Coming into the homestretch of my first full time private chef position on Nantucket, I realize how much I have missed musing and writing about food, life, and friendship-for me food is all about relationships. I have recently been looking back at previous blog postings I had on an older site-one where I lost most of the content when I switched to this platform. I have decided to post an older piece of writing about my daughter, who is a mighty young woman, recent college graduate, writer, reader, musician, passionate advocate for human rights, soon-to-be law school student, and kick-ass clam and oyster shucker (working for her father's raw bar business this summer).
Salt of the earth
When my son was born I was young and knew almost nothing about babies. There were quite a few friends and family members around though, and as a result no end of advice or suggestions: pick him up when he cries, give him some milk, a nap, a diaper, or make a funny face to keep him happy. And when he started eating, I just mashed whatever I was eating, stuck it on a spoon and he would gobble it down. This was an easy child, one who could be taken anywhere, fed anything, and who was charming, pleasant, and adorable most of the time.
I think when parents have an easy first child, they tend to develop a cavalier and (dare I say?) slightly superior attitude towards childrearing. I admit to being in this category. My firstborn was a happy little Buddha and while pregnant with my second child, I maintained an extremely casual attitude about babies. I assured the father-to-be who was new to all of this, that it would be a piece of cake, and he agreed to stay at home with the serene, sleeping little angel, while I went back to school full-time.
A few weeks following the birth of my second child, I called my mother weeping, and explained that I had run out of parenting karma and was paying the full debt, right here and now, with the red-faced, cranky little monster, who was my daughter. And so, I had to not only live down my arrogance, but also apologize to my husband, for misleading him down the path to this very difficult version of parenthood. One which I had never anticipated.
In conversation, I tend to use food-related words to describe things that are by no means food related. When asking someone if a child is a boy or girl, I will inquire, which flavor? I might describe an unpleasant person as salty or acidic, or a nice one, sweet like pie. During the first year of my daughter’s life, I became convinced that she would never enjoy food. Following the first run-ins with sweet potatoes, applesauce and yogurt, all which she either spat out, threw up, or just plain disliked, she then proceeded to develop “sensitivities” (translate to allergies) to a number of known and unknown foods. This made the first twelve months of her life extremely stressful. During this period, if you’d asked me to describe my girl child, I would have given you the word bitter, tart, or perhaps, sour.
Gradually, I grew accustomed to the idea that my daughter was an aberration in a matrilineal line of women whose lives revolved around food. I tried to accept that she was different and would be amazing in her own way and do other wonderful things. I created little pureed meals of bland things like chicken breast, plain brown rice and peas, which she ate begrudgingly, and fed the rest of my family the normal stuff: French peasant inspired white bean, sausage and duck casseroles, sautés of seafood and exotic leafy-greens, curries, and various other dishes usually containing great quantities of garlic, wine and herbs. Although it was unimaginable that I continue cooking separate meals for the rest of our lives, I couldn’t think of any alternative. I didn’t want to make dinnertime unpleasant, or even worse, turn her off eating entirely, and so I kept up.
I can’t remember exactly when it was that Oona became interested in food, but it seemed to coincide with the first vegetable garden that we ever grew, the summer she was two. One day, I lost track of her, and after looking frantically under furniture and inside of closets filled with toxic chemicals, found her in the garden with our dog at her side, picking sweet peas and eating them off of the vine. This may sound rather ordinary to you, but for me, it was a revelation. She had gone off on her own, found food and decided to eat it. No coercion, no airplanes flying into the airport, no spitting out, or throwing on the floor…Just happily picking and eating a vegetable from a vine while sitting in the dirt. I chose that moment to show her some other vegetables in the garden, and picked a few to cook with her. To my surprise, she ate all of them and from that moment on became the most vigorous eater, a lustful, earthy lover of many different foods. That summer, her food allergies also mysteriously disappeared and every time I went to the garden to pick something for dinner, I’d find that she’d already been there, leaving little for me, aside from the husks and stringy remnants of her snacks, scattered along the ground in colorful little trails.
My mind overflows with animated food memories of my daughter. At age three, mimicking me as I peeled garlic over the sink, begging me to let her take the cute little shrimpies out of their shells, eating handfuls of bright green and red Swiss chard from a bowl, or sneaking a spoonful of my grandmother’s chopped chicken liver when no one was looking. A cute toddler, she would bug me over and over again for just one more bite of unagi. Her mouth innocently open, her mind endlessly curious about what was cooking in the pot, and always possessing the most beatific expression on her face when tasting something new and wonderful.
I have never met a child who thanked the duck (lying, ready for roasting on the chopping block) for dying, because she would get to eat it and it was so yummy. Or a six year old girl, who after a brief episode of violent seasickness on a day-long, offshore fishing trip, recovering enough to not only haul in a large summer flounder, but to then watch intently as all the rest of his brother fish were caught, hit over the head with a pipe, and gutted mercilessly on the deck of the cabin cruiser. All the while, singing a little fishy song that went along the lines of:
“I love you little fluke, now rest and be happy, you will sleep well on my daddy’s grill tonight…”
This same child braved the sharpest brambles, worst mosquitoes and terrible poison ivy each year, in order to pick the biggest and best raspberry, just out of her reach. Her hands were always stained blue and red for a good two weeks of every summer, because of her daily tramping through the high bush, spotting the hugest, fattest, and most perfect blueberries each time. There were associated injuries, and I spent a lot of time treating her various scratches and thorny splinters with iodine, yet she never seemed to fuss much.
It seems clear to me, upon recovering these images so vividly, that this change in my child was directly related to developing a relationship with food from the ground up. Placing an unidentifiable, mush-filled bowl in front of her wasn’t enough to create a connection to her meal. Something was missing.
She simply needed to sit in the dirt and pick the peas; to see the fish come flipping out of the water on her line, silver and gasping; to touch the clammy, bumpy skin of the duck, and slip the garlic out of it’s papery skin with her own hands in order to understand. To understand that after the embers had died down that night after fishing, and her little belly was full, that it was her job to take the remains of the fish and vegetables out to her great-grandmother’s compost heap. To continue the cycle; to cover the bones with dirt, to feed the raspberries, to love her dog, to feel the ocean moving under her bare feet, and then finally, to fall asleep in the damp, summer heat, perhaps dreaming of what her next meal might be.