t do that with Cheetos or Fritos.
If cooking goes out the window, then what?
Cooking is an age-old if not the age-old way we show respect and regard for those we love and honor.
When my dear friend Bubby turned 80 last year, his friends and I decided to divvy up the party tasks. I offered the house and some wine. That included the cleaning, decorating, prepping, and making party-ready my home. Others were doing the food.
My dear friends who were doing the food are amazing and have great taste. They chose the very best Chinese take-out it was possible to get in Oakland, California.
But it was still Chinese take-out.
Something was bothering me on the day of the party.
Finally, I stopped fighting my instincts and went to the best fish monger I knew, Ver Brugge on College Avenue in Berkeley. There, I bought a majestic, wild whole salmon. I negotiated with the butcher how to maneuver it into the oven. We discussed whether or not to cut off the head and tail. I said, No.
I wanted the majesty, the presentation, of a whole fish. I felt it was important.
I’m so glad I listened to my instincts.
My dear friends agreed and were grateful. They cried out in shocked delight when I pulled the creature from the fridge, cradled it in my arms, as heavy as a small child.
And they got to work, filling it with lemon slices and rosemary and garlic and I forget what else. Annointing it with oil (and incense and myrhh… what else?). You see, it takes on a magical quality, hearkens back to a primordial time, awakens something important in us.
They spent significant amounts of time discussing, and even using math!, to figure out the best way to get our lovingly decorated salmon into the oven without removing the head and tail, while still making sure it cooked evenly.
Taking it out was also a major challenge that took discussion, maneuvering, shrieks of near-mishap, and the hunt for a platter large enough to hold the beast.
In other words, we made an effort.
It’s as simple as that.
I’m like my mom. I use food to show my love. Hopefully, I don’t hide away behind food and other things as she did. Hopefully, I spread the message of love loud and clear in all corners so my kids don’t miss it.
Gail Boenning’s story on the ubiquity and tragedy of non-food “foodstuffs” got my attention and inspired this article. In it, Gail laments how we’ve “learned how to produce vast quantities of shelf-stable foods that taste great, light up our limbic brains and leave us wanting more.”
I beg to differ with that statement because thankfully I’ve been so opposed to processed food for so long that I actually feel sick pretty fast when I eat it. But, I realize, and I see evidence every day of the fact, that many folks have acclimated their bodies (at what cost?) to these “foodstuffs.”
In her article, Gail posits, “How we deal with food is only one piece of a much bigger philosophical debate.” I couldn’t agree more.
A recent Harvard Business Review article stated that only 10 percent of North Americans “love” cooking. Cooking, apparently, is shifting from a daily to a “niche” activity — something “a few people do only some of the time.”
This, although we as a species are compelled — if not required — to eat at least a couple of times a day to survive. And it’s food we’re required to eat — not sawdust, gels, thickeners, stabilizers, or manufactured flavorings. According to the article, 45 percent of the population now “hates” cooking, and 45 percent is “lukewarm” about it.
Since it is a marketing and business article, it necessarily sidesteps the profound meaning of this and instead counsels the grocery and food industry to “stop trying to live in the past, when most households cooked most meals from scratch.”
It even speaks nonchalantly of MATS technology, or microwave assisted thermal sterilization, “an FDA-approved technology with multiple benefits.” First, the article tells us, it “sterilizes food with minimal heat, pressure, and time so that the texture and taste of the food remains restaurant-quality.” Second, “thanks to the minimal degradation of quality, there is a super-clean label (meaning the product will have few chemical-sounding, unpronounceable ingredients).” And third, the food “remains packaged at room temperature, and remains safe to eat for months on end.”
Does this freak anyone else out, or is it just me?
What do we lose when we give up cooking?
Do we really want to run that risk?
What do we do instead?
How do we show our love?
How do we create ceremony? Memories?
If we relegate real food just to special occasions, will we still know how to cook it?
If we farm our most special meals and occasions out to third parties, who suffers? Who benefits?
What happens to the aromas wafting through a house the entire 48 hours before Thanksgiving — aromas that reconstruct treasured memories with the barest hit of nutmeg?
And what about mental health? We have a rising population of teens and young adults severely stricken with depression. All of my daughter’s friends are on depression medication. Is it possible that the evisceration of our food, our food pathways and culture, this channel of love passed from one generation to the next, is partly to blame?
In her book, “Honey From a Weed,” food writer Patience Gray says, “Pounding fragrant things — particularly garlic, basil, parsley — is a tremendous antidote to depression.”
It’s interesting she connects food, cooking, and mental health. She continues, “It applies also to juniper berries, coriander seeds and the grilled fruits of the chile pepper. Pounding these things produces an alteration in one’s being — from sighing with fatigue to inhaling with pleasure. The cheering effects of herbs and alliums cannot be too often reiterated.” (Italics mine)
My mother was beleagured. I’m pretty sure of that. Basically a single mother trying to make a name for herself as a journalist and succumbing to a powerful case of alcoholism. Yet, she spent hours hollowing out gourds so she could ladle pumpkin soup into them… why?
I don’t think I know the answer. But, if I can believe it was her way of showing up and of showing love, I can believe in, for a second at least — and hold in my hand — a shimmering, fragile confirmation of her love.