I have a rather layered relationship with food. I love to eat. I’m definitely more a person that lives to eat rather than eats to live. I look forward to each mealtime, and am happiest about them when they can be hot, or at least a little involved. I’m no great fan of a sandwich each day, or a bowl of cereal on almost any morning. And while I’ll gladly eat lasagna for breakfast, the thought of something like a bowl of fruit and yogurt for dinner is dismal to me.
With as much as I like to eat food, it is good that I enjoy preparing it. (Particularly since the other adult in our household will be the first to admit he’s no avid cook.) The meal doesn’t have to be fancy; I appreciate fishsticks and a nice white wine risotto equally. But there’s something about a meal that makes me feel not just nourished, but nurtured. When I’m making a meal, I want the consumers of it to feel the same way. Nourished, nurtured and, ultimately, loved.
I also enjoy the bonus round to any meal: dessert. In fact, dessert is my favorite component to make. It’s by definition a treat, which seems in its essence guaranteed to make someone else feel a little more than ordinary. My fondness for baking started very young, and in an environment of encouraging affection. My mother would sit us on the counter to bake and cook with her. I remember being extremely proud of a tiny pear pie that I had made for my father. I’m anxiously anticipating his return from work in a photo of me sitting on the counter holding that pie with a look of gleeful pride on my face.
Now it’s my own who son sits on the counter, helping me mix and whisk and unwrap butter. His favorite tool is a pastry blender. He smells things baking in the oven or simmering on the stove, inhales deeply, and says, “Mmmm!!” It sets my heart soaring. So does his love of seasoning savory dishes, and the miming of sprinkling he does as he looks at me with an upturned face if he happens to be left on the floor, out of the action. He tastes ingredients – from pecans to onions, thyme to dried cherries – and I await his reaction and ask him how it tastes, usually receiving a “good!” in reply.
One of my favorite memories of us cooking together spanned a few days before Thanksgiving, when he played countertop sous chef as I made cranberry sauce and pies for my family’s holiday celebration with my parents and siblings. There was such ardor and delight in his rolling and sampling, juicing and pouring. Seeing him be such a willful and enthusiastic participant in something that makes my heart glad is an indescribable joy.
I don’t know if I showed that same spark as a child, or if my mother and grandmothers felt the same way, but I am grateful for their countertop tutelage. They were patient and permissive, not just with me, but my siblings as well. My preschool-aged brother used to make the most atrocious omelets for my notoriously picky paternal grandfather. On a chair, with my grandmother at his side, he would toss everything from salami to pickles and jam into the pan, and present the finished product with a satisfied air of accomplishment. My grandfather would manage a mouthful in return for a smile, before my brother bounded away and he disposed of the remnants. So much love surrounded these scenes. My grandmother, in carefully assisting my brother; my brother, in creating something extra-special for his grandfather; my grandfather, in playing along no matter how much it assaulted his palate.
One of the best tangible representations of my feelings for cooking, baking, and food consumption was provided by my sister. My Irish maternal grandmother never knew spaghetti sauce to be anything other than ketchup and water during her childhood in the Bronx. You would never know it, because she made the most delicious red sauce, beloved by all but the pickiest of her sixteen grandchildren. For my sister’s wedding, we decided it would be nice for everyone to include a favorite recipe, since she enjoyed to cook. My grandmother included her sauce recipe, which included instructions like “let it plup away on the stove” for three or so hours.
I remember sitting with my grandmother in the hospital some time later as she told my grandfather how to make that sauce over the phone. It didn’t matter that those of us who were there wanted to take care of her; she still wanted to take care of us, and making sure my grandfather fed us something that was known to comfort our souls was her way to do it. He still knows how to make that sauce.
After my grandmother was no longer here with us, my sister had that handwritten recipe from her bridal shower printed on a plate, and she gave it to my mother as a gift. It’s one that she displays proudly, and that I know meant much, much more to her than any handed-down recipe secret ever could.
The feelings evoked by all of these memories reach out to me in the present as I spend time in my own kitchen, both when I am alone and surrounded by others. Because of those feelings, baking and cooking indulges my soul and my spirit. It gives me a medium to attempt to give my love a tangible form, one that I hope lets it come through in both preparation and consumption.
As I mentioned at the outset of my blogging venture, I’ve been able to occasionally bake to order since having my son. At first, my mother and I thought we’d try preparing Christmas trays, and since then, there has been a trickle of family, friends, and acquaintances that have called upon us to prepare something delightful for various occasions. I recently made a canine cake for a friend, Megan McDowell, who’s an extremely talented equine, pet, and human photographer, and one of the biggest animal lovers I know. Her cherished family dog turned fifteen. When I was asked to prepare a cake and cupcakes for the celebration, I was delighted. I hoped to create something that would help them communicate their love to her. Looking at Megan’s beautiful pictures capturing the celebration, it gave me such joy to see her pup relishing her cake.
Everyone has their own way of showing their love, affection, and care. Many of us have many ways. Although I am a hugger, and my son would probably tell you I shower him with far too many kisses, by and large, when looking at my relationships across the board, I would say food is the root of my love language. It nourishes, it nurtures, it delights. Just like the best of loves.