Food was fraught during my childhood. My mother (pictured) rarely ate. As early as I can remember she said she couldn’t swallow solid food; she would chew and chew and then carefully wipe her mouth, surreptitiously spitting into her napkin. Her throat didn’t work like other people’s, she said, and her mother had ruined her when she was a child. I never learned how. The year I was 12 – before she went to therapy – she ate nothing except a nightly glass of milk thickened with crumbled saltine crackers. She said food was poison. It wouldn’t hurt my older sister or me, but even the fresh ingredients she bought, carried home and cooked would be fatal – to her.
So continuing to cook for us proved how much she loved us. And conversely, food showed her displeasure too. If I was a good daughter, she would make me something I liked. If she was annoyed with me, she would toss my least favourite meal on the table and walk away. Mom never said I’d hurt her feelings; I only knew I was in the doghouse if she fed me lamb chops or fish or runny scrambled eggs. She often quoted the “Song of Solomon”: “Comfort me with apples, for I am sick of love.” That was her motto; why say she loved us when mashed potatoes made it obvious?
She comforted us best with her desserts. After a bad day or a fight with a friend, she’d bake something sweet. Her chocolate-chip cookies were my favourite. More than delicious, they meant she was cheerful and, better than that, happy with me. Desserts were her consolation for whatever disaster had befallen. When the electric company turned off the power because my stepfather hadn’t paid the bill, we lit a fire in the fireplace, toasted marshmallows, and made s’mores for dinner. On the other hand, the sweets would disappear if I was sullen or flippant or out with my friends too much. When my sister and I walked in from school and smelled something sugary baking in the oven, we would relax and smile at each other.
My first year away at college, I told my mother that I had become a vegetarian. She didn’t respond. I came home for the first time and she told me she had fussed over dinner and spent a lot of money. I sat down at the table with anticipation. Had she found a vegetarian cookbook? Had she been stewing lentils and chickpeas for days? She emerged from the kitchen with an enormous roast beef. Then she put down a bowl of string beans cooked with ham. And finally a salad covered in bacon bits. I dutifully choked down a little of each because it was what my sister and I did – we ate whatever she put in front of us. She never did come around to my being vegetarian, although I got better at not eating the meat she served.
It’s probably no surprise my sister and I do not cook. When I met my husband I had never done more than boil water for pasta. After my children were born it didn’t change. Once they were into solid food, I let them eat whatever they wanted whenever they wanted. Cold pizza for breakfast. Crisps and carrot sticks at noon. Macaroni and cheese at three, and an apple and peanut butter a couple of hours later. I suggested fruits and veggies. I hoped they were getting enough protein, but I never asked either of them to drink a glass of milk. My mother-in-law was shocked. She would gently suggest that children need healthy food, a schedule, regular meals, that the family dinner table was important. We played games together instead.
My healthy, active son is a food reviewer for our local alternative newspaper. He is an adventurous eater and will travel far to try the newest thing. My lovely, strong daughter just handed me a plate of perfectly scrambled eggs. She loves to cook and she’s good at it.
And even though it is the middle of a hot summer day, I have turned on the oven. My daughter is only home for a visit so I am baking her my mother’s chocolate-chip cookies. I have to be certain she knows how much I love her.