Soul Food

soulfood1

I will never be a proponent of the “food is just fuel” philosophy. Where I come from meals are more than mere nourishment. To me, food is the most complex necessity. Human history has shown as much. In Food and Eating: An Anthropological Perspective, Robyn Fox describes food’s unique role in the lives of humankind.

We have to eat; we like to eat; eating makes us feel good; it is more important than sex. To ensure genetic survival the sex urge need only be satisfied a few times in a lifetime; the hunger urge must be satisfied every day.

It is also a profoundly social urge. Food is almost always shared; people eat together; mealtimes are events when the whole family or settlement or village comes together. Food is also an occasion for sharing, for distributing and giving, for the expression of altruism, whether from parents to children, children to in-laws, or anyone to visitors and strangers. Food is the most important thing a mother gives a child; it is the substance of her own body, and in most parts of the world mother’s milk is still the only safe food for infants. Thus food becomes not just a symbol of, but also the reality of, love and security.

All animals eat, but we are the only animal that cooks. So cooking becomes more than a necessity, it is the symbol of our humanity, what marks us off from the rest of nature. And because eating is almost always a group event (as opposed to sex), food becomes a focus of symbolic activity about sociality and our place in our society

Some of my happiest childhood memories revolve around food and cooking. I fondly remember standing, perched on a stepstool at the counter in my Grandmother Vesta May’s kitchen, helping her roll out the dumpling dough for her chicken and dumplings. During summertime, I often accompanied my grandparents on their trips back home to South Pittsburgh, Tennessee. I remember sitting in rocking chairs on the porches of individuals whom I barely knew that were supposedly my “relatives.” The unfamiliar company never kept me from wolfing down the delicious pimento cheese sandwiches, deviled eggs, and sweet tea that were served to us so graciously on a tray with the good “company” dishware by those people. Even at that young age I recognized what a lovely thing Southern hospitality is. Another tradition I was always eager to help with was picking wild blackberries from the thorny bushes in my grandparents’ backyard. My enthusiasm was largely due to the fact that I knew Grandma would magically transform those dark jewels into sweet, rich jam that I’d get to spread thickly onto warm homemade biscuits. I’d spend the night at Grandma and Grandpa’s house in the summer, too. Since the house wasn’t air conditioned, on particularly warm nights I’d sometimes awaken feeling sweaty and uncomfortable. Seeing a light down the hall, I’d stumble bleary-eyed toward it to find Grandpa in the kitchen having a “midnight snack.” Sometimes it would be peanut butter spread upon Ritz crackers. At other times Grandpa would be slurping, from a tall glass, a mixture of buttermilk with cornbread leftover from supper crumbled into it. He’d motion for me to sit in the chair opposite his, and he’d push the plate of peanut butter crackers toward me. On nights when he was enjoying the buttermilk-cornbread concoction, he’d make a glass of it for me using regular milk. He knew I didn’t care for buttermilk. Elaborate Sunday suppers with an extensive menu, another Southern tradition, were my grandmother’s favorite ways to show off her mad cooking skills. They were a showcase for her culinary talent and also made my mother acutely aware of her shortcomings in the kitchen.

My mom’s mom wasn’t much of a cook, so my mother never had the benefit of learning much from her. At my father’s behest, Mom reluctantly submitted herself to her mother-in-law’s tutelage and came away with a few decent meals in her recipe collection. Beef Stroganoff was my favorite dish and what I always asked for as my birthday dinner. Mom also had an opportunity to expand her horizons by learning a few “ethnic” recipes. My father grew up in a relatively diverse blue-collar neighborhood. He forged lifelong friendships with the sons of a few Polish and Italian immigrants. After everyone was married and had families, my mother learned from their wives. She added Italian and Polish dishes like indulgent cheesy lasagna, spaghetti with huge meatballs and authentic Italian “gravy,” tender homemade pierogis, and crispy-on-the-outside-fluffy-on-the-inside mashed potato pancakes to her repertoire. Once Mom went back to work, after all her children were in school, these kinds of meals were reserved for holidays, special occasions, and the occasional Sunday supper to which my grandparents were invited.

