On any given day, I won’t be able to remember what I’m wearing or what I did that morning, but no matter what, I will always be able to tell you what I cooked, and what my family and I ate. Take yesterday: for breakfast, my husband had a bowl of Raisin Bran, I ate oatmeal with strawberries, kiwi, and cranberries, and our kids drank fruit and milk smoothies; for lunch, my husband had a plate of leftover patatas campestres (a Spanish dish of potatoes, onions, peppers, tomatoes, chorizo, rosemary, salt, and paprika), I ate a wrap with spicy hummus, avocado, tomato, and basil, and our kids noshed on quesadilla segments with shredded Mexican cheese, tomatillos, and pinto beans, plus apples for dessert; for dinner, we all ate salmon with stir-fried vegetables and Manchego mashed potatoes; for snack, the kids chose amongst bananas, frozen organic blueberries, carrot sticks, cheese cubes, and, as a splurge, some Amy’s organic spinach pizza snacks. We drank milk, mango-orange juice, water, tea. In our house, I’m the “queen of the kitchen” (literally, I have an apron with this title printed across it, to prove it), and, contrary to the seemingly pervasive, convenience-based, ritual-less American food culture, in our multi-culti home, the food I cook and serve is one of the daily ways I celebrate our roots, experience new flavors, and, here’s the more controversial part, show my love.
From what I can tell, in America, food is not supposed to show love; abundance, maybe, but not love. It seems socially expected of modern American women to show a certain degree of distance from the kitchen. Years ago, just after my mother and I first moved here, a classmate of mine said something about eating a can of Chef Boyardee ravioli, and I, horrified, asked, “What happened to your mother?” Still, a number of my girlfriends have those “I only have a kitchen because it came with the house” magnets on their fridge. America is the land of plenty and maybe it’s this plenty that has spoiled the average American out of the desire to eat well, traditionally speaking. As my own mother, born American but “foreignized” by decades of living abroad,” says, we live in the home of “piggy sizing.”
My family is lucky, I know. We can afford our grocery bill, my writing and teaching schedule allows me to cook a dinner from scratch almost every night, and the few food-related health issues we have with our kids (one’s chocolate allergy, another’s slow weight gain following low weight as a baby, a third’s teething) are ones we can easily work with. But the truth is, I learned to serve fresh, healthful, and mostly economic dishes from my mother, who had a tight food budget, long work hours, and a daughter with type one diabetes. From my mother, who learned to cook in Spain (from cooking classes as much as her mother-in-law, my abuela), where, out of a history of scarce ingredients, meals became an indispensable setting for family and social life, intellectual discussion, community. I learned to cook from my mother, who herself learned to cook in a culture where food, like love, was regarded as something that should be given unconditionally and received with a grateful heart. The rituals I remember: the embroidered tablecloth, the parade of plates, beautiful, smart, talented, women, whose hands also happened to smell ever so slightly of sautéed onions and garlic, taking their places around the table of dark, carved wood.
We ate out sometimes, too, and I remember the way I had to dress in a smocked dress, be interesting, be polite. During my childhood, there was never a “children’s menu”; I tried anything and everything and, when I was full, I traded my plate with an adult’s clean one. I remember when I was four, eating lunch out with my family at a restaurant near our house and enthusiastically asking the mesero to bring more paté. For my seventh birthday, my mother’s gift to me was lunch at the Hilton in Madrid. We didn’t have a lot of money at the time, but we sat in the hotel’s interior patio and ate faisan en salsa de chocolate, pheasant in bitter chocolate sauce. At meal’s end, I had nothing to show for my birthday but the experience, but the memory is one I’ve treasured for years.
I ate like this all through my childhood, and eat like this now, during my motherhood. It was only during the in-between years of dawning adulthood that I didn’t. Those years, I ate through Sam’s Club bins of cheese balls at friends’ houses, bags of Doritos, fast foods at study dates, pizza slices, hot dogs, and chicken tenders at high school football games. I ate on the floor, or in front of the television or computer screen, or in the car; en fin, I ate away from the table. Nothing filled me, the act of eating that way as empty as the foods themselves. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these were the years when I felt most marooned from the life I’d lived in Spain. Remembering, and reconnecting with my Spanish identity, that is what I credit with returning my true appetites.
As apron-proclaimed “queen of the kitchen,” I’ve decreed a few rules, inspired by my mother’s kitchen and my husband’s adventurous palate, to bring the Spanish attitude towards food and eating to our American home: I make the same thing for everyone; our kids have to try but not finish everything; when we get take-out, it’s only healthful ethnic foods I don’t know how to pull off just right.
My husband gets nervous when I start on this subject, because he’s realized how many of our friends don’t eat like we do (at last count, maybe one or two other families do). Which is fine, only it means I have to stay quiet on the subject or come off smug that our children are the antithesis of picky eaters. When we go over to people’s homes and our kids are served blue box mac and cheese, our trio poke at it dispassionately (confession: they just don’t know what it is) and then come eat off of our plates instead. It means one more cultural difference we choose to embrace, at the risk of outing ourselves as those parents — you know, the weird ones.
But there’s something about teaching our kids to eat this way that makes it worth the occasional awkwardness. When I set down plates full of color, they are dinner, but they are also my promise to keep them nourished, to remind them of the rhythms of a tranquil life, to share our bounty together, to serve them possibility. One expression of love: every meal. A chance to say without saying: here is the world, take a bite, mi amor. Chef Boyardee has nothing on mami.