If you read food magazines or have ever participated in a weight loss program or just use your own eyes and head, you'll know that for most people food is a truly emotional issue. Our ancestors may have eaten primarily to stay alive, but since the dawn of civilization it seems food is used in so many other psychological games: to gain attention, to comfort ourselves, to release a creative urge, you name it. Some people eat more when they are depressed and some stop eating all together. No matter how you look at it, it's a deep emotional matter and we can't always control how we deal with the emotions evoked.
Since I am now in the process of continuing the cycle by bringing another being into the world I've been musing a lot lately on what has influenced my own attitudes towards food and cooking. Not surprisingly, it all comes down to the influence of a trio of mother figures: two grandmothers and my mother.
What I Picked Up from my Mother
If you read our site often you'll already be aware of the fact that my mother was never a very enthusiastic cook when I was growing up. For the first four years or so of my life she was attending university full time and working full time while raising three children. Also, it was the seventies and women were liberating themselves all over the place and my mother (I think) welcomed the opportunity to liberate herself from the kitchen. As she also has a love of gadgets, we saw each of the main ones come through the kitchen as she tried them out: the crock pot, the microwave, etc. Unlike my mother, I love being in the kitchen. However, thanks to her I also love gadgets.
Another habit I always associate with my mother is her inability to throw food away. If you bring your plate to the kitchen to be scraped and put in the dishwasher, she will be the one following behind you to pick off the vegetables you didn't eat. She will doggedly eat leftovers for a week straight rather than throw food away. Each time I visit her house, I go through the cold cuts drawer in her fridge and throw away lunch meat and cheese that have gone moldy. And me? I think I am slightly better about cleaning out the fridge than she is but it's mainly a conscious decision. I eat leftovers and save bits of food whenever possible. I hate it when guests want to scrape their own plates because when they are not looking I know I can throw those chicken bones into a pot of stock I'm making. (20 minutes boiling can get rid of any germs, right??) I can't guarantee that any condiment you take from my fridge will still be within its use-by date. I am my mother in some ways.
The Irish-American Grandmother
My mother's mother was a very enthusiastic cook. These things seem to skip generations on my mother's side of the family, as apparently my grandmother's mother hated cooking and delegated it to her daughter whenever possible. From this grandmother I inherited the tendency to use cooking as deep therapy. My grandmother used to tell us about growing up in large family and how her brothers would intentionally tease her until she grew so angry she would slam the kitchen door shut and closet herself in there making coffee cakes and cookies and pies until she calmed down. She said it was years before she realized they were doing it intentionally, to goad her into baking. I'm the same way: I can come home from work in the foulest of black moods and yet if you give me half an hour chopping vegetables and puttering around the kitchen I'm back in my usual sunny state.
The other debt I owe to this grandmother is the concept of the kitchen as the heart of the house. She had a perfectly serviceable living room in her house, but I don't remember ever spending much time in it aside from Christmas morning when opening presents. Everything took place in the kitchen and you could always find her there, either cooking or placidly setting out the cards for solitaire on the kitchen table. I dream of having a kitchen like that some day.
The Austrian Grandmother
From my Austrian grandmother I inherited the most complicated and - some would say - messed up attitudes about food. Food was one of her control tools: a way of forcing her will on her grandchildren, albeit in a very loving way. "Eat, eat," I can hear her encouraging in her strong German accent. Is it only in my imagination that she actually said "You don't love me, you don't eat enough"? Certainly she picked up popular phrases like "There's always room for Jello!" and added them to her repertoire. I can remember groaning as she came in the dining room proudly holding a platter of quivering Jello at the end of a marathon meal.
My grandma Liebezeit was never satisfied with the feasts she created, though in my mind they stand out as the best meals I've ever eaten. Home made soup was followed by a roast meat and at least three vegetables, a big salad, then the Jello and even a dessert. Let me also point out that we would eat this meal, AFTER having consumed a few dozen cookies on arriving at her house. Sometimes, when she was lucky, she managed to make us a large breakfast around ten in the morning and then a lunch at one or two in the afternoon. But she was always getting up to stir something, to bring in the forgotten salt and pepper to find some other hidden treasure from the fridge to tempt her grandchildren. She never seemed to sit and eat herself.
And me? I'm obsessive in the same annoying way. If you don't tell me how good a meal is, I'll sit on tenterhooks for an agonising five minutes before anxiously enquiring "is it okay? is anything wrong?" If you ask for seconds, you are my best friend and obviously love me. If you don't, I'm crushed. I'll spend hours after the meal going over "what went wrong" while the Critic completely tunes me out. (For him when a meal is over, it's over.)
I also find it almost impossible to sit down and enjoy the meal I've spent so much time and effort cooking. At my grandmother's funeral as I sat listening to my brother's eulogy, describing this habit of hers, I had a flash of recognition: I do that too! Now I try to correct for it, but the instinct is still there.
So there we go. I bring my own new strains to this mix of attitudes but for me, at least, it's interesting to dig back and see where some of them came from. I hope it wasn't too boring for any other readers out there. (Is that the sound of crickets I hear?)
Use the comments section to tell me your stories - I would love to read them!!