One of the great things about promoting a book about family meals is that you get to hear from all kinds of people about their experiences at home. At authors' forums and book signings, on Facebook and Twitter, I have heard the full range of food emotions -- from joy and hope to despair and frustration.
One of the worrying refrains I hear lately is the guilt people feel over not eating with or cooking for their families. They feel their connection to food slipping away because they haven't learned to cook or they don't use the skills they do have. People have so many easy options in the supermarket, and each time they rely on them, they feel guilty for not trying harder. To many, because of the way food is marketed, advertised and processed, family food has been cheapened to mean nothing more than stuff you eat.
In fact, the concept of a meal as unifying, nurturing and magical is fading into a guilt-laden, let's-get-it-over-with ordeal. And as family food orientation is devalued, so too are many of the ties that have bound generations together -- the recipes, preparation and togetherness around family meals.
When I was young, I lived in a town with a very strong middle class Italian community. I was drawn to the kids from these families -- they all seemed to talk loud, laugh hard and love good food as much as my own middle class Jewish family did. Since my parents both commuted a long way from home, long before the word "playdate" ever existed, I spent most afternoons running from house to house, soaking up the sounds, smells and tastes. I remember fresh pasta drying on dishwasher racks, older women playing cards with younger women on the front porch, grandmothers in the kitchen cooking and trying to feed us -- always complaining that we needed to eat more. To this day, the aromas of garlic and basil remain permanently infused in my nasal passages.
But what I really appreciate about those afternoons of my childhood are the absorbing connections they created for me between food and family. I loved when my friend's grandmother explained to me at age 10 how important it is to squeeze lemon into chicken soup before you serve it. I still continue to use that tip. Or how another friend's mother found me standing by her stove trying to peer into her boiling and bubbling pots and pans, mesmerized, while my neighborhood friends were still playing outside. I had pretended to want to use the bathroom, but I really just wanted to stay inside and cook with her.
Over Thanksgiving, all those memories came rushing back when I came across a book called Cooking with Italian Grandmothers: Recipes and Stories from Tuscany to Sicily by first-time author Jessica Theroux. The author lived in and cooked in homes of Italian mothers' grandmothers for over a year. The book brought to life how deeply Italians value food traditions and how closely they protect their time around the kitchen table with family and friends. Grandmothers safeguard the culinary heritage of each family, not only passing recipes down to younger generations but, more importantly, they create the familial context to the food they eat. As we all know, when you have that spiritual connection to the meal, there is more of a reason for families to sit together, to talk, to laugh and to reminisce.
But of course, as busy parents know, that's easier said than done. There are so many obstacles to families making time to sit down together to eat wholesome food. The pressures of work, school, sports and activities, and the cost (and perception of costs of wholesome food) seem to compete and plot against us. It's a huge challenge. But it's a battle that's worth fighting, even in small ways.
One way to start is to reclaim a connection to your family's food heritage. And for families with no food traditions, invent some -- we declare new traditions all the time in our house. For those who are afraid to cook, find one very simple dish you can make again and again until it becomes imbedded in your family's culture and then find a new recipe you are comfortable with and master that one. Slowly you will build up your repertoire and, just as important, a food history within your family.
Just by setting your own family's special connection to food--no matter how simple or fancy -- you will create momentum for the kind of family meals we all hope our kids will recall. And pass along to THEIR kids.