The Family Meal
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?