(by Tsara Shelton)
I am not a foodie. I'm not much interested in food, particularly not how food tastes, or how it's presented. I've never had much interest in the history of a dish. I have spent a lot of years foolishly thinking of myself as someone who doesn't care about food.
But no, no, no, no, no. That is not true at all.
Recently my mom and I were invited to write for Eat, Darling, Eat, with its deep connections around shared meals and moments.
Actually, my mom was invited to write a story, and she kinda suggested the idea of including a story from me: a mother and daughter story site with stories from a mother and daughter. Admittedly, it is a delicious idea.
But I was hesitant. I mean, I don't care about food, right? Mom tried to teach me to like soup, a brilliant and nutritious brew that works as soul food and as leftovers. Unlike my mom and sister, I just never much liked it. Mom tried to teach me to close my eyes and imagine tastes on my tongue, swirl them around to delight in the flavors belonging only to me before excitedly gathering the real ingredients and mixing up a meal to be shared. She tried to teach me, and she exampled it beautifully, but I preferred to get a plate of cheese and crackers while crunching on celery.
Yet I do care. About food, and about stories. Particularly stories that center around the women in my family. So I agreed.
Funnily enough, at first I was a little annoyed that my mom had already written her story (a spectacular memory of my mom and her sister attempting to please my grandma by clearing a plate of her famously disliked Tomato Aspic), and my job now would be to write something that tied into her story, that complemented it in flavor and tone. Mom led me into a situation where I would have to swirl flavors around for myself in order to serve up a story to share with everyone. Well done, Mom.
So I sat down to write a story about food and my family. And there are so many stories I could write. I may not be a foodie but—surprise, surprise—food has played a huge role in my life. In my family's life.
I have major memories of Mom baking strawberry-rhubarb pie while smoking cigarettes and sipping coffee. My little sister and I would watch her move gracefully in the kitchen, baking from scratch and singing to us. She'd roll imagined flavors around in her mouth and know precisely what to add to the pie. And though the pie wasn't exactly the same each time, each time it was the best pie.
A few years later, after mom had adopted my four brothers, and terms like "autism" and "fetal alcohol syndrome" and "learning disabled" became commonplace in our home, if not easily understood, I learned to love the care and commitment behind the nutrition in every single bite of our meals. More than that, I learned to ask where our food came from and how it was grown. During those years, Mom almost never left the kitchen, feeding six kids on a macrobiotic diet, which insisted that every ingredient be close to its natural state and locally grown. That meant a lot of chopping, pounding, mixing, and steaming—everything from scratch, and nothing too easy. Also, my brothers all struggled with various eating disorders or food reactions, so when Mom wasn't cooking, she was sitting with them, encouraging and insisting that they get nutrition in their bodies, without pushing their little bodies too hard. It was during those years that I started to notice what my friends were eating. Their school lunches had me asking questions about their cultures and religions, their food reactions or allergies. After school, some of my peers would walk to a nearby convenience store for junk snacks. Interesting, I'd think, other families are allowed to eat junk. Also: They have spending money.
And a few years later, after my mom had gotten legal custody of two girls, my newest sisters, and our home consisted of a single mom, four teen girls and four elementary school-aged boys, the kitchen became a place for chores and supplies from food banks. Mom still did most of the cooking—one-pot wonders and soups were her specialty; healthy things mixed together with spices and onions in a big ol' pot on the stove. But now we kids were expected to cook, clean, and make school lunches. Our buddy system worked well: One teen girl would be buddied up with one little brother. Our brothers with various disabilities were expected to learn skills, and that expectation is a valuable skill itself—learning to believe in others regardless of appearances, while learning also to adapt for their challenges.
Our time in the kitchen could be frustrating, and sometimes I did my best to get out of it. But my mom is no fool. Often she’d say, "Oh, you have plans? Take your brother." On the days that I did take advantage of what I came to see as an opportunity, I noticed the importance of our working together in the kitchen, and what it did for us as a family, and saw how other families did or didn't work together, and how that appeared to play out.
Much later, as I became a mom myself, I noticed how little I seemed to learn from my childhood experience. My mom was an everyone-sits-together-at-the-table kind of mom. Not me. I was happy for my boys and me to eat together, but often we did so in front of a movie, or in a mess on the floor while playing with toys. Also, my mom made sure we ate everything on our plates before we could ask to be excused from the table. My sons, on the other hand, knew they could eat until they didn't want any more, as long as they didn't expect me to make them something else later. And nobody asked to be excused from the table because we were rarely sitting at it. Meals? I pretty much made spaghetti or cheese and crackers or sandwiches for every meal. I cared about nutrition, so I read labels and made sure all the food groups were represented (my cheese and crackers always included a vegetable, so ha! healthy) but I rarely made food from scratch. I read directions more than recipes.
My poor mom. She taught me better than that.
Meals with a movie? Foods from a box? Leftovers on the plates? That's not how I grew up.
But I did grow up caring about food and the kitchen. And I brought that with me as a mom. I cared about how the foods were grown, and later I cared about the companies that got my grocery money, how they treated the environment and their employees. I cared how my sons reacted to being fed what I fed them, and I encouraged them to feed themselves when they were hungry.
As all these thoughts came flooding back, I decided I was grateful to Mom for having already written her story, helping me whittle down my ideas to something that incorporated and included hers. For a non-foodie, I have a lot of thoughts and memories about food.
When I visit Eat, Darling, Eat, it is clear that I am not alone. Everybody eats. Everybody has memories of food and figuring it out. What we like, how we feel about it, how we move away from our mothers' kitchens into our own.
Mom's Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie doesn't have a recipe, but here's a good one.