Thursday, November 01, 2007

Reflections on my Family, the Home-Cooked Meal, and the Joy of French Fries

Jolanda Dubbeldam by Jolanda Dubbeldam

I was leafing through a magazine the other day, looking for the recipe that had caught my eye on its cover. It turned out to be a recipe with a story, and I read it presuming it would follow a familiar concept: the author sharing a recipe and a story born many years ago in her mother’s kitchen, about how they had bonded over cooking, the pivotal importance of food and shared meals for the family, and so on. But this story had a twist. It turned out the author did not have many fond memories of her mother, and was never able to bond with this woman who seemed always distant and cold towards her daughter. The mother died many years ago, without any closeness ever having grown between them. But the daughter did remember a special pie her mother used to make, and one day she felt an urge to recreate it, though there was no recipe. She tried and tried and after many failures was able to bake a good-enough replica of the original, and through the process and the taste of it, she brought back memories. Good memories. Of the effort her mother put into making this particular delicious dish for her, and that maybe this was the way her mother showed a love she was otherwise unable to express.

Jolanda with cat

I love my mother. But she did not teach me how to cook. She reigned alone in the territories she considered her own, which is to say, anything relating to the household, including the kitchen. I have few memories of being allowed to help her with preparing a meal as a child, though I remember wanting to. Sometimes she'd run out of the kitchen mid-dinner preparation and hand me a mug stuffed to the brim with sprigs of parsley and a big pair of scissors, only to disappear quickly back to boiling pots and sizzling meat. I’d point those scissors all the way down to the bottom of the mug and earnestly snip away until the parsley was fine enough to meet my mother’s standards. Sometimes, if I was really persistent in asking to help, my mother would let me mix the salad dressing, after she had measured all of the ingredients and put them in a bowl. And sometimes, way back in the very distant past, before we had an electric mixer, I would be allowed to whip cream. This was a pretty big deal, because fresh whipped cream meant special dessert, maybe even guests, and because this particular chore required some skill. The liquid cream and a dash of sugar were poured into a little bowl-like contraption, with two beaters attached to a crank on the bottom of a red lid, and a big round white knob on top for turning. The bowl had to be held tightly level with one hand while energetically turning the knob with other. I had to be very careful not to spin the lid off the bowl and cause a spill. Also, the consistency had to be just so. Too much beating and I'd spoil it, turning light fluffy whipped cream into chunky butter, and risk the wrath of my mother, who then as now, took great pride in serving a good meal.

Jolanda food

In other words, by the time I left home, I did not know how to cook even an egg. Turns out, it never mattered. I had learned the important things through observation. My mother used to call out in her native Dutch: eat, this is healthy food, it will make you strong. We had no formal knowledge of vitamins, roughage or antioxidants. But I would no sooner have forgone fruits, vegetables, and dairy than I would have fed my cat a diet of marshmallows. Even during those unregulated days when I was a college student first living on my own, and cooking an actual meal was not one of the rhythms of my life, I would live on whole wheat bread and cheese, supplemented by the occasional banana, and would regularly dig into a can of unheated vegetables for a fix of health and strength. Brussels sprouts lifted out one by one with a fork and dipped in ketchup. Loving it, too, though even I’m having a hard time imagining that, now that my culinary tastes have developed somewhat beyond those early days away from my mother’s table.

After I got married, regular home-cooked meals became a part of our new togetherness, as naturally as all the other things that were a part of married life, like talking and making love. I enthusiastically started to experiment with recipes and ingredients both familiar and new, and discovered the joy not only of cooking, but of being responsible for a meal prepared with forethought and consumed with pleasure. This continued after the births of our four sons, though admittedly the menu did fluctuate somewhat with respect to age-related eating habits of the children, as well as state of exhaustion of the cook. There were days that we didn’t get beyond canned baked beans and chicken nuggets served with a sliced tomato and some yoghurt for desert. But in the weekends, there was time for serious cooking and eating. My sons were introduced to a wide pallet of tastes as soon as they had enough teeth to dig into the dish. None of them were picky eaters, though each developed a few dislikes. There were those who didn't like fish, or cilantro, or creamed spinach. Those who wanted blue cheese on everything, and those who didn’t. Because I could never keep straight who liked what, everyone was simply served whatever was cooked. And expected to eat it. Which they did, most of the time.

