“What would you like to eat today?” Not “Have a nice day, honey” or, even, “See you later”. No, on my way out the door, at 7 am, ready for school, my mother invariably quizzed me on lunch and dinner preferences. My father would also be subjected to the same inquisition whilst my younger sister, maybe in virtue of being on the last rung of the pecking order, would be spared. That question irked me for many years. At 7 am, I didn’t have the foggiest of what I might have liked to gobble down at 1:30 or 8 pm. In my self-centered childhood and teenage world, food did not matter.
Except it did but I didn’t know it yet. Or, at least, I hadn’t recognized the place of food in my life. My mother’s question was partly dictated by a need to be creative, when tasked with feeding a family of four lunch and dinner six to seven days a week. But, as I got older, I came to see it was mainly her way to please us, to show us her love, by no means displayed solely at the dinner table.
We inherit more than we bargained for from our parents. In my case, the need to feed those I love has increased as I have aged. A couple of days ago, while displaying some fruit tarts at the Cafe where I work part-time, a customer asked me if I was the one who made the pastries. “I have to tell you, I really love them”. After thanking him, I couldn’t stop myself from asking this complete stranger if he had any particular requests. My mother’s version of “What would you like to eat?”.
Since I stopped cooking professionally, I have embraced cooking in my home kitchen with newfound vigor. Anyone living here or stopping by will be fed, roughly three times a week (the rest of the time it’s cereal and a cup of tea, so if you are thinking of stopping by, check you have the right day). I think of meals, both elaborate and extremely simple, and I find myself looking forward to the chopping, browning, sauteing or whatever cooking process is involved, after a day mostly spent at the computer. Most of all, I relish setting plates on the table, in expectation of treats to come; or of the first morsel that will relax into a smile of appreciation (most of the time – some of my most experimental creations are only politely chewed).
Dogs are also welcome to my metaphorical table. Every morning, Portia and Ottie have learnt to expect a small treat of their own: some leftover turkey or pasta or cheese. Just a tiny bite to spice up their otherwise monotonous diet. I am convinced it’s what they look forward to when they get up as much as I look forward to setting their bowls down.
Family cooking, in most cultures, has been the domain of women. Which might explain why we still view it as such an act of love.
When Buddhist monks talk about the mindfulness of eating, slowly chewing and relishing every morsel, they also encompass the handling and preparation of the food. I always felt the best approach to cooking was one of fearlessness but also respect for what we choose to cook, because food prepared with care, no matter how simple, will always taste better than anything mass-produced.
These days, whenever I pack for a trip to Italy, I will know to expect the phone call “What would you like to eat when you get here?” Now, I have a list ready.