I touched on the subject of the interaction of emotion with food in a previous post, but I thought it really deserved a more thoughtful look. Food is connected to emotion in a very powerful way. Sometimes the act of preparing food a particular way becomes a statement of identity. Food can be an act of love or a bone of contention. It has been both in my life. Many of our most difficult marital negotiations have centered around food, who prepares it, what gets prepared, choices about taste and nutrition, etc.
My mother in law expressed love for her family through food. She was an amazing cook who could recreate a dish after tasting it once, and often her version was better. She lived on three or four hours of sleep per night for much of her adult life so that she could be sure that her family ate well, in addition to all the other obligations of raising nine children, working and keeping house.
By the time my husband came around, he is the baby of the family, she was suffering from a serious heart condition and could no longer work in the fields. It didn’t stop her from doing all of the other things expected of a woman of her time and culture. She thought it absolutely necessary to have the ability to feed anyone who came to her home at the drop of a hat and spent a lot of time making sure that she could. Life and food and love were completely intertwined. Because of this, my husband grew up equating food with love in a very deep way.
For mi suegra, was both a point of pride and an act of love to always feed her crew. Financial hardships dictated that sometimes that meant bean tacos, but she was amazingly creative with the resources that she had. She also had cooperative reciprocal relationships in the community that had been cultivated over the years. She was known as “la abuelita” (little grandmother) in the community because she acted like a surrogate grandma to anyone younger than her. When I came to live with her, we would regularly deliver food to her friends, and regularly receive food from them. This is tomato season, and we would often open our front door to buckets of tomatoes left anonymously. We would then can one to two hundred quarts of tomatoes for use the rest of the year and the salsa made from those tomatoes would go to others as well. The community takes care of its own, especially the elders. It is an incredibly tight knit community with food playing a major role in the currency of communal exchange.
This is somewhat true in all cultures, more true in the more rural areas of the U.S. where my extended family lives than where I grew up. I was in a major metropolitan area and mutual support in the practicalities of life was much less pronounced in the community I knew. My parents moved states away from their families as young adults, so those natural networks didn’t exist either.
For me, food has always been a source of fuel or sensory experience. I enjoy the subtle differences in flavor and texture found in good food. I really like to eat. On the other hand I can ignore my body’s cues for food if I am doing something more interesting and can resent the time it takes out of my day. I could be riding bikes with my child or building something or writing or reading or any number of other, much more compelling activities. I enjoy the zen of a cooking project, but would give it up in an instant if I could afford help. I would hire a cook long before a housekeeper or gardener. If I could be free of the daily obligation of feeding other people I totally would.
I take some pride in being able to carry on the tradition of the food of my mother in law. She taught me many dishes and I can replicate them faithfully. I can follow a recipe successfully, and even modify it, but I cannot look at a bunch of disparate ingredients and come up with something yummy. That TV show Chopped would not be for me. I am not a particularly creative cook, but I learned her techniques for those dishes and my versions rival any others I have encountered. It is kind of cool to be the white girl who can make versions of Mexican dishes that are really appreciated in the Mexican community.
In the community of la abuelita, a concerted effort is made by all to keep those connections alive, often with food. Each time food is exchanged, there is a reciprocal obligation created. Most of the time it is a direct one to one reciprocity, but often it also works on the pay it forward principle. If you are known to give into the community, then the community also supports you. Those exchanges aren’t always food, often people would show up to help with a garden, or to fix a fence, or give rides, or anything else that needed doing.
Since la abuelita has passed away, we have allowed ourselves to slowly drift away from those communal connections. Part of that stems from the fact that many of those connections were with older folks who have since passed on, but a shameful part is that we no longer have la abuelita to push us to keep those connections alive. The hustle and business of daily life gets in the way and we have not been good about making an effort to stay connected outside of the family. We also don’t cook that good traditional food nearly as often, so have fewer opportunities to share. However, I have to admit that we cooked tamales just last week, had more than we could possibly eat, meant to take some to a couple of people, and never did. I just put the last of them in the garbage last night and I feel so guilty, that was a lot of work and an opportunity for connection that I just threw away.