Salmon baked in a lemon-garlic-tarragon sauce. Home-made gazpacho in summer. Cauliflower and carrots roasted with raisins and pignolis. Tomatoes with mozzarella, the basil from our tiny garden. These are some of David’s favorite meals. He grills us steak and Portobello mushrooms or marinated chicken tenders. He makes a perfect omelet and can create a salad out of almost anything as long as we have greens in the refrigerator, and if we don’t, he is happy to go buy them. But we are retired, we love to please each other, we live near commercial resources, and we are always looking for ways to show our love. In today’s world, we treasure these luxuries of time and temperament and access to ingredients. It wasn’t always this way.
How, what and when we feed those we love has evolved over time. When I was young and growing up in the Midwest, family sit-com’s featured two opposite-sex parents who sat down with their well-scrubbed children for family meals prepared by a female, usually the mother figure or a live-in maid. Sugar or salt was enlisted to sell almost anything that couldn’t be sold by sexual innuendo, creating fear, or hypnotizing with violence. Sexism was rampant. When the women’s movement gathered fans during the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, roles of men and women expanded and both were welcomed into the kitchen. It potentially became a new place to play together, experiment, partner.
I wanted my son and daughter to feel competent in the kitchen and to enjoy preparing food, allowing the experience to be a way of sharing and showing love. A first initiative began when money was especially tight. To broaden the range of foods they enjoyed eating (and potentially diminish cost), we devised “international night”. Each week, we went to the library, selected cookbooks with photos of food from cultures that appealed to the children, shopped for ingredients, and followed recipes together. Soon the kids were ready for the second initiative, “cooking in pairs.” Each week a different dyad was responsible for providing Wednesday night dinner. First parents cooked together, then each took a turn with each child, and finally the kids put together their own meal, only needing our help with the marketing. Each dyad was responsible for developing a menu, marketing, cooking, and serving, each showing love to and for the others in the preparation and presentation. International Nights had expanded the breadth of family-friendly choices and, by the end of the year, all of us were more accomplished in the kitchen and comfortable with improvising. Because it was fun to concoct as well as to eat, attitudes about feeding complemented competencies. Today both son and daughter are parents who can show love by providing food for their families and creating it with their own children.
Although roles assigning who is responsible for feeding may have changed, the evolution seems mild compared to changes in food options themselves. Two friends recently shared that their teen daughters had decided to eat a vegetarian diet. One girl was motivated by reading about nutrition and health and the other by compassion for animals. In both instances, family adjustments are required to accommodate new food choices. I had a flashback to the time I prepared a meal for a mourning family with one member who was lactose intolerant, two who were vegetarians (one of those vegan), and a fourth who followed a gluten-free diet. Supporting individual needs in the context of contemporary culinary culture has taken on a whole new meaning. Today, as in the past, loving well demands that we be sensitive to impermanence, changes in those we love and how we express our love to them.
What provokes changes in our approach to food?
- Developmental changes. In a wonderful test of the theory that maturity can be identified by an increasing capacity and preference for complexity, Irv Child and his colleagues studied variations in food choices. A shift from plain and simple (think vanilla ice cream or sliced white bread) to complex and less familiar (Ben and Jerry’s would love it and so would organic bakers) was strongly correlated with increases in age and also measures of psychological maturity. Give a toddler grape jelly to show love and a sophisticated adult a jar of pear-almond-ginger jam.
- Shifts in interests. As people’s lives change, so can their interests. A child may prefer an evening at the movies to an extended family dinner (at home or “out”) while Grandma may vote for the reverse.
- Evolving commitments. Our lives include commitments beyond our homes – to school, work, activities, organizations, other people. Offering food for the body and food for the soul while showing love makes room for these important individual differences, accommodating.
- Temporary circumstances. Modifications can be necessary for any number of reasons — an illness, travel, a stay in a hotel or hospital, a dental issue, holiday requirements.
How can these changes be addressed?
- Through cooking. We can change what we cook and how we cook it, accommodating individual requests, needs, changes.
Through gathering and acquiring. When cooking becomes too time- consuming or complicated, we can “gather” what we need. Increasing numbers of suppliers are happy to provide ingredients ranging from special diet-friendly items to entrees, to meals, to a party for any number of guests.
- Through organizing (going “out”). Restaurants and café sections of supermarkets are all too happy to supply prepared food. To show that love motivates the selection, pay attention to what might please the people involved in terms of when, where, ambiance and menu.
- Through abdicating. In this less than optimum but sometimes easier scenario, the person just gives up — it is too complicated or time-consuming or skill-intense or costly and each person is left to fend for themselves. If children are in the home, maybe ingredients for “grazing” or even prepared meals are left in the refrigerator or cabinets. Although laissez-faire may accommodate individual differences well, the communion possible that comes with eating together is lost and the potential for sharing more than food is diminished. Instead, try assigning responsibility for food in a rotation. Even when this can escalate into a competition or even provoke rebellion, it forces everyone to accept the potential for food to express love, to please, to nourish. Designating more limited but specific times for eating together, exempt from the free-for-all, can protect time to relate.
Why does sensitivity to how we offer and serve food show love?
- Honesty nourishes. Being able to define how you yourself are and are not comfortable providing food to others, you protect your own boundaries and make collaborative solutions possible.
- Pretending erodes. When people pretend to like doing something that just is not working, they eventually resent it and are likely to sabotage efforts to work together in finding good solutions.
- Traditions can be adapted. Being willing to modify a tradition to be more in line with demands of the current moments, you show that you want to honor both your loved one and his or her heritage and the limits of what can reasonably be done today.
- Memories are created. Whenever people gather to eat together, there is an opportunity to make memories that provide warmth on a cold night. To the extent that the intention is fulfilled with love, those memories will indeed nourish the relationship as well as the body.
How are you most comfortable feeding others? How do you want others to show their love for you in relationship to food? Would you rather cook alone, with someone, or not at all? If not at all, how do you feel about food gathering? About restaurants? What makes a restaurant a good choice for you and those you love? What happens when he (or she) feels like dinner at home and the other has visions of dining out? Who gets to feel most loved and who most loving?
Copyright 2017 Roni Beth Tower
Visit me at www.miracleatmidlife.com
~ Salvador Dali