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The Family Meal

June 22, 2012

Your adult relationship with food often says a lot about your childhood. From your family’s recipe for macaroni and cheese (Velvetta with canned tomatoes) to your adult methods of cooking, what you eat with your family resonates through the rest of your life. A couple of different food conversations going on over at the Slacktiverse inspired me to think about what my family has passed on to me about food and what I hope to pass on to my children.

In particular, my parents instilled in me the importance of trying new foods. When I was a kid, my mom always made me take a “no thank you bite” of any food I had never tried. Through this, I discovered I liked a wide variety of foods and stopped eating off of the “kids menu” far earlier than most children. I know kids’ tastebuds don’t always match up to adults’ – they tend to experience spices differently – but I think often we assume they are incapable of eating adventurously. Fortunately, having choosy parents doesn’t necessarily scar kids for life. Chris’s dad is the pickiest person I’ve ever met – no food intolerance so far as we know, just preference – and both Chris and his sister grew up to eat a much larger variety of food than his dad ever has. Even I’ve moved beyond what my parents are willing to try, from sushi to grasshopper tacos to sweetbreads. (I found grasshopper tacos to be indescribably weird and sweetbreads surprisingly delicious.)

Because this attitude has brought so much value to my life, I know when Chris and I have kids, I want to expose them to all sorts of cuisines. Thankfully, the ethnic diversity of the Washington D.C. area makes this very simple. Within a mile of our house, there are multiple Asian bakeries, two places specializing in Pho (a Vietanamese soup), a Thai restaurant, multiple Peruvian restaurants, a Lebanese restaurant, a sushi restaurant, and an Indian restaurant. We’re certainly not lacking for options.

On the other hand, although it sounds contradictory, my parents also enabled my semi-vegetarianism. We hardly ever ate red meat in my house, so I’ve never enjoyed steaks or hamburgers much. We ate a lot of chicken, but the frozen Create-a-Meals (which no longer appear to be on the market) that my dad made didn’t exactly highlight its strong points as an ingredient. So when I started teaching myself how to cook, it didn’t make any sense to bother learning how to cook meat. I know Chris will be cooking meat and seafood for our kids, but I’ll certainly teach them the value and potential of a good vegetarian meal.

On the other hand, there are a couple of lessons related to food that I wish my parents had passed on to me. While we frequently underestimate children’s ability to handle different foods, adults can forget to communicate basic facts to them that we take for granted. For example, I thought I disliked peppers and onions for years because I didn’t like them in salads. I literally didn’t realize that cooked vegetables tasted different from raw ones.

Beyond cooking, my mom also imparted a love of gardening, although she might not have realized it at the time. Watching my mom tend her flower garden, I realized the value of getting your hands into the earth and cultivating living things. Rather than restricting me to the perfectly clean sand in my sandbox, she allowed me to sit next to it and dig in the dirt. As I did, I hope my children will never be scared to get a little (or a lot) of dirt under their fingernails. As I don’t want my future kids digging up my productive vegetables, I would love to create a space just for them. Because everyone has yards, there’s no need for a large community garden in our neighborhood, but I’m seriously considering if there would be interest in establishing a kids garden at our community center.

My parents never taught me how to forage, as some families in rural areas do, but they allowed me to gather weeds from the yard and make-believe that I was creating high cuisine. (Admittedly, the few times I did eat plants, my mom justifiably brought out the syrup of ipecac. Needless to say, shoving yew berries in your mouth isn’t recommended.) Nonetheless, the imagination my parents cultivated then now allows me to think beyond the farm when looking for food.

But most importantly, my family passed on the value of eating together. I always ate breakfast with my dad and ate dinner with both my parents. Being an only child with parents who had reasonable work hours allowed me this privilege, which I know this isn’t possible for everyone. Nonetheless, I’m thankful that my parents carved that time out of their days. Although it may not be always possible, especially with the hours that Chris’s career entails, I want both of us to eat with our children as often as we can. Beyond creating a set-aside time to catch up, eating together helped me value food itself. When you combine food and conversation, you often slow down and savor them both more.

Needless to say, I’ve been terribly fortunate. While I’ve always been well-fed, both in terms of nutrients and taste (mostly – sorry, Dad), many others went and continue to go hungry as children. By creating societal food systems that make affordable, local, healthy, tasty food available to everyone, we can help parents provide a food legacy that’s worth passing on from generation to generation.

What did you eat, grow, or forage as a kid? How did it affect your adult habits and tastes?

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. missy permalink
    June 23, 2012 9:49 am

    I always appreciate getting a shout out! Yay adventurous eating!

