If not for love, then what?
I mean, food. Why we buy food, why we put crackers and cheese and a big bowl of salad and steaming bowls of soup on the table for our loved ones, for friends, for strangers-who-become friends. Why do we feed people. Why do we select the juiciest plums and buy the most decadent ice-cream. Why do we not just hear the baby’s cry as am expression of mere hunger, but also the need to be held, cuddled, connected. Loved.
When I held my babies and nursed them and looked down into their faces, and their fingers curled strongly around mine, I realized I was not just feeding them milk, but also love. Sometimes, when they came to me asking to nurse, it was really their way of asking to be held close, and be loved.
When I started my food blog, My Sweet Life, I thought I wanted to collect all the recipes we had loved in one place. I wanted to get organized, and rope in all the scattered pages of recipes: some ripped off from magazines, some scribbled on random pieces of paper, some printed from the internet, some stained from soy sauce, others with grease stains. Some with directions incomplete.
Soon I realized, it was more than recipes that I was collecting. I was rounding up memories -- what we had once held in our hands, and smelled, and admired the colors and textures of, and tasted, and enjoyed. I was evoking memories with all that we had experienced with our senses: the aromas wafting through our kitchen, the anticipation before teeth meets food, the satisfied moans that exuded from our happy stomachs, the greasy fingers desperately seeking for something to wipe upon, the big happy grins on my children’s faces. The invisible circle that rounded us all in, embraced together in the enjoyment of food. That was what I was trying to assemble, and desire to evoke over and over again.
Really, if food is not about love, then what?
What inspires me to pick good ingredients and pore over recipes? What drives me to the kitchen to roll my sleeves up and mince, chop, sauté, mix and cook? (Even though I hate the thought of cleaning everything all up after all the food has been savored.)
It is the possibility of creating memories, of feeding my loved ones so they will one day remember a meal with love.
It is just like how I recall squatting next to my grandma in the kitchen as a young child, watching as she pounded shallots, garlic, chilies, lemongrass and a myriad of spices into a pungent yet irresistible paste that she would transform into a delectable, incomparable and unforgettable curry in a few hours. It was like watching magic unfold before my eyes.
I remember the smells, the sounds of the pestle pounding against the mortar, how the air began to sting in my eyes, and how I began to salivate, even though my eyes were tearing and I wanted to cough from inhaling all those shallots, garlic and chilies.
Fondly I remember the times when my grandma had lovingly made me a meal and served it to me with a big smile.
If food is not about love, then what?
When we wish to express care and concern, food is often the first thing that comes to mind. In times of joy, and in times of sorrow, there is food. When a baby is born, we celebrate with food. (In my culture, dyed eggs and cakes are distributed to friends and family to commemorate the joyous event.) When there is death, it is also common in many cultures for people to gather after the funeral, to share a meal (and the grief). There are also special foods for a funeral feast or to eat in remembrance. After the birth of my three living children, I received an abundance of food from friends who wished to express their joy and concern. Two years ago my friend M had a miscarriage. I made a large pot of soup, and told her I had accidentally gone overboard and made way too much soup and that I had absolutely no space in my fridge or freezer to store the extras, and insisted that her family helped me eat the extra soup. She graciously took up on my plea for help and later asked for the recipe because her family enjoyed the soup so much. Of course she later also told me she knew I did not make “extra” soup by “accident.”
BUT… ... at times I had asked if my family would be willing to chew on a heel of bread or perhaps, a piece of cardboard for dinner, because I felt too stressed, overwhelmed and exhausted to cook, and then clean up. They have never agreed. During those times, food was just a means of filling up the empty stomach, an item on my to-do list I want to check off so I can crawl into bed (without having showered or brushed teeth) and just sleep.
Food had also been a source of stress. Shortly after I learned all about pesticides, artificial flavorings, additives and all sorts of undesirables being added to our food, I had to go grocery shopping, and I vividly and viscerally remember how I felt sick to my stomach as I looked at the astronomical prices of organic food, and as I read through the ingredient lists of box after box, my knees almost buckled. I did not understand why. Why do we poison our food, and why manufacturers did not care what we the consumers have to eat. How was I supposed to nourish my family this way? We will never be able to afford to eat 100 percent organic food (although I did contemplate going out to work and spending my entire paycheck on buying organic food. But I really wanted to stay home with my very young children.), and making everything from scratch (so I could control what went into the end product and therefore our bodies) was not impossible but highly exacting on time and energy. That day I left Whole Foods pushing an empty cart and wondered how I was going to keep my family alive.
I realized that I had such fear and anxiety over food because I wanted my family to be healthy. I did not want my husband or children to fall sick. I wanted them to not just enjoy the food, but to be truly nourished by it. And I also realized that if I do not figure a way out, I will be serving up and consuming fear and dread with my food. So I struck a compromise. I buy organic what is considered “the dirty dozen”, foods most oft and easily contaminated. Even when I cannot eat organic I try my utmost to treat my food with gratitude, and just try to feel grateful that we have food to eat. I pay attention to my state of mind when I am cooking or baking, as I truly believe cooking with a relaxed mind and an open loving heart results in the best thing I can serve my family.
After all, it is also the company we have. It is who we get to eat together with, the eyes we meet and the faces we gaze upon as we put forkfuls of food into our mouths. That adds to the flavor and joy of the food that we eat.
Yes, food is about love.