Family Dinner

So you've seen the vitriolic blog debate about dinner, right? I mean, dinner, who knew it could be so fraught? The first article I saw was this piece in Slate, by Amanda Marcotte, entitled "Let's Stop Idealizing the Home-Cooked Family Dinner." When I read it, all I could think was, "Oy. Of course it's hard. If it was easy, it wouldn't be worth it. Suck it up and cook."

But then I read Joel Salatin's rebuttal in Mother Earth News, and I while I agree with most of what he said, I found the way in which he said it a little mean-spirited. It wasn't the gentle, encouraging response that I felt the piece warranted. (Ok, I get that my immediate response wasn't all that gentle or encouraging either.)

I found the original article written by three North Carolina State University sociologists called "The Joy of Cooking?", which turned out to be an interesting and thoughtful piece about the difficulty most people feel about preparing dinner. So I've been mulling it over. And I wanted to make sure that I was being fully honest with any readers I might have, as maybe I've been painting our cooking and eating life here at Poppy Corners in an extremely rosy light.

Do I cook every night? Yeah, mostly. I mean, I plan a meal for every night except Friday. (Friday is date night, and I'm eating out on date night, dammit, even if it's just a bucket of popcorn at the movies.)  I just honestly believe that eating a meal cooked at home is more economical and more healthful. I can control the ingredients. I'll have leftovers to use for lunches the next day. And if we all get to eat it together, that's a bonus. Now, we usually talk for about 10 minutes, and then turn on "Survivor" or "Amazing Race," so I can't say that our dinner is necessarily for social reasons, but I don't think it hurts that we are sitting down together and checking in about our days.

Do I love cooking? No.  I do like it a lot. I often find it enjoyable. It gives me a feeling of comfort, to know that I can do it fairly well and that I'm providing for my family. Are there nights that it's drudgery? Oh, maybe a few, but I honestly don't feel that way very often, and usually it's because something happened during my day to make me mad, and cooking is exactly what I need to get out of my bad mood. Are there nights I simply can't face it? Oh, yes. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, we go out or bring something home. I'm not going to beat myself up about that; I mean, since when is cooking supposed to be legalistic? I think cooking should be romantic, and in fact, if I squint really hard, I can imagine that my kitchen is somewhere in Italy and I'm using olive oil pressed from my own trees. Why wouldn't I want to do that? I wish I could cook more, actually. I wish I was better at it, and I wish I had more time and talent to throw at it. And boy do I appreciate dinners that other people cook for us, knowing the time and effort, and love that went into that meal. I don't think I appreciated that fully before I got serious about cooking.

When Tom and I got married, he said that one thing he really liked was a good hot meal after he got home from work. He made it clear that he wasn't expecting me to do it, that he didn't care who did it, as long that was the result. He's proved time and time again that he is willing to do the cooking, so I don't feel a pressure about what he said and never did. I know that he would cook every night if I preferred it. However, he works more than I do, so most nights I do the cooking. I figure that's fair. On weekends, I do often plan things that he will cook.

And in fact, Tom has more formal cooking experience than I do. He's taken countless classes in pastry, bread making, and Asian cooking; while I have my mom to thank for my skills in the kitchen. When I was young, she put me in charge of making dinner once a week, and that included planning for it and shopping for it (a project that I gave my kids this summer, and it was fun!). I watched her preserve vegetables and fruits in the summer, so we'd have them all winter. I watched her bake for special events and cook dinner every night of the week. She would also pack our lunches every single day, and make us breakfast every single day, two things that I do for my own kids as well. Was this a lot of work for her? Hell yes. Is it a lot of work for me? Hell yes squared, because I also work, which is something my mom didn't have to do in my formative years.

Now, I'm lucky. I don't work full time, only part time. And my husband makes a decent income. And we live in one of the healthiest places in U.S., with produce available year-round from numerous farms within a 50 mile radius. There is a farmer's market in every city in the East Bay, and one nearby every day of the week. You can even get a CSA for grass-fed and pastured meat, for heaven's sake. We even have a small yard that, with a little effort and expense, can produce food. Yes, we are on a budget. But no, we are not poor.

I cannot imagine what it is like for folks who are single parents. Who work full-time. Who live in a food desert. (We saw lots of these in Arizona and New Mexico on our travels this summer; places where the closest food mart was a distance away, and even calling it a 'food mart' was stretching it.) Who cannot grow their own food. Who live below the poverty line. I imagine that for these people, a box of pasta and a jar of sauce is a feast. I am not minimizing these troubles, and am grateful every day that we don't have them.

But here's the thing. For those people above, getting your family fed at all is the main thing. None of this other nonsense is even worth talking about. But for most of us, hey: If you've got a little money, and you have a little time, and you don't mind experimenting a little, then yeah, cook at least some of the time! Is that so subversive? I know it's hard to plan, and shop, and clean up afterward. I know someone in the family will inevitably say they don't like something you've cooked. So what? Since when do our kids have to like everything we do?  (Full disclosure: I cook a lot of stuff that I know my kids will eat, or components of the meal that I know will go over well. But the rule is, if they don't like any part of what I've cooked, after giving it a really good try, they can get a bowl of cereal or some fruit. And I never berate them for that. I thank them for trying it. Now my son will eat practically anything I make, because he felt safe, I think, that he had that backup. He's never gone for the bowl of cereal. My daughter however used to go for the cereal most of the time. I can say that she hasn't done it in almost a year, though. So tastes change, if you keep trying hard enough.)

