Yesterday I got a call from a friend and instructor D. at our local community college. She wanted me to come give a brief talk to her class on the subject of cooking healthfully for kids. Her class, entitled “”Making Better Food Choices” is a workshop of sorts, taken as a requirement by some fifteen students who all receive TANF benefits for themselves and their families. D. felt that the students might appreciate some perspective from someone who “walked the walk” in terms of cooking for children. “If even one of them leaves that workshop and feels inspired to eat healthy/low impact, I’ll feel accomplished”, she wrote me later.
I asked her a few questions about the students and their reception of the material. What had she covered in class? How had they reacted to the information so far? Getting off the phone I knew three things: 1. I was going to enjoy getting to know these students and their specific situations (inasmuch as I could in the time permitted), 2. I wasn’t going to give a calorie-counting, tsk-tsk- junk food, any sort of “good food” vs. “bad food” lecture, and 3. I was going to love talking about food and my own family.
Despite having a passion for the subject and decent communication skills, I am rather nervous at public speaking – especially when I feel I’m giving information that may not be particularly wanted or asked for. But in this case it was simple to find something that might go a fair way as a teaching aid: homecooked food, a commodity I notice many people deeply appreciate. I got up early this morning and made ten loaves of pan cubano and a pot of frijoles refritos. Good, cheap, delicious food – and I do mean delicious. At 10:40 I pulled Nels out of bed, threw some clothes on him and attempted to brush through his blonde tangles, then put the hot, fragrant bread in a large basket, wrapped the pot of beans in a towel, and pocketed the little jump drive with my modest one-page outline.
Loosened up by the potluck nature of the event, the time seemed to go very well. My son and husband attended and twice Nels raised his hand politely and, over his plate of fresh fruit, instructed the class on a few important family institutions: brushing one’s teeth every night, for instance. I was proud of Nels, who as much as any of the four of us is involved and instrumental to the way we grow, shop for, and prepare our food. I was also pleased he was more or less well-behaved. As I told D., it could really go either way at any moment.
I had a few questions to ask the students. What were their favorite grocery stores? Did they use the food bank? What did they think of the food provided there? How many kids did each of them feed and support? What kind of food stamp benefits did they receive – how much money, say, for a family of four? Who was using WIC? How long did the WIC benefits run for children? (Answer: until age five – a change since the days our family availed themselves of the class.) Who was happy with how their children ate? Who would describe their kids as “picky eaters”? The conversation felt good to me; I tried not to spend too much time on my handout. I shared my own family experiences, always speaking in first person. I also shared our grocery budget in dollars and cents. And maybe most significantly, to me at least, I made sure to firmly articulate the respect and props any family cook should afford themselves for what is a true labor of love: one sometimes thankless, exhausting, and uninspiring – but more important than our social culture often acknowledges.
Nels and I left just before 1 PM, my basket raided of bread and just a few scoops of beans left. It should surprise exactly no one who knows me that I found myself thinking about this class a lot – and thinking how much I’d love to teach it. “I’m no nutritionist,” I had said to the students today, but as I said it I realized that ultimately I believe nutritionist-based food discussions are of limited usefulness. I have no beef (so to speak) with the field itself; but food, and cooking at home, goes so far beyond the nuts and bolts of this-many-servings-of-grain what-have-you (especially given the large scale of dispute on basically any tenant of so-called nutritional wisdom). Food is about who you are – your hopes and fears, your values (whether you could articulate them or not), your habits, your spiritual and familial center.
Some of the best moments of the class were the compliments on the food I’d spent the morning on. As one woman, mother to three, left the room she once again thanked me and said, “I’m going to go home – I’m inspired to cook beans!”
Music to my ears.