 My mother’s return to work and the subsequent infrequency of those labor- intensive meals inspired my father to pursue cooking “as a hobby.” He got interested in the cooking shows that were broadcast late Saturday afternoons when he got home from work. He studied the cooking techniques and recipes detailed on The Frugal Gourmet and America’s Test Kitchen as well as those on reruns of The Galloping Gourmet and Julia Child. It was always a surprise to see what Dad would try his hand at from week to week. To provide the freshest ingredients for his cooking, one year he even planted a garden…the vegetables of which his spoiled, entitled children resoundingly rejected once they found tiny (harmless) green inchworms in the broccoli. And that was the end of that. Even though he lives alone now, Dad still enjoys cooking and talking about food. His newest obsession is the Insta-Pot craze. Yeah, don’t get him started on that one. “Know what I made last week?” he’ll ask. “No, Dad. I don’t. What did you make?” I’ll respond, taking the bait. “I made a pot roast, a good old fashion pot roast! Wanna know how long it took?” he’ll continue. I’ll humor him and say, “Okay. How long did it take, Dad?” His eyes will light up at the chance to share the miraculous feat of technology with which he believes I’m unfamiliar. “Fifteen minutes! I’m not shitting you, kid. It only took fifteen fucking minutes! Isn’t that incredible?”

 Barbecues were the summer family tradition on my mother’s side of the family. Unlike my father, Mom had a slew of siblings who, in turn, had spouses and kids. Less refined than my Dad’s Southern relations, Mom’s family was all about the PAR-TAAAAY! Booze flowed freely at these events. Music played, loudly, and many hijinks ensued. During one particularly raucous gathering, my mother chased her brother into the house (HER house) with the garden hose and proceeded to spray him with it, full blast, in the face! One of my favorite memories of those barbecues is when, one Independence Day, the family gathered ‘round the boom box and sang Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody together at the top of their lungs. My Aussie boyfriend at the time found himself speechless at the spectacle.  Apparently he was under the mistaken impression that Aussies had the market on boisterousness cornered. And yet, here were fifteen “Aaaamurakins,” ranging in age from about four to eighty and all of whom being the furthest thing from professional vocalists, making a decidedly less than joyful noise unto The Lord. My youngest daughter still mentions this wonderfully amusing memory from time to time. That says a lot about its impact. She was only six at the time. At these events, my dad loved to man the barbecue grill, and my mother loved to pass off her mother-in-law’s wildly popular potato salad recipe as her own. It was a centerpiece of every summer gathering. My aunts loved to compete for the “runner up” spot with their own potluck dishes. Summer barbecues culminated with a big Labor Day bash. My mother, her mother, and her sisters put their own spin on the traditional Southern dish of “fried green tomatoes.” Something only blasphemous Yankee women would do, in place of the green they used the red ripe tomatoes that are always in abundance during summer months in these parts. May the dear soul of my Vesta May forgive me, but, truth be told, I like ‘em better that way. Sweet red ripe tomatoes coated in crushed Corn Flake crumbs and fried in bacon grease are truly a crunchy, sweet, smoky, succulent slice of heaven! Once everyone had eaten their fill of the tasty bastardized delicacy, any leftover tomatoes were stewed, canned, and put up for winter dishes like meaty goulash and spicy chili.

 The loving experiences I’d had cooking with my grandmother, my fond memories of her delicious food, and the positive associations I had between food and family made me eager to take home economics in junior high. It allowed me to build upon the skills I’d learned from Vesta May. I often put my newfound knowledge to use when I had to cook for my father and siblings on the nights when my mother worked a closing shift or when I gave baked goods and other foods as gifts to family and friends. Later in life, as a young wife and mother, I loved to find new recipes to make for my family or to take as my “dish-to-pass” at potlucks. When my mother got older, I took on the mantle of preparing the big holiday meals – Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. I prided myself in creating elaborate meals – the kind my grandmother prepared. I found great satisfaction in the enjoyment of my family. In recent years, inspired by cooking shows on Food Network and The Cooking Channel, I’ve found a similar satisfaction in cooking for friends on the rare occasion that I entertain. Like my grandma, I just love making people happy by cooking delicious food for them. I’ve sometimes dreamt of having a restaurant of my own where I could do that on a greater scale.