For some reason, I'm thinking of a day in April when my aunt and uncle were visiting from Ohio. My folks made reservations for Chez Panisse in Berkeley for lunch. I explained to the kids how special lunch was going to be, how Alice Waters changed the food scene entirely, how they needed to keep their minds open and try new things, and by all that is holy, thank your grandparents profusely, because we could never afford a meal like that otherwise. We had a grand time and tried all sorts of new things and oooo'd and ahhh'd and enjoyed the entire experience.

Then that night, we had dinner at my mom's, and she had prepared the most delicious fish and vegetables, and honestly it was just as good and innovative and simple and fresh as anything we had at Chez Panisse. And that's when I realized, we can do this stuff any time we want. What's to stop us from going to the farmers market and asking the farmers what they thought we should eat that night, and how we should prepare it, and then do it? What's to stop us from going to the supermarket and asking what fish was wild and fresh and how would the monger prepare it? It's a hell of a lot cheaper, that's for sure. Even though I had cooked for years, I think I realized just that day that anything we had at home was going to be as good as even the best restaurants, if we had but the courage to try.  I'm not talking fancy food; I recently saw "The Hundred-Foot Journey," and I could maybe make two of the five French sauces, and maybe only 50% of the time. I'm talking simple food. That's not hard. That's not fancy.

As I get older, my health is very important to me. I've been overweight all my life, and it doesn't seem as though that's going to change no matter what I eat or how much I exercise. So the logical thing to do, when all other avenues are exhausted, is to eat what I know is best for me. That's not fancy food. That's not complicated food. That's simple food. Roasted meats and fresh vegetables, fruits for the sweet tooth. A little dairy here and there. A few nuts. Some oil. This isn't hard, and anybody can do it. Let the food speak for itself!

There's one other thing that has greatly influenced my passion for cooking at home, and it's not an experience that everyone has, so I'll try to explain it so you can maybe benefit from it, too. Back in January of 2004, Adam was two and Kate was nine months old. They ate everything I gave them. They had both been breastfed (in fact, Kate was still mostly breastfed), and then moved on to whatever I gave them. Neither was picky. Then, Adam was diagnosed with leukemia. He was given many chemotherapies, but the hardest medication turned out to be Decadron, a heavy-duty steroid, and Adam had massive doses of it. It completely changed the way he ate. Suddenly, he craved food all the time, and got panicked if he wasn't eating. He was obsessed, and he wanted junk. Chips, spicy chips in particular. Grilled cheese sandwiches. Pasta. The cheap carbs were flowing, and after three years of that, he just couldn't self-regulate his appetite anymore. He didn't know what to eat and how much to eat. His system didn't ever tell him enough was enough. I had to regulate for him, and I hated doing it, and didn't want to fight about it.

Around this time, Kate was diagnosed with autism. Her eating habits had also changed. Where once she ate anything I put in front of her, now she refused to eat anything but goldfish crackers and milk. She literally ate spaghetti every night for YEARS. Getting her to try new things was even more of a battle then it had been for Adam, because she couldn't begin to understand why I wasn't giving her the spaghetti she wanted.

And I confess, Tom and I just gave up for a while. We let the kids eat what they wanted to eat. For years, I cooked one thing for the adults, one thing for Adam, and one thing for Kate. Every night. And I look back at that like it's a sort of food and cooking hell. I can tell you I wasn't enjoying cooking, or even eating, at all during that time. We ate a lot of crap, because it was easy. We had other stuff on our minds.

Now I realize that there are parents out there who are doing this very thing right now. Maybe your kids have medical or psychiatric issues, or maybe not. Maybe you're just trying to keep the peace. I get it, I totally get it. It took me a long, long time to realize that I needed to try harder.  That it was on me to make the change. And then I just decided to do it. "THIS is the new rule in our household," I said. "I don't want to eat crap anymore!" I said. "I don't want to cook three separate things anymore!" I said. I took back the kitchen. I started slow. I made spaghetti for all of us. I made hamburgers in slider form, so they were cute. I made a lot of mashed potatoes. But I'd sneak something new in somewhere, and the kids would have to deal. Five nights of what they liked, one night of something new. Pretty soon we were all eating CHICKEN NOODLE SOUP, what the heck??? We were all eating GRILLED SALMON. Who could have foreseen it? It was awesome.

It's not perfect. Kate will often leave the meat on her plate and eat only the peas and french fries. (Yes, I buy frozen fries on occasion.) Or she'll eat the hamburger and leave the green beans. I don't freak out. I ask her to try everything, but if she doesn't like it, oh well. I'm not personally offended. At least I get to eat the leftovers. She wants mostly Nutella sandwiches for lunch. At least she'll eat some applesauce with that. She's getting lessons about what's good, what's healthy, where my priorities lie, every day. She sees me spending time in the kitchen preparing good food. The kids know that we put a high priority on quality food, prepared simply. It's not mean, it's not angry, it's not forceful, it just is. What do the teachers say, 'let the kids see you reading, so they'll know you make it a priority?' Well, let them see you cooking, for the same reason. It's just as important.

It took me a lot of time to get to this place, so I honor it. I cherish it. I will not apologize for it. Dinner is important to me. We're together, eating good healthy food, that someone cared enough to prepare. I can't think of anything better.