Monday, June 11, 2007

Inelegant sufficiency

On the nights when we aren't too tired to talk, Al and I cover the same four or five topics of conversation: 'why our girls are just so great'; 'how tired are you?'; 'we've got to stop eating so many chips'; and 'we have to save more money' (this last topic, which admittedly grows out of the third, often evolves into our fifth all time favourite thing to talk about: how do people on the mainland do it? So the following thoughts should be read in the knowledge that I have some inkling about how lucky I really am). After humming and umming aahing, we come to conclusion that we must stop spending so much on groceries. But a lot of grocery items are non-negotiable in our household: vast quantities of milk, nappies (we've tried and failed at cloth); dog and cat food, Red Hen for the chooks. There's not a lot of money left for actual food. Currently, we are very much in the mode of buying the basics and cutting the costs, in time honoured tradition of young families. Organic is out, expensive is out, diversity is out. When it comes to the question of food, this makes me feel like I'm less of a mother than I could and should be.

Since I went back to work I do most of the family cooking on a Saturday. After we come home from the weekly shopping I set up the ingredients on the bench and food process like a Fury. No more leisurely chopping of the garlic, no more meditations on what meal best balances our diet and suits my mood tonight. I get out the Big Oskar and blend up onions, then carrots, then zucchini and then mix them up into various big meals that are varied only in the spices I use to flavour them and the amount of powdered stock I add: chilli, pasta, soup. They're bagged and frozen and they save on washing up, time, and general stress of trying to cook during the witching hour with two little people demanding to be held. Very efficient and not at all inspiring.

This routine has been the cause of some soul searching. The way we eat is in part political and we are frustrated and disappointed by our failure to live by the ethical standards we hold in the abstract. But that's another story for another time. At this stage in our lives I have a more immediate concern.

Once, when Al was shopping in an inner city Coles, we heard a mother coo to her child, 'Baby want baba ghanoush?'. The way he tells the story, that baby will someday morph into a precious little princess who won't sleep on the pea not because it is uncomfortable but because it is frozen and Savings brand and not produced by some salt of the earth fifth generation farmer who is rugged in a picturesque (and not pre-cancerous) way. But the other day, as Lu dropped a tantrum in the deli, screaming 'I want a latte', I realised I was that mother. And it's not (only) because I am some painful, image oriented, conspicuous consumption driven yuppy. There is a personal and emotional significance in what we are eating, and more specifically, what we are feeding Lu (at seven months, Nell remains loyal to my breasts). When I make a meal I am making a statement about family, love, the kind of memories I want to offer my child, and the kind of person I want her to be. My aim is healthy and beautiful food, diverse and challenging tastes, and a shared and sensual joy over what sustains us. I am achieving somewhat less than this. And in my failures - and I do see them as failures - I feel I am cheating my kids of a wonderful dimension of life.

A friend of mine tells me I am simply caught up in the consumption myths and snobbery attached to food. It's all very well to educate your child's palate but it's hardly an essential component of a good citizen or healthy body. The pastoral images of organic foods don't quite match the realities of what Michael Pollan terms Big Organic. In truth, I like it when my girl eats persian feta or ligurian olives because I think those tastes reflect something about me: my attention to detail as a mother, my income level, my own cosmopolitan worldview - all bases upon which people in my social networks are judged.

But now I am thinking back to my own childhood. Both Al and I come from families where mushrooms and asparagus were dredged out of tins. I grew up in a place and time when Chinese recipe books suggested the substitution of sherry for soy sauce. My meals were governed by food rules: jam on Sundays only; a cream and plain only from the Assorted Creams box; two scoops of ice cream for dessert, drawing across all three of the Neopolitan colours; ten cents worth of mixed lollies on Saturdays; a third of a cup of watered down pineapple juice from the great big Golden Circle tins. Never once did I think I was not loved, and it never occurred to me that my horizons were too narrow in their failure to incorporate anything but the most pedestrian of foods at meal times and in between times.

Indeed, my memories of childhood are scattered with moments of food bliss. I remember a working bee on a cold and drizzly weekend day, the men from the parish setting up an iron plate across bricks, over a fire, and slapping together hamburger patties (they would surely have been plain brand), white bread, Kraft singles and a splodge of tomato sauce: the cheese melted into the meat and all that processed protein was squished together into something so satisfactory and sensual I remember it, and not the first time I ate a properly aged cheddar or a good cut of steak, blue. I remember the chocolate sponges I would make in a heart shaped tin - sophisticated! Dad's fried rice with gherkins, served out at the table with each child counting how many of those tiny tinned prawns were on the others' plate. My first smoked eel, caught by one of the local farmers. The bacon slaughtered and smoked by my Dad. Picking at the left overs of Mum's standby flash dinner party fare: tomato and crab soup (with cream and tabasco sauce), lasagne with lots of white sauce, and some kind of dessert made of cream, instant coffee and milk arrowroot biscuits. Every birthday cake from age seven, all made from the Woman's Weekly Birthday cookbook (except that one year Mum turned a four litre tub of vanilla ice cream out on a plate and stuck some candles and jelly babies on it - the shame!). This is my own, idiosyncratic list, and it might make others shudder - indeed, it's not stuff I'd ever touch now, except for the eel - but by golly I loved food. Each morning I would walk out to the breakfast table and ask what was for dinner. My mother, who hated cooking, never once threw the porridge at me for this - a mark of her loving and forbearing nature.

