Monday, July 31, 2023
Ok, people, it’s official. This is now a food blog. I tried to come up with other topics, I really did. Resistance is futile.
No sooner did I get through talking about Sunday buns when I immediately started thinking about food in general and why it is such a driving force.
Here’s the thing:
Food = love.
It features prominently in every relationship I’ve ever had, the opening salvo, and the closing bell, the emphasis and the punctuation.
I remember times when my parents would argue, which they didn’t do often, at least not in front of any of us. It would end with my father going out and coming back a few minutes later with McDonald’s, a peace offering. Nobody likes to see their parents fight but in the midst of the anxious moments and irritable tones, you knew it would lead to bags of piping hot French fries, the best kind, when they used to make them in a vat of boiled fat.
Food meant everything is ok. It meant here we are together, no matter that we argue.
Is it any wonder I am so frustrated by having to eat plain lettuce for lunch? It’s like someone has ripped the heart out of life and left me with a few stray filaments of baby carrots.
Every family get together through my entire life was organized around food. You didn’t show up at someone’s house without a bag of groceries and you always had an Entenmann’s cake on hand in case someone came over.
When we visited my Aunt Rosie she prepared for your arrival by buying every conceivable thing you could possibly want in a snack. Eskimo pies and cookies, juice and crackers.
Even as an adult when I’d stay with my grandparents, my grandmother always had a bucket of cheddar goldfish in the pantry that we’d share over wine.
That’s to say nothing of the pancakes and French toast you woke up to, or the giant spread of cold cuts for lunch, the pickles and olives and peppers and mustard.
And none of that holds a candle to the roast beefs and braccioles, the homemade pizzas and roasted potatoes. All of it done with and for love.
We didn’t need to go out to eat in those days. Going out to eat was the thing you apologized for.
It meant I’m tired or oh crap I forgot to defrost the chicken, or I don’t have time to cook, but I love you anyway.
Why on earth would we want to go out when we could sit around someone’s kitchen table and eat the best damn potato omelet you’ve ever had in your life?
If you couldn’t feed someone, you might as well not have existed.
The first thing you did when someone came over was make a pot of coffee and take out the cake. The first thing they did when you came over was make a pot of coffee and take out the cake. Time of day mattered not at all. Proximity to a prior or subsequent meal made no difference.
You kissed, you hugged, you unpacked the groceries, you had coffee and cake and the world was good.
It reminds me of that scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding where the groom’s parents, not Greek, showed up to the engagement party with a bundt cake. And the bride’s mother was utterly confused by it.
That was pretty much my life.
If you don’t understand that then I can’t help you. But I will still feed you.
You didn’t need to be hungry to eat. It just had to be noon or 6pm. Or maybe there was something good on TV or you just got back from the park and clearly needed sustenance.
For birthdays we got our favorite meals. When we were sick, mom cooked something special for us. When we left for school she packed our bags with the sandwiches and snacks we liked best. When I got engaged, she made cookies. Little teddy bears all decked out like a bride and groom.
I spend all of one day every few years in my childhood home, but my mother still has a jar of my favorite honey there in case I want it with my tea. My grandmother kept a can of pineapple juice just for me.
Sometimes I didn’t feel like pineapple juice, but do you know what I did when she asked if I wanted some? I said yes. She loved me by offering it and I loved her back by drinking it. A forever bond over fruit juice.
So food was never just the thing you needed to survive, it was the essence of family and togetherness, of parties and celebrations, of consolation and comfort.
I love cooking for people for the same reason. It’s a way to show that I care. I’ve been feeding Ralph for the better part of three decades and to this day it still bothers me on the rare occasion that he doesn’t like something I’ve made. Not because I’m insulted or I think he’ll fade into a wisp of smoke if he eats a banana instead, but because it feels like I’ve failed to bring that love to the table.
Most of the time when I have people over for dinner I barely eat. In part, I’m usually too busy scraping up sauce from the floor or peeling cheese off the ceiling, but mostly because I’m so engrossed in presenting the meal that I can’t be bothered to eat it. I sit there all starry-eyed while people shovel it into their faces with expressions of bliss.
