I have been working on dieting and exercising since the first of the year. It is hard going because I love to eat and I hate the gym. So much of my life has been about food, that to leave it out is like taking away a little part of myself. I look at my yogurt and granola or my wassa bread with peanut butter and harken back to the days when my family’s kitchen was filled with the smells of cooking.
“These are people who like to eat!” my mom always quipped whenever there was a gathering of my large, noisy extended family. It was true that every family event and holiday was celebrated with food and beverages. Family pictures were taken around tables laden with holiday fare. We celebrated weddings with food. We mourned each passing with food. Every holiday had its own set of food traditions. So it is no wonder that many of my early memories are about eating.
Even when we weren’t celebrating our everyday activities were scheduled around meals. Usually my day started with breakfast cereal and Tang. I especially relished Cocoa Krispies drenched with the cream which Mom skimmed off the top of our household milk. I would eat my breakfast, listening to the radio while Mom drank her coffee and smoked. Then I would sit on top of the heat vent until it was time to catch the school bus.
In the summers, lunch was the big meal of the day. Mom spent all morning making it. We always had beef and potatoes, some type of vegetable and bread and butter on the table. Mom made a sheet cake every week because my dad liked to finish off the meal with dessert. My mom, dad and I were joined by my Uncles Harold and Howard and I remember feeling that I was competing with them for the food on the table. And if I didn’t take seconds, I was somehow letting my mother down. On Sundays, Mom made fried chicken, mashed potatoes with gravy and some special dessert. My Uncle Dale would join us on Sundays and the men ate heartily while my mother nibbled on bony chicken backs. She always said she liked the backs, but inside I knew she was leaving the choicest pieces for everyone else.
My mother was a great cook and she seemed to enjoy it. She was in her element when she was in the kitchen. I often joke that she could serve the multitudes with six loaves and two fishes. It didn’t rattle her when Mary and Walt or the Martins would show up unexpectedly. She would just add another can of this or that, and pull out some pickles and extra bread and we would eat in style.
The same went for holiday dinners. Thanksgiving and Christmas were always celebrated with turkey. I remember big birds filling the entire stove. One year she sold enough Tupperware to earn a double oven range. She kept that avocado green monstrosity going for days prior to the event. On the day of the feast, she would rise before the sun came up to prepare all the dishes for our dinner. She loved having a household full of company.
One of my best food memories took place during a family funeral. My mother’s brother had died of cancer and in the way of my large noisy extended Italian family, food needed to be prepared. The post funeral get together was being held at the home of my mom’s oldest sister, Katie. Aunt Katie and I shared a birthday and we had a kind of bond I didn’t have with a lot of the other family. When I told her I wasn’t interested in attending the funeral she asked if I could stay at the house with her to prepare the food. While my mom had always shooed me out of the kitchen, but Aunt Katie let me stay as we fried up what seemed like a dozen chickens and made several huge bowls of spaghetti. We chopped potatoes for potato salad and Aunt Katie even asked my opinion on the dressing. Then we boiled corn on the cob until the windows wept. Katie was the patient teacher my mother was not.
I wish I had had the time and skills to share cooking memories with my children, but I was too busy with life and school. We ate a lot of fast food, because, unfortunately, I never learned to cook. Probably my mother’s reluctance to get me involved played a big role in that. She used to shoo me out of the kitchen because I slowed her down. She had no patience to teach me anything, so I confined my cooking to mud pies and magical potions. After I was married, I taught myself to make a few things. I can cobble together a meatloaf from scratch and my holiday lasagna is famous, but there are few things I can make without a recipe in front of me. I don’t find joy in it like my mother seemed to.
In my family food was the foundation of love. My mother’s family was never people who shared their feelings but the time and care it took to make those meals was an external manifestation of their emotions. My daughters and I have family food traditions, like Thanksgiving turkey and Christmas lasagna, but my offerings always seem so dull compared to fare my mother and aunts always had to offer.
The interesting thing for me is that my daughter Robin is now the family cook. When she was ten or so we sent her to live with my mother for the summer. My mother, who had no time for teaching when I was little, taught Robin all the skills she had never given to me. Robin comes up with elegant recipes of her own creation. I told her that soon she is going to have to take over the family get togethers because she is so much more skilled than I am, especially with gravy.
My love affair with food came from heartfelt beginnings and giving those feelings up to lose weight has always been challenging for me. Changing food from a loving friend and companion to something necessary for life and energy is a difficult transition for me. Each day I have to remind myself not to overeat and turn away from the goodies which would cause me to stumble. When a basket of cookies arrived at the office the other day I had to tell myself that one cookie would make me feel worse rather than better. I tried to be noble and set a better example for my employees by declining the goodies. But I would have killed to have a cookie.