I guess it doesn't really matter to Lucy if the bolognese sauce hasn't simmered for five hours. Really, she'd be perfectly content eating plain spaghetti, gherkins and chocolate ice cream. I have to remember that what she really likes, more than any particular food, is spending time with her mum in the kitchen, tasting each component of the recipe, begging butter as a 'special treat' and sneaking her finger in the salt. If that's as far as her horizons stretch, well that's just fine. I guess.


Jenny said...

My eldest son ate an impressive array of cosmopolitan foods as a baby and preschooler then went to kindergarten and would eat nothing but peanut butter sandwiches. I thought introducing him to a variety of foods would make him a cosmopolitan child to be proud of but he put me in my place. That's when I learned that children are not put on earth so we can bask in their reflected glory and they are definitely not a fashion statement.
Children - the great leveller.

Kate said...

Wonderful post, and so true. I love some of the old cookbooks because they have good-oldfashioned fare with few expensive and exotic (costly) ingredients.

Tamsin said...

Yes, this is something that I've been thinking about too, especially when serving up savoury mince (can you imagine) in yet another not incredibly imaginative incarnation. However I don't think you should feel bad for placing importance on efficiency in food preparation. Remembering back to my childhood, it was always a source of amazement to me that Mum could conjure up a meal out of nowhere and have it on the table in what seemed like minutes. She wasn't a passionate cook (actually it was only the other day that I learned how much she really hated it). She didn't have a huge repertoire - beef stroganoff (I'm sure there was a packet mix in there somewhere), corned beef with mashed pumpkin and potato, pastitio etc, and lots of different custards. Her daughters, me included, all keep handwritten recipe books where we keep note of our favourites, and I bet any money the first few pages in all our books are occupied by records of these old family 'favourites', marked out in the idiosyncratic measurements that Mum always used ("a cup of this, based on the big brown mug that I got as a wedding present, a handful of that based on my long hands, not your little ones of course" and so on). They were' favourites' not because they were glamourous, or the result of hours labouring in the kitchen, but because they were part of the fabric of our family life and culture (which we always felt was unique and special) and because we always, without fail, sat down at the kitchen table with no other distractions such as TV or radio, always in the same chairs, and shared the evening meal while teasing, laughing, fighting and retelling the days adventures. All six of us loved those times, and those meals, plain as they were and are, are utterly imbued with the intimacy and easy companionship of family. To this day, whenever a 'comfort' meal is called for, it is almost inevitable that a pastitsio (known to as par-stitch-choo)and a 'donkey custard' (aka a bulk creme caramel made in a big casserole dish, yet another of Mum's seemingly indestructible wedding presents) is on the table. I've been taking great pleasure in cooking for our little family lately, and I draw a lot of satisfaction from my speed and efficiency of preparation. I love the challenge of having something on the table, ready to go, when Martha comes charging into the kitchen clean and warm after her bath, and no matter how simple or repetitive, it is the sitting together and the eating (well, the wine is good too) that makes it special for us.

By any measure you are doing a wonderful job, and are a fabulous mother.

VictoriaE said...

Ha, I feel proud of myself for getting the kids to eat some sort of green supermarket vegie each night (except baked beans night and takeaway night!)! Well, my standards might be somewhat low.

VictoriaE said...

But I enjoyed this post very much!

Kris said...

Hi all

Tambo, yet again I feel like we shared a childhood (though not in any creepy kind of way) althugh mine was lacking in evocative dishes like donkey custard! But you're right - it's the rituals surrounding the food that are important, and not the food itself. Every night we say grace, don't allow books and T.V. and just talk, which Lucy loves - all these things re-establish us as a family after a day apart.

Victoria and Jenny - Lu eats almost no veggies, in fact, almost nothing. I've taken to hiding them in home made bread and pasta sauce butI think she's onto me! And this after two years on happily exploring food. I tried not to be smug about Lu's palate but I was, just a little, and now I'm being taught a lesson!

Jenny said...

That was a great post!!