Food Courage, No Judgment

Summer in Aroostok County, Maine. Photo by E. Howard

This is a plow and field, where food comes from.

This weekend, the kids and Colin and I went to New Jersey for the first time, (barring a visit to Newark airport) to visit a family of friends.

It’s sort of rare to meet another family with more than two or three kids these days, so we immediately magnetized to Alma and Brian and their four kiddos when we met them on a cruise last winter.

Our little ones bonded at Kids Camp and were inseparable anyway, so we were bound to end up chatting.

The husbands ended up both loving poker.

Alma and I bonded over blogging and food.

Alma is “into” food, but not in the same way I am. While I am sort of a small-time ranter about the disgusting state of school lunches, the importance of eating organic, and how amazed I am that my kids eat the things that grow in our garden, I am in no way organized, nor do I really always live by my own credos.

Alma is kind of like a kitchen shrink. Literally, she helps people — often addled Moms like me — overcome their fears with cooking.

Take Back the Kitchen sneaks up on you, adorable with its health-food packed quinoa and kale, this-and-that, but Alma and her radiant smile bring more than recipes.

It is all about rewriting our personal food history. Alma addresses psychological attachments to food, our gender issues when comes to being tied to the kitchen in an apron. And so much more.

She sometimes calls herself Rachel Ray meets Dr. Phil, but she’s got a good hit of Ani diFranco in there too! Take Back the Kitchen— which is now expanding into non-profit status in the form of “Give Back the Kitchen” — asks us an important question: What is YOUR issue with food? And how does it affect what you serve/cook in your house?” It also asks: how has that impacted deeply the way our society — rich and poor — experience food?

Alma Schneider and the kids I bet you have an issue with food. I did. Er, do. Alma told me: “EVERYBODY has a story to tell about eating!” So here goes mine…

As a kid, I didn’t eat any veggies or fruit. I literally gagged on iceberg lettuce. My brain just did NOT like the idea of anything that grew out of the ground.

I do not know why.

My mom hated to cook, and made no bones about it. It was a chore for her to make three meals a day for 8 people after getting home from work.  She didn’t like to do it.

Like any mom of the ’70s, she was thrilled to indulge in convenience foods. Frozen and canned and packaged made her very content.

That food tasted awful to me. Fishsticks were like torture. I hated casseroles flavored with mostly uncooked onions and cream of mushroom soup. We never had fresh veggies, except the aforementioned iceberg lettuce, and corn in the summer.

Fast forward to my 20s and I started waiting tables in the food industry. Not Pizza Hut but a REAL restaurant.

I served food that not only LOOKED beautiful, but had all sorts of amazing flavors and fresh ingredients.

I worked under Chef Tony Trinidad with the then-edgy Pacific Rim cuisine. As part of my job, I had to try all these dishes! Coconut Curry Soup. Maui Onion soup. Spring Greens salad with parmesan crisp and just a spritz of an olive oil-based dressing. Steamed seabass. Sliced Strip steak with wine reduction sauce with more onions and garlic! Salt and pepper calamari.

No. I didn’t eat very much of this food. I did however LOOK at it and SMELL it for days and weeks and months, and my brain said: “Boy does that look good. I’d like to eat that.”

My brain also said: “I can’t eat that.”

No to fishsticks = no to seabass.

No to iceberg drenched in ranch = no to gorgeous greens.


Then came Colin.

Colin made scrambled eggs for breakfast one day and that’s how he found out I didn’t eat. Anything.

“You don’t like eggs?” he asked.  He didn’t yell at me. He didn’t even have a hint of judgment in his voice. He just sounded — like Colin — mildly surprised.

“Well, you should try them sometime.” And then he proceeded to douse his own with Tabasco. (Gross! I thought at the time. Guess how I eat my eggs now???)

Over the course of the years I have been with Colin, the best gift he has given me was the perfect combination of food courage and no judgment. 

I was well primed and ready to try new foods. I just needed someone who knew something about all these flavors and foods to show me the (gate)way.

When we went to the Indian restaurant on 39th street, he chose the dishes he knew I would like. When we went for Thai food, he ordered around my issues with texture. And slowly, I added new items to my plate: jumping from spring rolls to summer rolls, from medium-rare steak to carpaccio to tuna sashimi to the easy leap to sushi.

But now we’ve moved on. We don’t eat out now… we eat in. We cook. More specifically, I cook.

Out of necessity, I’ve had to take on the cooking duties at our house. After all, I’m home with the kids and the refrigerator and the stove and the knife block.

And I am trembling just thinking about this.

I hate to cook, I hear, like a refrain in my head. Only I know that it’s not me singing that refrain.

It’s my mom.

How do I feel about cooking?

I am not sure yet. In the last year since the bulk of the cooking duties have fallen to me, I have tried (not always too well) to just be neutral about it. I don’t want my kids to identify MOM as the cook or DAD as the breadwinner. Or vice versa. I want them to see us as a team in the kitchen, both enjoying the business of getting good, homemade food on the table, without too much fuss.

And then, when they are a bit older, I want them to cook too. We’ve already started having them help get their own breakfast.

Eventually, they will help build their packed lunches too. (Can’t bring myself to let them do that yet!)

One thing that Alma presses in her TEDx Montclair talk, “Why Aren’t We in the Kitchen?”, is finding a system or approach that works for you. I think Colin and I did that. Here’s what I have learned from my journey so far:

  1. Even after finding an approach that works, it doesn’t take the pain out of the change. It’s still fills me with anxiety. However, I try to remember the feelings I have (physical recollection!) of when I am praised for something I have made. Admittedly, that usually happens more readily with guests than with my kids!
  2. Do a little at a time and protect myself. The parts I find stressful (packing lunches, for example) I just do by myself without having the kids help right now. I don’t want help when I am already on the edge. And it is OK if I don’t fix all my problems today. Trust me… I won’t, so I don’t bother trying. I enjoy that Tombstone pizza now and again, and don’t feel guilty about it.
  3. For me, it has been a long-long-long term process. Changing how I eat has been coming on since my 20s when I sat on the balcony at my apartment, boo-hooing to my friend Stephen about how depressed I was that I had a shitty relationship with food. That was 18 years ago. I am still working on it. So I…
  4. Praise myself, out loud, whenever I can, to whoever will listen. I have to give myself credit for the good I have done to change my habits. Mostly because like all change, this path isn’t a straight line. I’ve gotten better in the last few years at not being so hard on myself, but not all the time.
  5. It’s good to have a kind partner. In the end, I credit my excellent choice in Colin as a partner and husband for many of the changes I was able to sustain. He supported my desire to change my eating habits all the way, but never in a demeaning or forceful way. If I bought a bottle of green juice and it went bad because I never drank it, he didn’t say a word. He is always kind. I appreciate him for that.

So Alma, thanks for your beautiful work in helping people who are stuck to take back the kitchen. It is amazing how bizarro in our minds food can become.

Nothing, however, is more beautiful than lentils and brown rice and fantastic spices.

Who knew I would ever say that??

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