    • June 23, 2012 9:44 pm

      If it wasn’t for the fact that you lived above an Ethiopian restaurant, I probably would have never tried Ethiopian food. Even though that place had meh food and far worse service, I do want to try Ethiopian again. There are supposed to be a couple of good places in D.C.

  2. June 24, 2012 1:04 am

    I agree with you about eating together, which is something my family always managed as well. My parents are adventurous eaters and encouraged me to try things, but never made me; I was a very picky eater in some fairly strange ways, but they just worked with it and so food never became something to fight about, which I’m grateful for. As an adult I’ll eat (and enjoy) just about anything, so it came out fine in the end. Though I now mostly eat bean-based dinners, because I’m a lot better at cooking beans than meat.

    Foraging was only for hiking trips, because the backyard was mostly poisonous plants and the neighbors used pesticides. Now we have raspberries, I’ve learned to forage a few more things than just blueberries, and some day I may manage to break the family gardening curse.

    • June 25, 2012 11:38 pm

      I eat a lot of bean-based meals too, as I don’t cook meat at all. Even though it’s a pain, cooked dried beans really do taste so much better than canned. I haven’t actually foraged myself, although I really want to. For obvious reasons, I don’t feel confident doing it on my own yet.

      • June 26, 2012 1:02 am

        I’m actually just now discovering the joys of dried beans – my parents never really had time, and my old housemates didn’t know how (and we couldn’t organize ourselves to get the beans cooked, anyway). I wish I could forage more than I can, but being able to I.D. even a few things is exciting! It helps, I think, to start with things that are very distinctive and that you know don’t resemble anything poisonous – dandelions and garlic mustard, for instance. And doing it with experienced people is of course the best.

  3. June 24, 2012 9:54 pm

    We did try to eat together though my father had a late afternoon to night job as a restaurant cook. We were also encouraged to try new foods. My father would make a point of buying a (then) seldom seen tropical fruit, meat or we would eat all sorts of stuff at Chinese banquets when we did go to them as children.

    Also coming from a poor family (6 children), we were vaguely conscious that if we didn’t try to eat what was served, you didn’t have much choice from the fridge. Mother seldom cooked specialized dish exclusively for 1 child unless the child was sick with a fever..she just didn’t have that type of time/energy.

    I know my physique (I am 50+ yrs. old) and general good health is based on the foundation of my mother’s healthy (Chinese) cooking: starting in my early teens, she and my father become very conscious of cutting off fat, skimming off fat and not feeding us much sweet dessert often.

    At the time, I thought she was obsessed which included washing skins of fruits well before eating them..but now looking back, I guess they were “progressively” conscious. It was probably stuff my father read in the English language newspapers about diets, pesticides, etc.

    Yes, I naturally do practice some of my mother’s cooking techniques: steamed Chinese meat dishes (seldom found on restaurant meals), cutting off the fat, etc. It’s the only way I’ve known…a good thing. :) Some of this stuff is not written up in any recipe book: steamed savory egg custard with sliced lean meat, onion, ginger root, etc.

    You were very lucky as an only child to have parent(s) eating with you for meals.

    • June 25, 2012 11:43 pm

      I love some of the classical Chinese stuff! The first time I had it was with my friend and his extended family visiting from China. We went to an authentic Chinese restaurant and they ordered a ton of different dishes. There were a number they wouldn’t tell me what they were – I tried them anyway. We have a couple of Chinese restaurants around here that serve those traditional dishes, including steamed dumplings.

      I think one reason my parents were so keen on having us all eat together was because their families didn’t have that chance. My mom’s father always worked multiple jobs, including night jobs, so I think he wasn’t around for dinner much even though he wanted to be.

  4. June 25, 2012 4:46 pm

    I tell people about my family meals and they boggle, but it seemed perfectly natural to me at the time.

    Breakfast and dinner (an evening meal, in our house) were always family meals. All five of us would eat together, almost always. And all five of us would read books. And that’s still how I eat today: a fork in my right hand, a book in my left hand. Meals weren’t entirely silent. They were communal, and friendly, and we would chat a bit. But we’d also read.

    Nowadays, I get most of my reading done while eating.

    TRiG.

    • June 25, 2012 11:48 pm

      I almost always read when I’m eating alone, but my mom’s policy was “no reading at the table!” for dinner. This was because she knew I would never put the book down otherwise. My mom loved that I read and encouraged it, but it was to the point where she started charging me a quarter every time she found me reading when I was supposed to be doing something else, like getting ready for school. Dinner was one time that we were supposed to talk as a family.

      But breakfast was different, as mom was still in bed on weekdays when dad and I ate breakfast together. He’d read the newspaper and read me sections out loud that he thought I would be interested – even the ones I had already read. It was our bonding time.

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