John Lanchester’s recent New Yorker piece, Shut up and eat, made me think a lot about why food is so important to me – why I well up with tears sometimes and cry just thinking about it. I know that seems strange. But food, for me, just like for Lanchester, is all about my mother.
Lanchester’s mother, as he describes her in the piece, was very like mine in many ways. My mother was a smart, ambitious woman, born into an era where ambition for women was moulded into motherhood and housewifery. She had a Master’s in music from a prestigious university, trained as an opera singer and spent several years touring as a professional. My father said that this is what she really wanted to do. Instead, maybe because it was 1950s America, she got married and became a professor’s wife, had four children, taught music on the side and became a fabulous cook. As Lanchester writes of his mother, food was a way to define her sense of who she was.
My mother was a consummate entertainer and dinner parties with smart conversation were a feature of our household. They always entailed three courses and she often spent the entire day cooking. She made bread, she made pasta, she made yoghurt, jam and granola, she baked cakes. The only thing she never mastered was sandwiches – as a child, my lunches always held a stodgy wet sandwich marinated in too much mayonnaise. I loved them anyway, because I loved her.
But the most amazing thing my mother did was to put a good home-cooked meal on the table every night of the week. The family dinner table – the act of sitting down together as a family and sharing our main meal together – was excessively important in our home. There was no missing dinner two nights in a row; if you were out one night, you had to be there the next. It was a family rule. The dinner table was a place for talk, opinions, arguments and a lot of laughter. My experience of it still exists in every atom of my body and what my mother provided us with, as we sat and ate, is amongst the most important things she gave me.
It’s much harder to eat together these days. Both in the United States and the United Kingdom, sitting down together at the dinner table happens much less frequently. Our lives have become busier – more women work outside of the home, work is more demanding and the workday ends later. Kids are much busier with after-school activities. Although we know that eating together should be sacrosanct, other pressures have taken over. But research has found that not eating together is bad for children: it has psychological and physical impacts, increasing both truancy and obesity. When families do eat together five times a week or more it makes a huge difference – children do better in school, have fewer problems with drugs and alcohol, and eat more healthily.
I can’t help feeling that all the good things that come from eating together is because of one simple thing that I know in my heart from my mother. Food is love. It was one of the many ways that I knew my parents loved me – because they fed me well (what could be more fundamental?) and took the time to sit down and be with me, fully and completely present. They did this for themselves as much as for me, because it was an important part of what made us a family and cemented our bonds.
The writer Cody C. Delistry writes about the importance of eating with his father as a child, after his mother died and his brother moved out of the family home. “There was something special about setting aside time to be with my father. It was therapeutic: an excuse to talk, to reflect on the day, and on recent events… Eating together was a small act, and it required very little of us — 45 minutes away from our usual, quotidian distractions — and yet it was invariably one of the happiest parts of my day.” This everyday act of eating remade his family.
John Lanchester’s piece about his mother is also about the ordinariness of food, and his concern is that we have elevated it beyond what it should be with its fashions and celebrities. He takes issue with Alice Water’s statement that ‘eating is a political act’ and argues that to believe this is to sap the power out of politics. He is definitely right that our relationship with food, on a global level, is more than a little dysfunctional. But eating offers us a microcosm of the big picture. The why, how and what we eat is, for me, among the most important acts of daily life: these everyday lived experiences shape the bigger politics of the world, so you cannot separate the two. The small and intimate level of our daily living matters as much as the worldly global politics of food. Lanchester realises this when he writes at the close of his piece:
“Tonight, I’m making spag bol, for the zillionth time… My kids will love it; they always do. Cooking it will remind me of my mother; it always does. She didn’t think she was saving the world by cooking. But she did know that it was part of the process by which she saved herself. That goes for a lot of us. To me, that’s significance enough.”
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