So yeah. When I stick a blob of spinach on my plate, lightly peppered and sautéed in non-stick cooking spray, it doesn’t feel very loving.
Meals are when you stop the hamster wheel and sit for a while to talk with the people you’re with. They’re when you tell someone about your day or reminisce about your past or plan for your future or joke and snort Pepsi out your nose.
It’s not just the food but everything that surrounds it. It’s cooking with your mother or hanging out and talking in the kitchen with a guest who has thankfully volunteered to slice the cucumber while you mop up the oil.
Preparing food was as much of an event as eating it. Grandma frying a hundred tiny meatballs for the lasagna while mom stirred the sauce and I sliced the cheese. Standing over the deep fryer with my aunt while I rolled long ropes of dough and she cut them into hundreds of tiny strouffle for Christmas.
Food was never utilitarian. Cooking was never a chore.
Walking into someone’s home to the smell of bread baking or a pie just out of the oven meant welcome, I’m glad you’re here.
Stuffing a cornucopia full of the best apples and grapes you could find meant we’re so lucky for all of this.
Baking a batch of cookie meant thank you or I’m sorry or enjoy your trip.
You put a little bit of your soul into every plate you prepare, and you hope the person eating it will be filled by that.
Food is tradition. It’s pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving and turkey soup the day after. It was eggplant parm when I came home from college and eggplant parm when I went away again.
I spent a lot of years adjusting to cooking for two when I got married. Every pot of sauce was two gallons. Every meatloaf two pounds.
My mother imparted a particular .. what’s the word I want… compulsion? onto me, which is that you need to cook enough so that everyone at the table can eat at least two servings of everything. That meant if you were doing a backyard barbecue, you didn’t just make hamburgers and hot dogs. You made two hamburgers and two hot dogs for everyone. Because what if someone wanted another and there wasn’t one? What if, god forbid, someone wanted THREE hot dogs? These were things you had to think about.
If you had ten people, you needed enough potato salad for ten people. And enough macaroni salad for ten people. And enough salad salad for ten people. Nobody was ever going to eat everything, but… just in case. What if they did?
You never wanted to be caught telling someone who wanted another slice of pie that there was none left. So you made two pies, in case.
It makes for a lot of leftovers.
This probably sounds crazy to a lot of people but it makes perfect sense to me. I totally get it when she frets that someone may bring a friend for dinner and what if there aren’t enough pork chops? What if there aren’t enough pork chops for this as-yet-to-appear potential friend to have seconds?
They might never want to come back again! Love fail.
Most of my friends did not eat this way. I’d visit friends and get whatever happened to be on that day’s menu. Boiled potatoes. A plate of cabbage.
But nobody ever leaves my house hungry. They always leave with little bags of plastic containers filled with whatever they particularly liked.
Food is love.
It’s more than a fat-sugar-salt addiction, it’s the essence of existence.
So when I skip the bread it’s almost like an insult to the host.
I have this memory of a time when someone took Ralph and I out to an Indian restaurant. I don’t remember why but they were thanking us for something we did, and I remember at the time we’d just started the Atkins diet, the keto of its day. And I was determined to do it right. So I skipped the rice and the naan, which at an Indian restaurant is practically a sin. To this day I feel kind of guilty about it, like I snubbed a gift.
Who stuck to Atkins, anyway?
Where did that get me 20 years later?
I know you can’t eat like we did every Sunday, or at least I know I can’t do that now, but would I rather look back in another 20 years and remember the ice cream I shared with Ralph on a sweltering summer day, or would I rather remember lifting dumbbells?
In college, we spent weekends watching movies and making no-bake cheesecake, eating it with spoons right out of the tin pan. Would I rather remember that or the paper I wrote on the French revolution?
So forgive me if I talk about food constantly, the general and the specific. Because if I’m willing to share it with you, it means I love you. And that’s better than a thousand blogs about any other topic.
Photo: Grandma: Would you like a little love? Me: Why yes, I believe I do.