Getting my young and unruly family to sit down at the dinner table at the same time was rarely easy. For one, my husband’s time and energy were consumed so thoroughly by his career that his place at the table remained empty on weekdays for many years. There were sports, play dates, school activities and much more to incorporate somehow. It was, in short, something of a struggle to simply get everyone to show up. Still. There was never any doubt in my mind that there would be this communal evening meal. That TV and thumping music would be switched off and there would be talking, even on those days that underlying tensions and mini-power struggles turned conversation into something that could more fairly be described as argument.

I began to understand my mother’s longing for a break every once in a while, though. She had her own variation of a cook’s day off: every Saturday she served something the Dutch call a broodmaaltijd. A bread meal. Being my mother, although it is true that there was little actual cooking involved, I suspect she took just as much time to prepare it as a regular hot meal. There were three or four kinds of bread, trays daintily arranged with sliced boiled eggs, cucumber and tomato, various types of cheeses and cold cuts and fish, bowls of ripe strawberries. What made these meals so memorable was that this was a day less dominated by schedules, and we would sometimes sit at the table for hours, building the perfect sandwich, picking off those last olives, and taking the time to tell and listen and laugh at a good long story.

Despite excellent memories of the broodmaaltijd of my youth, this was not going to give me the kind of breather I was longing for now that I was cook for a family that kept me very busy, all the time. Back in those early days, we had a single car which my husband needed for work, so everyday activities for the rest of us involved a lot of walking. The boys were too young to be left home alone, and everyone came along to whatever was going on. One Friday, as usual, we were walking home from the gym where the two oldest boys had judo lessons. The baby was bathed and ready to be popped into bed as soon as we got home, strapped into the stroller in his little footsy pajamas, his 3-year old brother walking alongside with his hand clutching the side bar. The young judokas still wearing their white Gi uniforms underneath their coats. It was a chilly late-autumn evening, pitch dark at 5:00, a light drizzle falling. I was very tired. Suddenly, the thought of getting home and having to prepare a meal was overwhelming and on a whim, I stopped at our corner fast food joint to pick up french fries and other decidedly unhealthy deep-fried yellow food. Once we go home, we continued to break all the rules. Bags of food were placed on the coffee table and dug into, a favorite Disney film popped into the VCR. Bedtime came and went. We lounged and relaxed and chatted and enjoyed ourselves and dipped our fries into mounds of mayonnaise in the way preferred by the Dutch. Right then and there, Friday/Fast Food Day was born. The weekly movie was as much a part of this meal as the greasy food, and we all took turns picking one. In time I was introduced to the horror genre preferred by my sons, and they to my old favorites like “Grease” and “Out of Africa” - our tastes clearly differing but the shared experience always satisfying.

To this day, communal dinner at our home remains a fluid institution, adapting to the ever-shifting needs and coming and goings of a modern family, quite different from the strictly regimented meal of my youth. Though reality was often far removed from the sweet traditional utopia understood in, say, a Normal Rockwell picture, dinnertime has always been a magnet drawing and keeping us together. It was, for example, discovered by my hard-working husband as a way to spend joyful time immersed in family affairs once he decided Sunday was his cooking day. He flamboyantly cooked up self-invented dishes like Nasi Bassy, made of stir-fried whatever was in the fridge served over rice. Anyone in the mood was welcome to join in chopping and stirring, or put in special requests for that favorite spicy peanut sauce, or that side dish of stuffed giant portobello mushrooms. And when the boys started leaving home one by one to go to college, each would inevitably start out celebrating Everyday/Fast Food Day. They were surprised at how quickly they tired of it, and began to long for staples like green beans and boiled potatoes, and started tentatively preparing their own meals. It looks like the home-cooked meal is going to take root in the next generation, where it can continue to build healthy bodies, foster the joy of wonderful dishes and flavors, and build lasting bonds with those sharing the table. For me, this means remembering my mother's meals, the thousands served in my own home, and looking forward in anticipation to my children's own interpretations of the family dinner.

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