 Now that my children are grown and gone, I don’t have much occasion to cook on a grand scale. My husband enjoys a very limited number of foods and dishes. Though the byproduct is a ton of leftovers, there are still times when I cook things that I love just for myself. Sometimes I freeze the leftovers to have for meals in the future. Sometimes I take them to my dad. As he’s gotten on in age and after never having done so for most of my life, he now tells me he loves me. He uses the actual words. He never did that before. Unfortunately, it can’t erase the effects of a lifetime of not hearing them. So I just can’t bring myself to say the words back. I bring him leftovers instead because as is the case in many families, food is code. It’s saying, “I made this, see. I took great care. I invested time, and I’m giving it to you because I want it to make you feel happy. I want you to feel happy.”

Loving people means wanting happiness for them. It means wanting big things for them. It means you wish them things like falling in love with their soul mate or finding the job that’s their purpose in life or having a life filled with health & wellness. But it can also mean you want the little things for them, too. It can mean you wish them a sunny blue-sky day or a day free of stress. It can mean you want them to have a day when they can do something fun or have an adventure or maybe just sleep to their heart’s content. Sometimes it means, “Taste this! I made it for you! It’s so good, and I want eating it to make you feel good!” Tonight I’m making my husband’s favorite pasta, Cavatappi, with homemade Alfredo sauce and pan-seared scallops. It’s a love letter to him…and to myself. It’s me saying, “Before we go back to the daily grind, let’s take the opportunity to enjoy one small pleasure of life – a lovely meal.” No, it’s not like this is the last time we will enjoy such a meal, but it is a symbol…a celebration…of the good things and pleasures in life – things like vacations and sunshine and sleeping in.

 So, sorry Jillian Michaels…and Harvey Pasternak…and Gwyneth Paltrow…and all the rest of you amongst the subconsciously masochistic haters of the human experience, I think you’re wrong. Food is not simply fuel. It’s a complex necessity. It’s a pleasure of being human, and I’m claiming it! There is simply far too much misery in the world, so why create more by denying this simple fact? I’m pretty sure that people who languish in starvation on a daily basis would agree with me. Yes, food is a necessity for physical survival, but it can also bring happiness. Think of a starving man in Sudan as he greets a box of food dropped from the heavens with happy tears streaming down his face. I’m pretty sure that food is going to taste amazing to him and fill him with joy. Food can be love. Giving food can be a gesture of love to a co-worker or a beloved family member or a stranger that you’ve never met in a faraway land or the disheveled guy that parks his shopping cart at the exit ramp of the highway and talks to himself all the time. It can be altruism.

 We are the only animals for whom food is such an incredibly complex, emotionally charged, and multi-faceted thing. We produce it, we share it, we withhold it from others, and we sometimes deny it to ourselves. We cook it, create it, and consume it. Food nourishes the body of any organism, but, truly, it can only feed the souls of humans. Can I get an amen?

Santa, Clark Griswold, and Me

clarkgriswold

Like so many things in my life, I have a love-hate relationship with Christmas. When I was a child I got so excited about it that I found myself unable to sleep not just on Christmas Eve but for a full week prior. I’m not sure why I experienced such anticipation. I waited, with baited breath, for the JC Penney Christmas catalog to show up in the mailbox every November. I spent days pouring over each page and laboring, tirelessly, to craft the most comprehensive Christmas list – complete with prices and page numbers. In hindsight and now having lived through being a parent at Christmas myself, I imagine this unswerving focus probably intimidated the fuck out of my parents. That was probably why they were particularly cranky in the days leading up to Christmas. The financial burdens of a traditional American Christmas (gifts, tree, food, etc.) combined with the expanded, winter-break presence of their children sent them into full-blown-stressed-out-holiday-hell. Yeah. So they were even less warm & fuzzy than normal. When my siblings and I became teenagers, Christmastime was even more volatile. Raging hormones and self-centeredness are hard enough for parents to deal with without the added pressures of the crown jewel of commercialism. Screaming, yelling, slamming doors, tear-stained faces, and stuffy noses red enough to compete with Rudolph appeared each year, every year, along with the evergreen tree and cheerful décor. I hated Christmas as a teen. I longed for the happy family gatherings I saw on each “special Christmas episode” of my favorite T.V. shows.

