Mama Food

September 24, 2014

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Writing books and essays about food, I hear a lot of stories about what people ate growing up. Because cooking was mostly women’s work, those stories are almost always about mothers and grandmothers, and how the food made them feel – and how the memories of that food still do make them feel. There’s a longing for the reclamation of the food of our past and our childhood. The food of love roots deep in us – the food we were given as acts of love by others sticks with us, gradually releasing nutrients that feed us deep inside for years, decades afterwards. I call it Mama food, even though it does not have to be made by mothers.

I have treasured childhood food memories – my paternal grandmother’s peanut butter cookies, my great-grandmother’s Polish feasts, my father, who cooked his way through Julia Child and Craig Claiborne before there were blogs about such things. But I don’t have a deep memory of my mother’s Mama food, because my mother didn’t particularly cook. She does now, but she never enjoyed it, and when I was a child my father’s joke (which was probably more unkind than it had to be like most such jokes) was that like Woody Allen’s guitarist, my mother knew two recipes, one was tuna noodle casserole and one wasn’t. My father took over the cooking immediately, and was good at it, if a bit ponderous.

The reason, or perhaps one of the reasons my mother didn’t cook, is that I don’t think her mother cooked. Grandma’s cooking is much lauded in song and story, but as far as I can recall, I don’t think NeNe, my mother’s mother, ever cooked for us. She heated up food, but did not cook in the from-scratch sense that we think of when we talk about Grandmother food. My main memory of NeNe’s house is of Kentucky Fried Chicken, not then called KFC. It was a rare treat in our lives, and I loved it. I also have vague memories of rice-a-roni, and plenty involving Friendly’s ice cream. With Nene, you went out or ordered in, or opened a box of something. She was a loving grandmother, delighted to let you play with her cosmetics, take you shopping or for ice cream sundaes, but her love was not expressed in the kitchen.

If you think because I believe in fresh food I’m going to lament a mother or grandmother who didn’t cook, you are wrong. My mother made sure we ate healthy and balanced meals, cut up salad with first my father and then my step-mother to make sure there were vegetables. She married two accomplished cooks, my father and my step-mother, and it is their delicious food, by and large, that made me a cook. That is sufficient. My grandmother, often in the 50s and 60s a desperately impoverished single mother did the best she could – she opened cans and boxes that she had been told were the most modern, the newest and the best way to get nutrition. Later, she gave her grandchildren, who rarely ate fried food, the treat of fried chicken. It was good. It was Mama food, even if it came in a bucket, because it was bound up in love.

I don’t say this to critique them, but to make a larger point – I hear a great deal about “Mama Food” the food of our past, the food we try to reclaim when we are cold or lonely or sad or grief stricken or frightened. I hear a lot about grandmothers who canned and preserved and killed their own chickens, because that is what I do, and what I do reminds others of their past. But my own experience is different – and, at this point, probably more normative. I didn’t grow up on a farm. Fresh killed chickens were not part of my childhood vocabulary. My step-mother made strawberry jam every year, and we gardened a few years, but by and large, my Mama food was not the food of three or four generations ago – it was the food of the 1970s. And a lot of it came from a can or a box. In this, I am not alone.

That is, while we hear a lot about grandmothers who cook from the old country, many, maybe even most Americans have mothers and grandmothers who fed them conventional purchased and processed food, and THIS *IS* THE NOSTALGIC FOOD OF CHILDHOOD for millions. And that has a huge effect on how we eat now – because while previous generations may have eaten this food while secretly remembering or longing for or thinking too hard a menu of fresh and unpreserved food, we now live in a world where the idea of food is that love comes in boxes and buckets.

This may seem obvious, but it is important, because we are constantly trying to return to our lost past at dinner time, and yet the past is truly lost for many of us – that is, a generation that remembers real food as a point of origin is rapidly slipping away. It is no coincidence that most of my correspondents who write to tell me of their Mother or Grandmother are baby boomers, the generation of my parents, or immigrants.

This matters because you don’t cease to love the food of your childhood because it involves powdered orange cheese and and a box, you do not cease to have memories of love when the food is not nutritious or healing in a long-term sense. Moreover, most of us, if we did not fully learn to cook at someone’s knee, at least have a vague sense of how food is made. If no one cooks, no one learns to cook, or even what to do with whole ingredients.

Again, this may be obvious, but it strikes me that it is under-addressed in the question of where to now in the healthier food revolution. In my neighborhood, there is much shock and dismay over new school lunch guidelines – many gasps that adding carrots to the school lunch trays resulted in carrots in the garbage and complaints about the lack of junk food. Well intentioned people who have worked to bring affordable produce to neighborhoods who don’t have it – for example in our local program to put vegetables into convenience stores…find they get thrown away.

