Food and Interconnectivity

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.



Eat Your Veggies! And other thoughts

  1. Here is a picture of our boy’s lunch today.  The salad includes Romaine and iceberg lettuce, baby spinach, tomatoes, beets, cucumbers, carrots, and a little sprinkle of Trader Joe’s Quatro Formaggio.  All of the ingredients were at his request (well almost, I snuck in the spinach) and he ate it with only reasonable reminders to eat.  Proud Mama?  You betcha!

I was having a conversation with another mom the other day and she mentioned how jealous she was that I don’t have to struggle to get my son to eat veggies.  This got me thinking, because we do have food struggles.  Not everything is as easy and wonderful as I might wish or as might appear from the outside, but perhaps I do have something to say on the subject.

I must begin with an admission, I am shameless in the use of dessert to inspire him to eat something he isn’t fond of.  The other day I was tired and pressed for time and didn’t give him a vegetable.  He came to me and asked for it so that he could earn dessert.  We have been very consistent with this rule and it has saved so many headaches, whine fests, and power struggles.  He knows that if he doesn’t eat his vegetables and a reasonable amount of protein, then he cannot have dessert.  It does mean that I have to have something on hand that he likes enough to inspire him as a reward.

There are a fairly large number of veggies he won’t touch for any reward including: onions, olives, peppers of any kind, and avocados.  Who doesn’t like avocados?  There are more, I just can’t think of them at the moment.

He has also, and this gets to the real reason I am writing this, moved away from eating Mexican food.  He used to be happy with frijoles, enchiladas rancheras, sopa de arroz and many other traditional dishes as long as they weren’t too spicy.  It now takes serious cajoling to get him to even try dishes with those flavors.

I swore that I would not be one of those people who catered to their children and fixed different meals for different family members.  I am getting too tired to fight it very strenuously anymore.  My husband and I really enjoy the traditional dishes and like to make them fairly regularly.  Having to pressure a tired child to eat really puts a damper on our enjoyment of our own meal, especially since he will eat a salad or something equally nutritious with little prompting.  I don’t enjoy the extra work a second meal requires, but it makes my husband really sad to see his son rejecting the dishes mi suegra (mother in law) taught us how to make.  For my husband, food is love, and rejection of food is in some way a rejection of that love.  It is like our boy is rejecting the abuelita he never met and that is painful.

We will continue to expose him to food of all kinds and will insist that he at least try everything prepared for him.  Our hope is that, over time, those flavors will become a part of him.  He still gets a significant number of meals prepared by my family.  The food he eats there, and the rules about food are somewhat different than at my house.  He still eats well and understands that different rules apply in different situations.

My strategy for dealing with the times that he does not want to try something I would call firmly passive.  I don’t cajole or buy into his whining.  He has to taste everything on his plate and I will tell him what I expect him to eat.  If he does not, then he does not get dessert or any other food until it is time for the next meal.  This works for us because it takes all of the emotional force out of the equation.  He is generally willing to please and, most of the time, he eats a balanced meal.  One day not too long ago, I prepared a salad for him very similar to the one he ate today and he didn’t eat it.  After an hour or so, I wrapped it up and put it in the refrigerator.  He got the same salad for dinner.  There was no battle, just a quiet persistence.

I remember once, I was in probably fourth grade, that I sat at the dining room table for an entire afternoon refusing to take one bite of icky, slimy, nasty fish.  I don’t remember who won that battle, I think I must have finally caved, or managed to feed enough to the cat when my mom was out of the room to serve honor on both sides.  My mom would not have backed down, she has a will of iron under that gentle exterior.  I do know that it took being served rainbow trout that I had caught just before, and had been cooked over the campfire to get me to begin to like fish.  That was the only kind of fish I would eat for years.  Just thinking of that fish, lightly dredged in flour and fried in a cast iron skillet, makes me want to go fishing.  My mouth is watering right now.

I thought about that incident when figuring out how to approach food with my son.  I feel that it is counter productive to make food a battle ground but it is very important that he learn to love vegetables and to eat well.  Not one of the adults in his life is at a healthy weight, so there is a real worry that he will pick up our bad habits.  My parents talk about their diet all the time and that worries me as well.  I have no desire to convey to him an obsession with food in any way.  One of the reasons that I have chosen the approach I take is to take the emotion out of food.  There is no guilt or emotional blackmail and he can listen to his body and stop when he is full.   It is important to me that food is not fraught as he grows so that hopefully he can have a healthy attitude about food as an adult.

How do you approach food?  How do you get your children to eat their veggies?  How do you deal with picky eaters?  How does food play into keeping your ethnic heritages and passing them on to your kids?  Have you faced any similar issues?  What have you done about it?

OK, I am off to make dinner, Chile con Carne if you are wondering.


My son's lunch.  And he ate it!
My son’s lunch. And he ate it!