Once I got married and had a family of my own, I was committed to making Christmas a magical time for my children. The excitement and anticipation for Christmas that I’d felt as a child returned. I eagerly fueled the Yuletide fantasies of my daughters by insisting that we create the kind of Christmas memories I’d grown up watching on television and in movies. I helped them write and mail a letter to Santa each year. We made the annual pilgrimage to the mall to “visit Santa.” We baked Christmas cookies. We drove around town “ooooing” and “aaahing” over neighborhood Christmas light displays. We bundled up and braved the harsh West Michigan winter elements to see the mother-of-all holiday light displays that the area zoo puts up each year. We sipped hot chocolate and strolled down Candy Cane Lane in our downtown park through gently falling snow. We went to a Christmas tree farm and took a hayride out to cut down a fresh tree each year. One year I even used fireplace ashes to make Santa’s boot-shaped footprints on the carpet. I saved money all year long in a “Christmas Club” account to give my girls the Christmas of their dreams each year. As you can see, I took “Santa Clausing” very seriously. The year I got divorced and moved in with my parents, I still tried to make Christmas special. And since my parents enjoyed being grandparents way more than they ever liked being parents, happily, they were willing to help me. Truth be told, I’m pretty sure they loved seeing the joy in the eyes of their grandkids on Christmas morning even more than I did.

I remarried when the girls were still school-aged. My current husband has always worked in retail and had become a bit desensitized to the holidays when we met. He had also been married to a woman that didn’t celebrate holidays and he shared a daughter with her. Those factors, combined with a contentious relationship with his family, made celebrating Christmas less than enjoyable for him. I was undeterred by his lack of enthusiasm and pressed him to forge Christmas traditions for our newly blended family. After a few years, we found our identity as a family, and our Christmas celebrations gradually took shape. Many happy memories were made. Over the years our family has weathered losses that have altered some of our traditions. The death of my oldest daughter had a monumental effect on every aspect of our lives and had a lasting impact on many of those traditions – the greatest being a deepened appreciation for them. The year after my daughter’s death, my stepdaughter decided that, because of her faith, she didn’t want to celebrate holidays anymore. My husband cut ties with his family the year after that. A couple years later, my younger daughter went off to college nine hours away. She was always home for Christmas, but the schedule demands of the job she was working meant her time with us was limited. Our holiday celebrations got smaller and smaller. Still, I soldiered on in my role as Santa just like the real St. Nick would.

Two years ago, my stepdaughter had a change of heart and came back to the holiday-celebrating fold. And though they couldn’t make it for Christmas Eve, my daughter and her partner planned to be home for Christmas Day. My dad made transportation arrangements so my mother could come from the nursing home and have Christmas dinner at my house. I was as giddy for Christmas as my girlhood self. No, it wasn’t everything I wanted. That would’ve been Christmas Eve dinner with everyone – both daughters, my daughter’s partner, my sister, my nephew, my mother, my father, and my husband; Midnight Mass with my husband, my daughter, and her partner; Christmas morning with the girls and stockings and presents and overnight French toast; and Christmas Day dinner with everyone all over again! Still, this Santa would take what she could get. And it was wonderful.

Since then, there seems to have been a slow downward-winding spiral. Last year, my stepdaughter was in a treatment facility at Christmastime. Well, actually, she hadn’t planned to celebrate the holiday again anyway. My daughter, who’d moved to Florida, planned to come home on a flight that arrived Christmas eve. Her partner had just lost her father, needed to drive to Arizona, and, obviously, could not come to Michigan for Christmas. My brother in-law had had an aneurism in the weeks leading up to Christmas and could not travel. Yes, it was a shit-show only the most resilient of Santas could salvage. Still, we had a nice Christmas Eve dinner with Mom and Dad at the nursing home. On Christmas morning my daughter, my husband, and I all opened gifts before enjoying some nice overnight French toast. My dad was delighted with the ipad my sister and I got him, and we had a nice dinner with him and my daughter. All in all, it was a pleasant time.

Santa’s patience this year was truly tested. My daughter could not get time-off to come home. My sister, who’s going through a messy divorce, was (understandably) unable to commit to any kind of event. Though she did plan on celebrating, my stepdaughter had to work on Christmas day, so we needed to move our “main event” to Christmas Eve. Oh, and by the way, this is probably the last Christmas she’ll be celebrating because she’s going back to her religion in the new-year. My dad wanted to reserve Christmas Eve for my sister “just in case.” Again, I remained committed to making happy family Christmas memories. It was particularly important to me because my stepdaughter’s fiancé would be spending the holiday away from his family in Peru. I wanted him, in particular, to have a nice Christmas. And it was nice. I guess this Santa shouldn’t complain since I have had much worse. Still, I missed my child terribly. It was the first time since she was born that we have been apart on Christmas.

