By temperament, I’m a person for whom food holds great positive power: anticipating meals, making decisions about them, cooking and eating are all, usually, unalloyed sources of pleasure in my life. I’m not obsessed with food to an unhealthy degree, but I do feel all’s well with the world if I have a few good, interesting meals planned. Unlike when I was a teenager or young adult, when food was something to be either negotiated and feared, or else to be consumed as quickly as possible so I could get on with more pressing tasks, I’ve found in my adulthood what a source of pleasure food is, and not just in the eating. I love to think about different flavors and cultures, about the way disparate ingredients come together to form a unified whole, and about how food connects us to our past, present and future. It’s also immensely satisfying to have thought in advance about what meals will please me and my family, which removes some of the anxiety from the daily planning of family life and gives me a sense of control and order that can be all too rare in a parent’s life. And although the ideal family meal is often frustratingly out-of-reach, as I’ve written before, when we do achieve one it’s immensely gratifying.
With my family’s well-being always in the back of my mind, I really cook to make myself happy, most of the time. I append my list of dishes to the end of each blog post as a record of pleasures, successes and failures, and (I hope) as an inspiration for anyone else who loves to cook and think about food. Cooking grounds me in the present moment and with what’s real in my life: my family needs to eat, and if I can provide them with pleasure and nourishment while simultaneously nourishing my own need to be creative and productive, it’s a win-win situation all around. While food does not play that role for all, I would encourage everyone to find what does, whether that’s music or art or some other activity that keeps you connected to your family and to the here-and-now.
Yet there are times when my enthusiasm flags, when I’m sick or sad, preoccupied by problems that sap the energy I normally expend on cooking. These are the moments when I think about my friends who don’t share my enthusiasm for food; those who feel bogged down by the incessant decisions of what to eat or what feed their families, or the ones who wish nutrition came entirely in pill form so they wouldn’t have to waste precious time dealing with food. Under normal circumstances, I am sympathetic to these attitudes without feeling at all empathetic; but when I’m down or distracted, I really get it. Take away my sense of well-being, and my love for food goes out the window as well.
During a holiday bout with the fearsome Flu of 2012-13, I couldn’t get out of bed for days, let alone contemplate the prospect of cooking. My children ate pizza, plain pasta, frozen hot dogs for days—and honestly, they were lucky to get fed at all. Sick and sorry for them as well as for myself, I nonetheless couldn’t bear the idea of having to plan or prepare a meal, and it seemed unlikely I ever would again. I felt guilty but helpless: like anyone who has no time, energy or inclination to cook, my choices were expedient rather than ideal. I also felt terribly disconnected from myself. Compounded by the flu, which already made me feel profoundly separate from and resentful of my physical body, I was profoundly not myself for an unprecedented length of time. The experience was both unsettling and depressing.
Regaining my health, I am, as always after an illness, so grateful for what I didn’t know I was missing before getting sick. And as my own appetite for food and for life returns, my thoughts turn to those who’ve suffered far deeper and longer-lasting separations from physical pleasures. One blog on the New York Times in particular spoke volumes to me on this. “Life, Interrupted,” is written by Suleika Jaoud, a young Princeton graduate in her early twenties who is being treated for aggressive leukemia. Her latest post is all about food: how much she came to value it during the times when she couldn’t eat; how her loving mother has adopted the role of sickbed chef; how she came to hate some of her favorite foods as they became inextricably linked to the dreadful post-treatment symptoms.
“My Mother’s Cooking” is so powerful not only because Jaoud is such a young woman, but because she elucidates how deeply eating is connected to the very roots of our humanity. Beyond mere nutritional needs, food is connected to our sense of wellness, to our emotions, to our happiness and our hopes for the future. To deny our need to eat is to deny the fundamental basis of our being. As mixed-up as most people are about so-called “healthy eating,” I think this is what they aspire to: to escape or conquer the negative feelings they have about food and replace them with positive associations.
Just as we appreciate our health anew when it’s returned to us after being rudely ripped away, so we should appreciate our appetites. Too much modern writing on health and diet treats appetite as the enemy, when appetite is truly what keeps us alive. We are so surrounded—almost suffocated—by the abundance of food in the developed world that we often no longer appreciate the simple pleasure and gift of eating. After an illness, we vow to hold our quotidian health in higher esteem, but we know at heart we will eventually take it for granted once again. Similarly, an enforced period away from normal eating may return food and eating to the place they ought rightfully to hold: neither an enemy nor a luxury, more than a necessity yet less than an ultimate goal. We need to revalue and respect its place in our lives, especially when we are among the fortunate who have so very much more than we need.
What I cooked since my last post: