Like our dog Mollie, a brown-eyed, sausage-bodied Labrador-mix, my family is completely obsessed with food. Some families drink, and that’s a part of their culture. Some do sports. Some focus on academics. And some eat. We eat.
I have relatives I’ve rarely seen without a full mouth or not sitting in front of a newly emptied plate. Perhaps because we were historically poor, or simply because we’re lusty, it would be unthinkable to run out of food at a family party. This never happens. We serve too much and we eat too much, and although there’s often food left over, it’s never nearly as much as we expect, and we all look at the demolished table and say, “We did a good job.”
Toasted bagels with butter and cream cheese and lox and thinly sliced red onion. Orange juice, green salad, bacon. Baguette and blue cheese. Fresh brewed coffee. Peppermint tea.
Food is an important part of this family’s identity. We celebrate bounty, we talk about food past and present. We spin tales of the Depression, when my grandparents were so poor that they ate soup made from chicken feet, and stew from bones begged “for the dog.”
We revisit what we ate at that lunch in Florence when Annie was a baby. She sat under the table chewing a breadstick while Bill, my mother, and I feasted on six courses including a two-pound Florentine steak. Then we walked to the Boboli Gardens and rolled around groaning on the grass.
My mother’s appetite is legendary. For a small woman — 5’4″ before she began to shrink — with a small-to-medium build, she can chew most big men under the table. When she was a skinny teenager, Longshoremen at Union picnics used to place bets on how many steaks she would eat. And now, in her seventies, she’s barely slowed.
Eating out with my mother is amusing, exasperating, and, ultimately fun. She won’t eat the whiter parts of lettuce, she creates her own dishes at every restaurant we go to, even the ones not amenable to “and extra-virgin olive oil and Dijon mustard on the side,” and she supplements her diet with whatever the fad is this year. This month she’s carrying a small jar of raw sauerkraut in her purse to eat after meals — she’s replacing her intestinal fauna and flora — and avoiding tomatoes because they make her arthritis worse. Be careful where you set that platter of cracked Dungeness crab; if it’s in front of her, better take some now, or it will be all gone.
I’ve inherited my mother’s appetite; like my dog Mollie, I’m “food oriented.” Like my mother, I’m not skinny and I’m not fat. My family tends towards “fire plug” but I tend to go voluptuous before people notice I’m actually chubby. At night I fret, feeling my thighs and swearing to do another colon cleanse, to get to the gym, to fit back in those great clothes I bought when I was smaller. But still, I eat. “Do you want to meet for lunch?” I ask, a little too happily. The novel I’m writing has — between the fighting scenes and the sex scenes — an eating scene every third page.
I have a sneaking suspicion my friends talk about how much I eat behind my back. I hope they don’t call me what the vet calls my dog Mollie: a Garbage Hound. Sadly, I have very few friends I can actually eat with. People are weird about food. I have one close friend who rarely eats out, who hates restaurants. Another who asks for all her food to be cooked low fat (and she’s chronically underweight). Another who hates fish. It’s a good thing my family loves to eat as much as I do.
“Why does eating make me so happy?” my daughter Annie asks frequently, all seventy-nine pounds of her. When I was pregnant with her I ate, and it was like an acid trip. Nothing had ever tasted so wonderful — sparkling peaches and complicated artichokes — then I vomited, rinsed my mouth, and went right back to eating. As a teenager, Annie eats everything, and she eats a huge amount of it — escargots, lamb brains, chicken feet, toasted grasshoppers — everything except clam pasta, though her favorite foods usually involve meat: Steak. Meatballs. Pork.
For people of Jewish heritage, a religion where pork is strictly traif (forbidden), our family sure relishes the fruit of the pig. We “pork eatin’ Jews” meet at Everett and Jones’ in Oakland for live blues and barbeque. Our favorite summer sandwich? Bacon, tomato, and avocado with mayonnaise on a good crusty bread. Every Thanksgiving my husband Bill, “The Meat Man,” bakes a Miller’s Sweetheart ham from Piedmont Market, glazed with maraschino cherries and canned pineapple.
Yes, we love to eat. Raw kale salad with parmesan, lemon, and garlic, Angels on Horseback, meatloaf, latkes, root ragout, pot roast, sushi, chicken paprikash with spaetzle, risotto, homegrown artichoke pasta, pickled beets, pot de crème, apple pie.
My family’s been through phases, including Thanksgivings where new vegetarians would munch on hummus and pita, look painfully at the turkey, and argue about leather vs. canvas shoes, sideburns, and radical politics. As we all became more foodie, less vegetarian, and less broke, our Thanksgiving turkeys evolved from Butterballs from Cala Foods (with that little red thing that was supposed to pop up when it was done but never did) to organic Diestel turkeys, brined for 24 hours then roasted in a convection oven partially upside down and partially right side up.
Now, our vegetables are grown on an organic farm and delivered to us in a box once a week. When he has time, Bill bakes fresh bread with wild yeast from the air. Every New Year’s Eve at midnight, we serve French onion soup, slowly roasting the onions which make us cry as we slice them, transforming them to sweetness the same way we hope to transform the tearful times of the previous year into joy.
We talk about eating, we think about eating, we spend all our disposable income on food. We eat out. We eat in. We move from meal to meal. Our travels revolve around what restaurants we want to visit, what cuisines we want to try. How damned privileged and elite this is! In Haiti, they’re storming the capital because there’s nothing to eat. “Rice has tripled,” we say over the morning newspaper. Despairing. We’re very aware of hunger in the world — perhaps too aware. Bill consults in sustainable agriculture. We donate to Kiva, micro-lend to small food producers. Yet at home we eat, and sometimes there’s a dark side to this.
Breakfast, every day: “Annie, what do you want to eat?” A sullen, tired, sulky figure. “I don’t know.” Back and forth we go until finally she’s ensconced in front of yogurt with honey or cold pizza. “Eat!” I yell. “Don’t play with it!”
Dinner: Every night a twenty minute conversation. “We had Chinese last week.” “I am so not in the mood for pasta.” Too often we end up, too tired to cook, going out to dinner . . . and feeling guilty. Just down the street, children are underfed and for all our Left Wing politics here we sit, high on the hog (literally) and eat, and eat, and eat.
Waffles with real maple syrup. Baked salmon. Baby back ribs roasted with gray salt, garlic, olive oil, and fresh rosemary. Oxtail stew. Tofu with tamari and food yeast. Baked potatoes with olive oil and oregano from my mother’s garden.
We’re deeply aware of the privilege inherent in food, how the way we eat reflects poorly on us. And yet, it also reflects well. We celebrate the earth’s bounty. We’re a family that nurtures itself, not too fat and not too skinny. We overeat and we laugh together, we lie on the floor and roll around, we eat with intention, with joy.
Food is Life, with relish. (And pickles and ketchup and mustard.) Come eat with me! Let’s smack our lips and love it all. Did you know I even cook for the dogs?