Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Joy of Cooking

"Patriotism is the love of the food one ate as a child."  --  Lin Yutang.

I have a little boy on my caseload whose parents come from Jamaica.  They have a large extended family here in New York, and get together frequently.  A few weeks ago, I asked him what he did over the weekend, {hoping to hear that his parents had taken him outside to play, which, despite my constant nagging, it rarely occurs to them to do} and he mentioned a big family gathering at an aunt's home in Brooklyn.  "What did you eat?"  I asked, thinking of the marvelous coco bread, ackee and saltfish, callaloo, oxtail stew, jerk chicken and goat, escovitch fish, fried plantains,  pigeon peas and rice, and black cake I had enjoyed during my visit there.

 He had to stop and think for a minute.  "Pepperoni pizza and Kentucky Fried Chicken," he said, with an indifferent shrug.

Of all the ways in which we shortchange our children, feeding them bad food is one of the worst. And since everyone is entitled to my opinion, feeding them crappy takeout at family gatherings is a tragic, short-sighted mistake.  There could be legitimate reasons for ordering in, like everyone working all the time, but it seems to me that moving to another country and leaving your food and customs behind is the quickest way to disconnect a child from his ancestors and his cultural identity, prevent him from truly knowing his family, and to rob him of a large part of who he is.

Family gatherings are where the children learn that they belong to a tribe, encompassing their family, their religion, and their country of origin.   By eating the food and participating in the rituals of their tribe, they are an integral part of of their tribe's traditions and customs.  The customs and food of their tribe in turn become an integral part of who they are. After all, we are what we eat!

The wonderful experience of smelling and tasting all of the special food that the elders lovingly provision at those gatherings is what cements the child's feeling of belonging firmly in place.

I remember my grandmother, who died when I was 19, mostly by the food I ate at her home, and at our family gatherings,  for which she always prepared her specialties.   We didn't have a very close relationship  -- she was unfortunately not capable of much warmth  -- but she loved to feed us the intricate, slow cooked delicacies of her own childhood back in Yekatrinoslav: knishes, chopped liver with gribenes and schmaltz, blintzes, brisket, lokshen kugel, chicken soup with kneidlach, kreplach, latkes, delco, kichlach, scherben, and mandelbrot.

Every time I went to her home for a visit, she would make my favorites and package the leftovers for me to take back to the suburbs.  No matter how many knishes she sent back with me, the bag was usually empty by the time I got off the train.

Despite the often contentious relationship I had with my grandmother,  Jewish food, which I always associate with her, tastes like love, belonging, security, and family to me.  I can always count on my grandmother's recipes, many of which I now make, to comfort me when I'm blue. The tastes from my childhood, dishes that have been cooked and eaten by my forebears for hundreds of years, instantly remind me, with an immediacy that nothing else can, of my connection to something much, much larger than myself.

 What if my grandmother had fed me meat loaf, instant mashed potatoes, Campbell's soup, Jell-O, Hydrox sandwich cookies, and Hawaiian Punch?

Tradition, ritual, and the powerful sensory memory of the smells, tastes, and textures of the special foods we eat when we gather together are what anchor us to each other and our collective past, and ground us in the present, ensuring that we are well equipped to face whatever the future brings.

Feeling like a part of a tribe is a fundamental human need.  If a child doesn't feel a connection to his own people through its food, traditions and customs, he is apt to go off and form a connection to something else.

Although it's true that so many old country recipes are labor intensive and time consuming, cooking doesn't have to be elaborate to be delicious and fulfilling.  It just has to start with high quality ingredients, some decent pots and pans, and a few basic, easily mastered  techniques.

If you don't know how to cook, can someone show you a few things?  If you don't have any food traditions in your family,  can you arrange, perhaps with some other family members, to start some?  Perhaps great aunts or grandparents have recipes or food memories they can share.

 What can you do so that your child's family food memories are not of mass produced junk, but formed by your own rich history, customs, traditions, choices, and sensibilities,  lovingly produced in your own kitchen, by your own hands?

{Two beautifully written, deeply felt memoirs about family and food:  "Miriam's Kitchen" by Elizabeth Ehrlich, and "The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken" by Laura Schenone.}


Laura said...

Thank you Loren for the mention of my book. I have grappled with so many of these same worries for kids. The issues you raise are complex ones. I hope that boy gets outside and plays. As a mother of two sensory sensitive boys by the way (both greatly helped by OT) I recently came back to your blog and was struck by how right-on you are about so many things. Thanks again.

Babajeza said...

Good morning Lauren

Again a wonderful post. I remember many family gatherings where we exactely knew which food would be on the table, for example the ham in dough, the dryed green beans and mashed potatoes at my grandparents? death anniversary. Fruitsalad for dessert and coffee and christmas cookies (the ones of my god-mother were the best and most beautiful).

I will mention and explain this sentence in my next cooking class on Monday: "We are what we eat".

I have a boy in one of my classes who has really big problems. Our social worker convinced fahter and son to cook together once a week. The boy east crappy food most of the time because nobody is around. However, this is what I tell my student: Now you can cook, so cook. It isn't an excuse that your mother is not at home for lunch. Take the responsibility for your food, health and life in your hands.

Especially for the boys there are some guys who write books or cook on tv. There methods might be strange to traditionalists but the indgredients they use are top quality.
Anyway, I am sure my student will remember cooking with his father for his whole life.

Scarehaircare said...

*standing ovation*

The is a huge soapbox for me. I grew up picking veggies out of my grandma's 1-acre garden. She was into nutrition (lots of veg at her table) and from-scratch dishes. She ate local decades before local was vogue.

Now I try to do the same. We have lots of food traditions. Takeout is rare here. Cake-from-a-mix? Oh, no. My kids are cooking as soon as they can cit on a chair next to me, stirring, dumping, and pouring. I hope they remember the fresh orange sweet rolls, the traditional Sunday suppers, and the canning of jams and applesauce.