Yesterday at a restaurant I saw a woman M. I’d known very well growing up: the mother of my closest childhood friend. My children were still coloring in their activity book and we were awaiting our pizza when M. and her party got up to leave. She came over and we exchanged greetings. “Have a nice lunch,” she said as she stood up from the table. “Oh I will – I love the food here,” I responded. “Oh I know,” she fretted in a conspiratorial voice, “I told myself I’d be good but, I just wasn’t good.”
Ah that. Usually when I see M. it’s in a restaurant and even the briefest conversation often involves the “good”- (or “bad”)-ness of eating or abstaining from certain types or quantities of food. These kind of conversations and exchanges are familiar to me: they pop up quickly and relatively frequently in my life and I never know what to do with them. The implicit assumptions of comments like these: the “health-minded” or virtuous amongst us should be constantly monitoring the food that goes in our mouths (or the exercise we do – or don’t do); a certain weight or pants-size proves one is “good” or “bad” or “letting themselves go” or whatever the parlance is. Food is to be enjoyed, yes – but with a series of complex rationalizations and rules and disordered behaviors; tips to reduce fat, trickeries to convince oneself a certain food is enjoyable (even when it’s not) and other foods are to be eschewed (even if one loves them) – and of course, perhaps, the binge-eating of an entire pan of brownies late at night precisely because the obsession and counting and over-thinking creates a fevered desire for the “forbidden” stuff. Every disordered eater I know of has different code words and rituals – my own mother’s vocabulary about “bad” food includes the words “calories”, “rich”, and most of all “oil” – but there is a uniformity to it just the same.
Adult persons who exhibit disordered eating often reproduce; children are raised in households structured around these implicit and explicit systems. Abovementioned M’s household was, like a lot of my friends’ mothers, packed with lot of diet technology: low-calorie dressing and magic yogurt that did this-or-that for your figure or sugarfree things that contained who knows what kind of scary chemicals and things like Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig. Really, it’s a surprise I didn’t grow up entirely food-disordered myself: my own mother and just about every mother I knew engaged in worshipping Dieting culture with the support or tacit approval of the fathers I knew.
I remember reading with consternation over a recent re-invigoration of a homecooking trend: hiding “healthful” foods in childrens’ favorites (I note with dismay at least two recently-published books have been very popular; the count increases if you consider the books detailing these “tricks” with regard to your adult male partner). Immediately after these books air they typically spark debate about the wisdom of doing such a thing – and rightly so. For me, hiding certain kinds of foods in other foods is missing the entire point of eating, of cooking, and of caring for one another – not to mention I think it is patently wrong to decieve someone into eating something they’ve told you they don’t want or can’t eat. If you were trying to train your children into feeling that properly administering to one’s body with food was a loathsome, hideous morally-riddled chore, sneaking “health” foods into their preferred foods seems the perfect way to do it (not to mention create longstanding familial resentments).
My family doesn’t love everything I cook, but damn near. The children often enjoy watching me cook – last week while rolling out pita Nels sat at the counter and observed for a bit before saying, “My heart is filling with love.” And I know the family loves the fact that I can cook and do cook. And obviously, I would never withhold information on what’s in the food, should they ask. I can’t imagine myself, my temperament, my diet (as in the food I eat), and my skills at cooking without these last few years at home (I quit my paid employment in 2003 – I’ve been home for seven years!). Food is, in its way, an organizing principle at our house but I’d like to think this in the best of ways. My children see me cook actual food from scratch. I treat the ingredients and the process with respect. I can’t control what they eat or how they eat; but they will eventually leave the home and I hope they leave it feeling a competency and joy in preparing daily fare – just a bit – and knowing it’s one of life’s pleasures to eat and prepare Real Food.
This morning I prepared a very late breakfast – well, what is better described as a lunch or brunch, truthfully. I told the kids – who rolled out of bed at noon – I was a bit late in procuring their morning repast but if they were patient they’d enjoy it very much. In the kitchen I boiled macaroni and started a sauce simmering: organic ground beef and butter, tomato sauce, sugar, salt, white pepper, grated zucchini, finely chopped garlic. I peeled and cut carrots and broccoli and set aside and started a pan of water to blanch them in. I hardboiled three of our (Hoquiam! free-range! organic!) eggs and sliced the pumpernickel I baked last night (recipe of my own making and is forthcoming on the blog) and made both a pot of hot tea and a pitcher of iced (for Ralph, later today). I drained and set aside the pinto beans I’d been soaking (tonight’s dinner) and had a sip of coffee and at some point my kids came in and set themselves up at the tabletop to color and talk.
When the food was ready I set the counter where we were going to eat: cloth napkins, plates and forks, hot tea with cream, and all the food. The kids watched me, put aside their “homework”, washed their hands, and spent the next few minutes eating and talking about how wonderful the food was.
There. We had a meal together. Without any tricks or virtuous self-deprivation nor sinful overconsumption.
And let me tell you, the whole experience was “good”.