November 12, 2004
The Roots of Our Food Attitudes

baking cookies.jpgIf 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!!

Posted by Meg in Sussex at November 12, 2004 5:57 PM | TrackBack Print-friendly version

Not an avid commenter, but an avid reader - and I LOVE reading stories like this - maybe especially because I don't have one like it to tell... My grandmothers unfortunately both died before making any lasting impressions on my food/cooking repetoire - although I do remeber my paternal grandmother making me open faced sandwiches and open faced cucumber sandwiches with cold cuts or pate, cucumber playing the role of the bread. As for my Mom, well, I've gone in the exact opposite direction. I wouldn't say she hated cooking, it just really wasn't what she wanted to spend her time doing, being a single mom and all. My sister and I use to joke that she's only ONCE baked us a cake - and that was more like a torte and we didn't really like it! Actually I remember baking a sheet cake for her to bring to her office on more than one occasion.
A beautiful post Meg!

Posted by Zarah Maria on November 13, 2004 at 4:20 AM

Hey, thanks - it's nice to know it wasn't just crickets out there! And I do feel extremely lucky to have known both my grandmothers as they were both very special ladies. I miss them still.

Posted by Meg in Paris on November 14, 2004 at 2:32 PM

Hey, crickets are good luck, but I just read this.

Great story. I know of the Cooking as Deep Therapy. I survived the rough fall of 2001 by making a hell of a lot of soup. (Speaking of which, I tried the roasted tomato and onion soup recently. Thank you.)

My mom typed a number of her recipes up for me and put them in a cookbook for my last birthday. I would grab it on my way out of the burning house. I was especially touched to find one that she won a blue ribbon at the county fair for: a real family effort, with my aunt-who-is-also-my-godmother providing the homemade apricot jam, and my paternal grandmother, may she rest in peace, providing the recipe. I have been featuring these recipes somewhat sporadically on my blog.

Said grandmother was born on Thanksgiving and, while I miss all my grandparents around the holidays, I especially remember her. When the chips are really down, I eat chocolate pudding with a float of heavy cream, because that is what she gave us for dessert. She never met anything butterfat she didn't like and I resemble her strongly in this.

But I think my mom gave me the best sort of food upbringing, by the combo of being a skilled cook, willing to try new things, and not insisting that we eat something we hated (a product of HER upbringing).

Posted by Charlotte on November 14, 2004 at 7:50 PM

Meg, what a lovely post. Iíve been ruminating on it for days, but, mired in the end-of-semester workload, have been unable to string together any coherent thoughts.

My deep love of cooking was fostered solely by my mother. Neither grandmother was much of a cook; Granny managed to ruin a cake mix back in the days when all one did was add water, stir, and bake, and Nanny thought of cooking as the activity that interrupted cocktails.

My mother, who learned to cook in a frantic scramble after her honeymoon, fed our family of seven generously and creatively on my father's teaching salary. Amazingly, she found the patience to allow me into the kitchen to play and learn. By the time I was six or so, she let me make simple family dinners. Understandably, my mother, whose cooking was a matter of necessity, was always more interested in meat-and-potatoes than exotic dishes or frills. But she was always imaginative, and dinner was always wholesome, satisfying, and delicious.

As her children grew up and her budget expanded, Mom began to explore with new tools and novel ingredients. We still cook together, and often try to deconstruct and replicate or surpass restaurant meals, with a reasonable level of success.

Perhaps it's unsurprising that all five of my mother's children love to cook, and that we all push ourselves to be creative and resourceful in the kitchen. She gave us a tremendous gift.

Posted by Elsa on November 20, 2004 at 5:23 PM

Thanks to you all for the comments - it really reinforces my belief that our mothers effect our attitudes to food incredibly deeply. I love hearing your stories!

Charlotte, my mother and cousin also put together a book of family recipes but just those of my grandmother. It's one of my favourite books too, and will certainly be passed on to the next generation!

Posted by Meg in Paris on November 22, 2004 at 1:28 PM
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