Sunday, November 1, 2009

Culinary Conundrum

In my life, food is both a joy and a burden. As a single young parent, my mothers priority was never food, but money and individual freedom. Our most elaborate meals occurred during the fall and winter holidays, prepared by my enormous Irish-Catholic family. Those were wonderful gatherings. My ten aunts and uncles and tiers of cousins that I still have trouble identifying when befriended by on Facebook. When we weren’t celebrating however, mealtimes were often relegated to digging through the refrigerator with my younger sibling for iceberg lettuce, or jarred pickles, or pawing for change in the couch to buy a burrito to share from Roberto’s taco stand while my mother prepared herself for whatever nighttime job came her way. We often went hungry and were starved for more than food. Suffice it to say, I did not know how to cook much more than a tuna sandwich.

As I struck out on my own I found work in fine restaurants, and at the same time became very close with a community that used mealtimes as social vehicles. Most evenings were spent with various people both friends and strangers. Food preparation was communal and inspirational, the company eclectic. I slowly learned the connection between food and life and experimented with various customs and ethical eating choices. My culinary educators ranged from a quintessential Jewish matriarch, a nihilistic macrobiotic, a classically trained French chef, and Food Network television just to name a few.

When my first daughter Sara was born, food became my foundation for motherhood. I defined the kind of mother I was by how I fed my family. In the beginning, it was easy. We still lived within our community that had instilled my gastronomic and social values. Before Sara turned two, my husband finished college and we moved to Los Angeles to start his career. We left absolutely everybody. I found myself in this highly traditional role of isolated American homemaker (my husband works a minimum of 13 hours a day) and meals became lonely and arduous. Food started to become a burden, demanding and unpleasant. My husband, who had enjoyed my rambunctious crazy community, would still be just as content to eat a Big Mac and some Doritos while watching Monday Night football. He would be no help in reinvigorating my mealtime fantasies.

We’ve been in Los Angeles for almost a decade now and I would love to say that I’d been able to re-create what I found so stimulating in my youth, but I haven’t. I randomly get a group together and I still try to traditionalize Thanksgiving. I’m in no way resigned to food and meals being just a place or time to eat. I’ve read Barbara Kingsolver, Michael Pollan and Fast Food Nation. I get bursts of motivation where I’m back at the Farmer’s Markets and I’m still searching for that perfect co-op. But I truly believe that it takes a village, and my current community is SFV mom’s who are all incredibly busy, too busy to stop and open that amazing bottle of super-Tuscan over homemade osso bucco and I’m not sure they want to talk politics anyway. It’s still extremely important for me to sit down each night at the table and share the time with my family. I plan, organize and execute all our meals. Most with care, sometimes it’s all I can muster to open that can of chicken noodle soup. I can quantify the joy in my life by the quality of food on my table, the attention given to the meal and the lively banter, even if it is just the four of us. And life’s still good.