Sunday, September 13, 2009

Things you learn from old photographs

This is my Uncle George. Perhaps the most normal member of my family.

Notice that he is eating. Now my Uncle George is slim, very slim. Yet if I look through my photo album at photos of my slender Uncle and Aunt, they, and their skinny (blonde) kids--my cousins--are quite often eating at family occasions. Half-eaten, homemade cakes, meals in progress like this one.

None of the anxiety that surrounded food when I was growing up.

My parents ate out. A lot. My mother hated to cook, and my father loved to eat, so that was the compromise--she didn't have to prepare food (after slaving to clean the house--and her mother's house, plus do all the yard work, take care of me all day) and my father had access to lots of food. As a result, as this was in the days before food blogging and people taking photos of every bite of their meal to blog about it, there are very few pictures of mom, dad, and me as a family eating.

I didn't realize that cookies came from flour, not mixes or boxes, until embarrassingly late. I was in college, and shocked to see someone even make pancakes from substances that didn't have a politically incorrect African-American woman on the front. We served McDonald's at my birthday parties (look closely at the picture of my friend) or pizza from an incredible Italian pizza parlor nearby (hello, NJ and Carvel ice cream cakes.

Of course we loved it--kids and family alike--but it taught me some bad lessons. Food was something prepared by other people so it could rapidly be taken away. Good food was rich, exotic, caloric, and tasty, unlike the bland fare we at at home. Good food was theatrical like a cake, something like broccoli was meant to be eaten plain, as penance. My mom, especially, who lived her life for other people, wanted someone to do something for her, just for her, in a restaurant--usually grill a steak.

Even now, cooking is something I struggle with. Oh, I cook food of course, but despite all of the 'Cooking for One' books that exist, I'm still apt to subside on fruit and veggie burgers for weeks at a clip, experimenting with different combos, textures, and levels of doneness, yet, but the idea of pan-searing with a whisper of flour seems strange to me. When I lived with my mother and I cooked, and it was just us, sometimes I'd put on spagetti for her, which I detest--spagetti and canned red sauce, usually--and she'd say, make the whole all at once, then I can just eat it over the week. Who cares if it gets gummy and only takes ten minutes to boil?

Cooking food, I was taught, was too much trouble.

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