These programs are all new – the federal school lunch guidelines are only 2 years old, the convenience store program is only a bit over a year. And both of them are real and positive responses to serious problems, but expecting them to SOLVE the problems seems to be unrealistic. That is, the school lunch program can provide children with healthy food and change what is available to them – but it can’t teach them to love and choose and eat all those foods instantly and without difficulty. The convenience store produce program can make food available – but we are still dealing with the effects of a multi-generational lack of familiarity, knowledge and access to these foods, and expecting that to change overnight, or with a single program is bound to failure. The truth is that most of the children and families targeted in these programs see commercial, industrial food as the root food, their “Mama food” and that can’t be changed rapidly.

Because both my father and step-mother cooked, I grew up in a home where someone produced a home-cooked meal every single night after work. My father was a slow and laborious cook, and what I remember most was the frustration of waiting for him to make spaghetti sauce from scratch or make homemade mashed potatoes. But the food was good, even if it was late and we were tired and hungry when we finally ate, and the message was unmistakable – that dinner was important, that cooking was important, and that you held your appetite and waited until meals were provided. I don’t think I realized how tiring it must have been to come home and spend 2 hours on your feet making dinner after leaving the house at 6:15 to catch two buses to get to work – I wished we ate pizza out more often, or that we could eat potatoes from a box. But we never did, and it was good.

My step-mother Susie was more attentive to the needs of young children – meals came on the table and there were more and fresher vegetables, but it was the same thing – cooking was what you did. She came home from work and made shepherd’s pie and macaroni casserole and baked chicken. If my father’s cooking was laborious, heavy and Frenchish, hers was a combination of a 1950s Italian inheritance that valued fresh things and 70s cookbooks. But it didn’t matter WHAT it was, dinner mattered. I moaned that unlike all my friends I never at marshmallow fluff sandwiches or riceroni (except at my grandmother’s once in a while). I didn’t know how lucky I was – that I was getting, from my father and my step-mother, a Mama Food, a language and taste and nostalgia. It was good.

My mother, I suspect never had that – it is possible that her mother cooked more when she was young, but I don’t think so. But she knew enough to know that food mattered, and made sure someone else always made it work. She gave us a Mama food as well – even if it was cooked by others.

Mama food for many kids is orange macaroni from a box, instant oatmeal, poptarts, gogurt, KFC and Happy Meals. That is, this is the food they remember, that makes them happy, that makes them feel loved and comforted. And just as I know that love can come in a bucket of chicken or a box of minute rice from my own grandmother, and feel just as loving and just as real, we know it isn’t the quality of the food that makes it come with love. A single working mother who can’t really afford it and stops at the drive through because her kids are hungry now loves them, and is showing love. An older sister opening that box and shaking out orange powder on pasty macaroni is loving her younger siblings as she waits for her long-working parents to come home. Soup from a can is love after standing in line at the food pantry to get it for hours so you won’t miss the box that will feed your kids. HoHos are love when delivered by grandma on weekdays when she drops the kids off. It is, fundamentally, Mama Food, and it is good.

It is not, however, good for you, or good for the planet. It is not something that can go on forever, this centralizing and shipping and purchasing. It is not good for children and other living things, to paraphrase a hippie slogan. But it is real, and it is love, so we should not be shocked when no child ever says “Wow, I was just waiting for them to offer squash cubes instead of cupcakes” or “What the heck is this stuff.” We shouldn’t be surprised when people pass the pears and kale by at the convenience store – and that doesn’t mean the programs are failing. It is true that not having access is a real part of the problem. But it isn’t the whole of the problem, and we can’t expect our food culture to change instantly.

Changing your Mama food is a long term project – long, long, long. It depends on a million individual acts of personal change and cultural change. No one should be shocked when kids throw out their vegetables – because the process of getting them to eat them is one that can’t be done instantly. But that doesn’t make the federal lunch guidelines a failure – it means it is piece of a larger project of teaching people about food and food choices, and making them value those food choices.

Most of us don’t eat only what our parents ate – if you grew up in the 1960s, a majority of non-Japanese parents did not eat sushi – but I bet a lot of you do. Greek yogurt was not a child’s lunch box staple in the 1980s, but my sons see it as one. Mama food is not destiny – but it is a large piece of how we think about food, and if we want people to change, you don’t get that change instantly, or by denying that Mama and Papa love can be bound up in lots of kinds of food. Instead, we have to begin a very long-term process of education and opening up – one that includes changing what is offered at the table in many respects, and also includes understanding the cultural importance of the food we ate from the cradle, teaching people to cook and to eat differently – so that the next generations of children can eat differently, and it will be good.

Sharon Astyk

Sharon Astyk is a Science Writer, Farmer, Parent of Many, writing about our weird life right now. She is the author of four books: Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front, which explores the impact that energy depletion, climate change and our financial instability are likely to have on our future, and what we can do about it. Depletion and Abundance won a Bronze Medal at... Read more.

Tags: building resilient food systems, cooking from scratch, transforming food culture