In the gaze of the other

"My mistress' eyes are nothing…"

Food

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My childhood household held food that never rests on my pantry shelves. My mother, who cooked or assembled three meals a day for five children and one husband, subscribed to the then food pyramid. Dinner always consisted of a meat, starch and vegetable. Ours was barely a blue collar wage earning home, straddling the middle class line, so my mother bought what was cheap and easy: whole fryer chicken, chuck steak, potatoes, Minute Rice, lamb chops, pork chops, Green Giant canned peas and carrots, corn, beets and green beans. Special meals around the holidays expanded into beef stew, stuffed cabbage and chicken soup. She ground liver, eggs and onions into chopped liver for Passover.

My father liked Devil Dogs, Yankee Doodles and Ring Dings with a tall cup of milk before heading out to work late afternoons, so there were plenty of those box cake snacks in the house, along with my mother’s favorites, Entenmann’s coffee cake or coffee cheese cake. We lived under the fragrant shadows of that cake-snack factory. Entenmann’s filled our stomachs and noses.

After I moved away from home, past the college days of living on graham crackers and cottage cheese or jars of peanut butter, I shied away from those foods. For one, I could not find snack cakes with the same names in California, nor could I afford the price and weight-gain of them. My first job in California landed me in a frozen yogurt shop, where I ate hot fudge yogurt sundaes most every day. I needed to lose a couple dozen pounds after six months there.

But on my own, I chose healthier foods, simpler foods, like veggies and high-fiber carbs. When in my twenties and already married, I started working out at the gym. My intake was largely sugar or fat free, ready-mades and packaged foods until I learned to cook ten years later when my oldest daughter sprouted teeth at 9 months. Then, meals were consciously and conscientiously planned for freshness of ingredients and taste suitable to both the gourmand adults and plebeian small children–not an easy feat.

Before children, my husband and I dined well, sampling Southern California’s finest cuisine and accompanying wine. We were working professionals without children for 16 years, so we honed our pallets here and abroad. We ate plateau de fruits de mer in bistros in Paris; stone-grilled caribou and buffalo in Banff, Canada, apres ski; pabellon criollo in Caracas, Venezuela; and street stand tacos mariscos in San Felipe, Mexico.  We ate haute wherever we went. 

After kids, we had to bring the haute cuisine home, so we hosted dinner parties. I subscribed to Bon Appetit, invested in cooking tools and amassed recipes. I learned to shop for and prepare rib roast and imported French oysters for Christmas dinner and portobello pot roast for Chanukah. I mastered the soufflé and creme brûlée. We served 9 course meals til 2 a.m. to guests lined along stunning tables of Reidel glassware and hand painted China with perfect wine pairings

But then life got busy. The children grew up and into unforgiving, unyielding soccer-school schedules that left us eating on the run, in the car and out the door. My husband and I were back to ready-makes from Trader Joe’s and “healthier” fast foods like chicken rice bowls from Wahoos or Waba Grill. Happily, I still get to cook Thanksgiving dinner every year for the entire 20 to 30 of our clan to keep my cooking skills primed.

And then there was that one year I tried to single-handedly polish off an entire Thanksgiving leftover ten-pound Honey Baked ham, 2006, I believe. So sick, I couldn’t even think about eating meat for weeks. I just never picked up the habit again. I’ve never really missed it, except for the occasional temptation, like the lamb we bought up in Humboldt at the farmer’s market that my niece barbecued or the smell of a burger sizzling in the fry pan.  

Unlike my childhood household, my family never talks about diets or obsesses about food or weight. We did give our daughters choices based on experimentation. Like the times they wanted to eat donuts before playing soccer just like their friends did–instead of the banana or Luna bar I’d give them. I let them. Then, after watching their sluggish performance, I’d ask them how it felt fueling on donuts before a game. That’s all it took.

My mother, who dieted constantly–lurching between binging on a bag of Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies and going to Weight Watchers–did not impose restrictions on our eating habits unless it was snacking before dinner, but her constant struggle and obsession with weight was modeled to us. Some of us took to conscious eating as a result.

My young daughters wanted to follow my lead and forego the meat, but I did not allow them to until they understood how to eat meatless. Now, both mostly adults, they each have their own versions of a regime suitable to their lifestyles. The older is learning to be a vegan gourmet, while the younger is enjoying the role of test taster. Me too.

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