(by Melanie Fraser Hart)
For many people, food is thought of as the “glue” that keeps families together, like the kind of bountiful dinners on classic TV shows. I did not grow up in a household where food was nurturing. Family dinners were awkward. There was no banter, no teasing, little conversation. My father ate especially quickly. We all did. It was almost like we couldn’t wait to remove ourselves from the table. We were probably all thinking: Let’s get out of this odd, speechless situation.
But while we were at the table, there was a mixed message: “Eat what’s on your plate,” with an underlying “Not too much or you’ll get fat.”
Every Friday night, my sister and I were put on the scale. For not weighing what my mother wanted, she sent me to Weight Watchers to lose five pounds before I went to sleepover camp. Insane. I was the youngest person by decades at the meetings, and everyone was supposed to weigh all their food. I truly believe that’s where my lifelong worries about how food affects my body began. And food issues do not go away. It’s how you think of yourself.
I went through a highly anorexic period in ninth and tenth grades. It was really an “I’ll get back at my mother” reaction. I thought: Well, if you think I’m fat, I’ll get you. I did a number of small modeling jobs and at age 15, was chosen by the Ford Agency for a “summer training” program in New York, living in a model apartment complex. My mother put a big “no” on that one. She thought that modeling was a low-class job for a girl who had been brought up the way I was, educated in a fancy school.
Instead, I took a job as a counselor at a New Hampshire YMCA camp that served nothing but high-calorie unhealthy food. I had been starving myself for so long. I ate and ate and ate, and put on almost 35 pounds. When my father came to pick me up at summer’s end, he almost didn’t recognize me, as I was no longer the “beautiful” daughter. In a very odd way, I think that my mother was almost pleased because she had to “fix” me, and took me to a nutritionist at Boston Children’s Hospital. The dinners at home were low-calorie, and we never had any junk food, not even cookies. When I returned to my all-girls school, where I was admired for my thinness and appearance, the looks from my classmates were enough to kill any teenage girl’s spirit. Mine was broken, to the point that I almost didn’t care. Obviously, no more modeling for me, and, again, I think my mother was pleased.
When I was 29, in my last year of MBA studies, I was in a rather vapid relationship, and when I became pregnant, I was dumped, hard-core. Telephone numbers were changed, and all of my things at his house were messengered to my office. I was in such a depressed hole. I was lucky to have a beautiful apartment set up for me in my parents’ home, so no “poor me,” but there I was, with much privilege but so very alone. Within a year after my son was born, I dropped 80 pounds of pregnancy weight.
My mother glommed onto her first grandchild right away, and if you ask her, she brought him up. That is sure a load. I had never really known my own grandparents—my mother’s mother had her at age 45, and they did not like each other one bit. As a single mother, I was determined to become a good cook, to make magic and memories from food, rather than the “eat to survive“ message I grew up with. I subscribed to every cooking magazine and bought every cookbook. (My mother only owned the old Betty Crocker one.)
When my son was three years old, I met a man who would change my situation. I was determined to become one of those wives and mothers who create cooking perfection. I stopped working, just cooked and cooked and cooked so that I would be the best housewife ever. When my beautiful daughter Callula was born, I made my own baby food. I often entertained, and my guests were treated like royalty. In my mind, food equaled love. I hoped that if I fed people in such a magnificent manner, they would really love me and never leave. But I came to feel that my husband was taking me for granted, and the marriage ended after eight years. I think I have always been a single mother.
My daughter and I have had our issues, but they are most certainly not about food. She is a 6’1” powerhouse, built like her father, but I never wanted her to go through the painful body image issues I did. I have made such an effort to always tell her how beautiful, smart, and talented she is. She is self-confident, but she hates the fact that I am thinner than she is.
Because of the pandemic, my daughter came home from college and spent the past year and a half with me. My favorite things to cook are comfort foods, crockpot meals, one-pot dishes, lots of vegetables. For Thanksgiving, I cooked up a storm of a meal, with roasted apples for dessert. It made me feel good, and it made her feel good that I had made the effort. It was my first successful “eat, darling, eat.”
I continue to grapple with my relationship to food. I refuse to have a scale in my house. I manage my weight by how my clothing fits. But I have had enough “food damage” that I think about how many calories go into my mouth all the time. To me, food means comfort but danger. And I regret that some of that damage has been passed on to my daughter. I torment myself, asking if I could have handled my food issues better, for her sake.
A mother’s dilemma.
Melanie Fraser Hart is an actress based in Providence, Rhode Island. She can be found at Backstage.
Chicken with Prunes and Rice
(adapted from Woman and Home)
3 T. olive oil
8 chicken thighs
3 garlic cloves, crushed
1/4 lb. prunes
1/4 lb. green olives
4 T. capers
1 small bunch fresh oregano
6 oz. white wine
6 oz. chicken stock
1 small bunch parsley, chopped
For the rice:
12 oz. wild, black, or basmati rice
24 oz. chicken stock
2 oz. white raisins
2 oz. pecans, toasted
In a large sauté pan or pot, heat olive oil and fry the chicken until brown. Set aside
Add garlic, prunes, olives, capers and half the oregano to the pot.
Stir to heat through, then add white wine and chicken stock.
Return chicken pieces to pan, and cook over medium-low heat for 45 – 60 minutes.
In a large pot, bring rice and stock to a boil, then lower heat, cover, and cook for approximately 40 – 45 minutes, until rice is tender.
Five minutes before the rice is ready, add the raisins.
Serve rice with chicken and sauce, topped with parsley, remaining oregano, and toasted pecans.