Yes, I know that there are many parents who regularly spend the holidays…and birthdays…and anniversaries apart from their child/children for a variety of reasons, but, up to point in my life, I have not. I have particular sympathy for parents with a child in harm’s way, serving in our armed forces. Still, this Santa has never had to be without her only living child at Christmas before, and it was rough. In spite of my stepdaughter’s declaration that this was her last Christmas, a small part of me still hopes that next Christmas will be THE ONE – the Christmas I have always dreamed of – with everyone, altogether, under my roof celebrating. I am reminded of the movie “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” My husband has always likened my lofty holiday ambitions to those of main character Clark Griswold.

Clark Griswold: All my life I’ve just wanted to have a big family Christmas.

Ellen Griswold: (hesitantly looks at Clark and grasps his hand) It’s just how you         build things up in your mind, Sparky. You set standards that no family event can ever live up to.

Clark: Now when have I ever done that?

Ellen: (gestures ‘thusly’) Parties, weddings, anniversaries, funerals, holidays,graduations…(trails off)

As I was cleaning the house on Christmas Eve, the two little neighbor girls came up the walk. They’d just come from Sunday Mass and were still clad in tights, church dresses, and patent leather Mary-Janes. I watched them walk gingerly up the snow-glazed drive, in those slippery soled shoes and bundled in Sunday dress coats, surrounded by swirling snowflakes. “You’ll go take those next door,” I heard the older one direct the younger as she motioned toward the home of my elderly neighbors. “My mom made you some cookies,” she said to me as she approached my door with a foil covered paper plate. “Thank you, honey. Merry Christmas!” I replied. “Merry Christmas,” she said with a pensive smile. My husband and I haven’t exactly been “good neighbors.” The polite term for people like us is “anti-social.” In actuality, the fact is…we’re assholes. We never went over to introduce ourselves when this sweet little family moved in. In fact, the only welcoming overtures we ever made were polite nods and waves while getting the mail or walking the dog. I first met the neighbor woman months after they moved in. She came with her daughters to sell Girl Scout cookies last spring. She introduced herself, but I’m such a dick that I don’t even remember her name. It’s Rachel – maybe. I asked the older girl if she went to the elementary school near our neighborhood. The mother replied that both girls went to one of the area Catholic schools. The girl told me she was in first grade. “Oh, I teach first grade,” I replied. “My husband is a teacher, too. He teaches at their school,” the woman said. I bought two boxes of Girl Scout cookies that day, to assuage my guilt for being such a shitty neighbor. I’m probably gonna send a thank-you card for the Christmas cookies and apologize for my failings as a neighbor.

The sight of those little girls coming up the driveway in the snow set off a cascade of emotions for me that day. They reminded me of my own daughters. It made me ache for a magical time that has long since passed. I sat at the dining room table, between bouts of cleaning, and cried. I couldn’t stop it from coming. “Clark Griswold wouldn’t be crying,” I laughed to myself as I tried to get it together. I somehow managed to finish all the things I needed to do – clean, cook, wrap. By the time my stepdaughter and her fiancé arrived, the melancholy had subsided, been folded up, and neatly tucked beneath my heaped pile of emotional baggage. We had a lovely evening. A long, long way from home and far from his own family, my stepdaughter’s fiancé seemed to appreciate our wish to make him feel at home and loved. An avid Star Wars fan, he was particularly delighted by the “talking” Chewbacca mask my husband chose as one of his gifts. My mother straight-up “threw down” on the beef tenderloin I prepared for Christmas Day dinner. I just wanted her to have some good, home cooked food for Christmas – the kind she can’t get at the nursing home. The fact that any Christmas might be her last is always at the front of my mind. So I want each one we get to spend with her to be special. That’s what it’s all about to me. See? Me. Santa. Clark Griswold. We all just want to see smiles, hear laughter, and make magic! We just want to be able to say, when all is said and done, in the words of Clark Griswold, “I did it!”