my mother taught me: about food
As I read, gripping solitary beacon-books such as Plenty, books about all our hungers-great-and-small like The Gastronomical Me, heartfelt emails and comments from those who read my blog posts, Tweets, Facebook updates, this is what arrests me: so many of us were not taught anything by our mothers. Careers, and struggles, and the seductive promise of convenience foods swept through their lives, wiping out bread-kneading and jam-making and tomato-growing from the heritance to which their girl-children should want. In its place were, perhaps, appreciation of Asian cuisines or metropolitan cocktails or attitudes of deep dysfunction. This was not my experience; this was not my mother.
My mother taught me about the life of the kitchen. Experiencing childhood, as she did, at the end of the Great Depression and through the entirety of the second World War, in the middle of the fertile high mountain desert near Madras, Oregon, her legacy was Irish and German and homesteading and the ruddy, solid peoples who raised pigs for 4-H and knew how to milk a cow as we, today, know how to turn on a computer. All we children learned from her about planting seeds in the dirt, eating peas and corn picked in our own garden, minutes to the table, foraging for blackberries on the cemetery wall, making yogurt and skimming cream and nearly all our cookies were from scratch. On the breakfast table were biscuits, near-never from a peel-apart can, sausage gravy and fried eggs and pancakes mixed and flipped on school mornings, too.
I learned from my mother, how to cook a pumpkin into pie filling, how to make yeast multiply, how to peel potatoes. Because of her, I never was shy around a chef's knife or bowl of unwhipped cream. This, however, was only a beginning, a peek into the world of food I had yet to discover. There were bechamel and aioli and fried sage leaves; there were squid ink pasta and creme brulee and fava beans; there was Lambrusca! vanilla beans! star anise!
I learned to burn a crust of sugar on an egg custard in Charlotte, North Carolina; I learned to drink Turkish coffee in a little town near the Cinqueterra; I learned to love beets in the Dingle peninsula in Ireland. I was curious and besotted with food and drink and painting, ever painting a fuller canvas of the world's food treasures. I had not yet begun to learn.
I had fallen deep-in-love with the freshmarket in Paris, at 21. The Louvre and the Musee d'Orsay were on strike and I wandered, blissful still, down streets lined with cheese and breads and briny shellfish and big bundles of greens and beets and potatoes. In Venice at 24, I photographed crates of red and yellow peppers, lifted off gondolas; my eyes popped at artichokes tiny and huge. When, just 28, I packed my SUV and moved home to Portland, I was quick to embrace the market for its richness and freshness, but more because it was Paris, come home. I had many more questions to ask.
In December 2007, my life had changed wholly. Car-free and in possession of three little boys and four chickens, I was mired in a mess of choler and distemper. My five-year-old had been kicked out of kindergarten before I'd had time to join the PTA. My two-year-old couldn't say his own name. My baby, still a baby, was yet to mount his own sparks of unusual fury. I was reading about this: from where comes our modern food. I was sick with worry and wonder. I wanted to turn back the clock, back, back, to a time before "industry" meant smoke-spewing conveyor belts packed with brightly colored foodstuffs; when it meant, instead, the woman who rises while it is yet night, who provides food for her household, who, with the fruit of her hands, plants a vineyard.
I saw not just grapes, but grains whole and nutrient-rich, tomatoes I'd tended from seeds and jarred with my own pot and ladle, mayonnaise rich with eggs from my backyard, quarts of honey sweetening everything, meat raised by farmers who looked me in the eye and smiled, a reincarnation of our world's blessed plenitude. This would be worth more than jewels, this would be good, not harm: bringing my food from near, from afar, finding praise in my home, receiving the fruit of my hands.
My mother taught me about food; I am learning, anew, from the time-before-time, I am digging in the blackest soil of our ancestors and pulling out creamy, craggy, real, ancient food.