With Each Bite

(by Raychel Valentin)

Food is love

We say

Until the food makes the belt buckle expand three notches

But even when it does

If our plate is not clean, we must not be feeling well

Or even if our plate is clean

We’re being asked if we want more.

Are we sure we ate enough?

But don’t fill up too much

There’s another course coming.


Food is love

In the way we love to eat

In the way we love to gather together

Sitting around a table

Old folding chairs set

For the guest bound to attend


Food is love

In the way the sky is blue

In the way a mother loves a daughter

In the way my mother loves me.


Food is love

In the way we make manicottis

In the way that each crepe is individually sautéd

In the way that each fold has the possibility to break

But in the proper hands it never does

As long as you’re using great-great-grandmother’s pan

And in the proper mouth

You can taste with each bite

The warmth of love

It melts like a hug.


Food is love.


At least in my house, it always was, and still is today. The smell of bacon and sounds of my mother’s playlist pleasantly woke me from the depth of sleep on any given Sunday morning. (The range went from The Emotions’ “Best of My Love” to Maroon 5’s “Sunday Morning” to whatever was Top Ten on the radio that week.)


The “food is love” theme didn’t stop at Sunday breakfast. Cooking was an event at my house. Music played, and people danced and sang along with wooden spoons as microphones and aprons as the concert wardrobe. But my favorite time was when it was just my mother and me in the kitchen, singing and dancing while she sprinkled spices or strained tomatoes, somehow instilling old family recipes into my brain.


The two of us have always been close, so close, in fact, that when asked about our relationship, my immediate response was and is always, “My mom is like my best friend.” My contemporaries were puzzled that I told my mom everything—and I do mean everything. Co-workers were awed by the endless and unconditional support my mother gives me for

my chosen career in the performing arts. Boyfriends were more nervous about meeting my

mom than my dad because they knew a “no” from her meant the end of days for us.


That is not to say that we didn’t fight or disagree. Ironically, some of our biggest arguments have been over what also brought us together: food, or, more specifically, the consequences of eating too much food: weight. Struggling with her own self-image and body dysmorphia for most of her life, my mother always wanted to empower her daughters with the confidence and self-worth she never had. And she did. But when it became clear to me that all I could ever wish and hope to do professionally was dance, and my metabolism could not process two heaping bowls of pasta and meatballs like they were a leaf of lettuce, my mother thought it was time for my close and loving relationship with food to change.


I did not agree. I mean, how was I supposed to change my view of food when, for my whole life, an abundance of food has been connected to an abundance of love? On top of that, the confidence my mother instilled in me stood its ground—a great impenetrable wall.


Generally, at this point of adolescence, most teenage girls defy and rebel against their mothers when it comes to boys, relationships, and sex. But my mother and I fought tooth and nail about food. This was the usual script at most shared meals:


“Are you sure you want that second helping?”


Yep” (plopping a whopping second serving onto plate as glares are exchanged).


As I got older, it became clear that weight played an important role in whether or not an actor got the role (a sad truth that continues despite today’s cultural embrace of body positivity). Due to the empowerment my mother instilled in me, I have always been happy with my reflection. But what I saw might not be what a casting director saw or wanted.


Extra weight on my five-foot-two frame inhibited my movement, lessened my stamina, and curtailed my potential as an artist. So, reluctantly, I joined the legion of women who realize that Mom is often right, that she was only looking out for me, wanting me to have every opportunity. Thus began the journey to find a new relationship with food that still connected my mother and me.


We’ve made leaping strides—finding healthy substitutes for pasta and other classic Italian dishes that we love so much, still cooking together while singing and dancing. We send Pinterest recipes to try, and sharing our "Top Chef" impressions has become a new pastime. Holidays are required cheat days. And on special occasions or bad menstrual cycles, we indulge. But we have found a way to have an abundance of good food that is good for us, and still cherish the love and togetherness that we had when I was six, leaning over the stove on my stepstool to learn my mother’s cooking.

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Raychel Valentin is a professional dancer and aspiring poet who lives and works in New Jersey and New York. She can be found at https://valentin193.wixsite.com/eportfolio and on Instagram.

Manicotti


For crepes:

4 c. flour

4 c. cold water

4 t. salt

1 dozen eggs, beaten well

butter for frying


For filling:

4 pts. ricotta

4 eggs, beaten

salt and pepper, to taste

chopped parsley, to taste

1/4 - 1/2 c. pecorino romano cheese


For sauce:

olive oil

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1/2 sweet onion, diced

handful of fresh basil, torn

4 16-oz. cans whole San Marzano tomatoes, strained

pinch of salt, pepper, and sugar


In a large bowl, whisk together flour, cold water, salt, and beaten eggs.

Place a small, lightly buttered frying pan over low heat.

Use a small ladle to add a thin layer of batter and swirl it around the pan.

Cook for 20 seconds, flip, and cook for 20 seconds on the second side.

Set aside, and repeat with remaining batter.

Combine ingredients for filling.

Place small dollops of filling on the ends of each crepe and fold to enclose.

Film the bottom of a large saucepan with olive oil.

Add garlic, onion, and basil.

Sauté for several minutes.

Add tomatoes, salt, pepper, and sugar.

Simmer over low heat, stirring frequently, for 4 hours.

Preheat oven to 375 F.

Line bottoms of several large non-stick baking pans with sauce.

Place filled crepes in pans, and top with remaining ladles of sauce.

Bake for 50 minutes.