Every few years I get off track with my eating and have to hit the reset button. This is one of those years.
Somehow I missed out on the Joy of Cooking gene.
I’ve never been a foodie. I’ve never particularly enjoyed cooking, and for most of my childhood food was something to be picked at and suspicious of. Eating out was two small packages of french fries. I learned to cook from The New Betty Crocker Boys and Girls Cookbook, and the first things I learned to cook were cookies and lasagna. If it was in the Betty Crocker cookbook, then it had to be healthy food.
Growing up, my mother’s specialties were fried bologna and pinto beans (which I liked), and we ate a lot of Hamburger Helper and Shake and Bake. My dad loved to cook steak (which I still love) and we also ate a lot of noodles. Spam sandwiches were not uncommon. I think most of my friends pretty much ate the same way.
When I grew up and had kids of my own and became a Swiss housewife, it was like being thrown into a deep ocean with no life jacket. I had to tread a lot of water until I learned how to cook. There were different vegetables, different meats, and of course, their names were all in German. There were no days off, no fast food lunches, no take out. If I wanted pizza, I had to make it myself, crust and all. Two small children less than two years apart kept me too busy to enjoy cooking.
In essence, cooking was an endless three meal a day chore.
When I came back to the states and returned to college, with two kids in tow and minus the husband, meals were quick and easy. I was always broke, so we ate a lot of mac ‘n cheese with tuna (still one of my son’s favorites), fish sticks, and noodles. Between going to classes, studying, writing papers, raising the kids, and waiting tables at night, trying out new recipes wasn’t high on my list of things I had to get done.
Except for baking. One Christmas Break, a college friend and I went on a homemade chocolate chip cookie binge. She would come over to my small apartment on campus and we would make a batch of chocolate chip cookies and eat them straight out of the oven. A few days later, when we had eaten the last cookie, I would call up Jennifer and we’d make another batch. We must have done this four or five times in a row, until I noticed that my jeans were getting a little snug. I had just turned 30, and it was the first time in my life I realized I couldn’t eat what I wanted and not gain weight.
I know how lucky I was to make it to 30 before that happened.
When I started teaching, it became all consuming. Like most American mothers who try to do it all, something has to pay the price, and for me it was cooking. I hated it. It was boring. I didn’t have time. I still made sure the kids were well-fed, banned soft drinks during the school week, and limited junk food as much as I could, and I even dabbled in vegetarianism off and on. But cooking was always a chore. Grocery shopping was even worse.
Besides, there was always something more interesting to do than cook.
Eventually the kids grew up and left home. One became a near vegetarian and never drinks soft drinks, the other lives for junk food and drinks sodas like a fish. I take full blame for both.
Without the kids around to feed I took up new interests, like running. I started to think of food as fuel for my runs and tried to eat healthier. Running, however, created a carbohydrate junkie. I craved carbs and sugar, especially after runs over 15 miles, and I constantly worried if I was eating enough carbs. Even training for a marathon, I couldn’t figure out how I could run 35-40 miles per week and still gain weight.
It was ironic that I could run so much, all in the name of health, but put crap in my body. I ate whatever I wanted. I foolishly thought that running would protect me from the ill effects of a poor diet.
Running in the evenings meant even less time to cook for myself. At the pre-race pasta dinner before my second marathon, I sat across from a new friend who loved to cook. After talking about the dinners she and her husband loved to cook the most, she turned to me and asked don’t you just LOVE to cook? When I told her I didn’t, I could see the friendship train roll to a slow stop.
The bottom line is, either I’m completely uninterested in eating, or it’s all I can think about.
Now that I have more time on my hands, I began to wonder, what is the perfect diet? What exactly is healthy food? Is meat good or bad? Are carbs good or bad? How bad is sugar? Why do I crave sodas and sweets? What exactly is healthy food?
I think poor eating, fast food, and processed foods are all symptoms of our too busy lives. No one has time to cook, or even think about, their health and the choices they make about what they eat. I was just like everyone else, too busy–and too lazy–to care about what I ate.
As I almost always do when faced with a problem, I started reading. I discovered that you can find research supporting just about any “healthy” diet that exists. Low carb, high carb, low protein, high protein, vegan, vegetarian, you name it. I read In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan. I liked his common sense approach to the issue. I bought Alton Brown cookbooks.
We started a garden, and grew herbs.
Growing your own food is like an awakening. For perhaps the first time in your life you discover how vegetables and fruit are supposed to taste. If you make only one change in your life, I recommend you start a garden. Grow something, even if it’s nothing more than fresh herbs. You’ll be amazed at the deliciousness.
Now I make time to actually think about what I put in my body. It’s all about eating healthier, and it goes beyond eating organically. We need to eat with thought: how far did this food travel to get to my kitchen? How much nutrition was lost on this journey? How much energy was expended getting it to my plate?
Last fall I was shopping in a small, local grocery store that has a fairly good selection of organic food. As I walked towards the back of the store to the produce section, I stopped in my tracks. I could smell the apples. It was surprising to actually smell something that good. They were so fragrant, and I couldn’t remember ever having smelled apples like that in a store before. Ever. To me, apples are boring, and flavorless, but I bought a few that day. They were the best apples I’ve ever eaten.
This was a good reminder: All food should smell good!!!
Along with this new awareness of how food should really taste, there is now a desire to cook. I’m taking baby steps, and much of the preparation is still tedious, but I’m enjoying the overall pleasure in good, healthy food. The biggest change I’ve made diet-wise is to cut out almost all sugar. No more soft drinks, no more deserts, and no junk food. I eat a lot more whole grains, too. In essence, I don’t eat processed food, and that means I have to cook. I keep it simple, and try to use fresh ingredients. I’ll never be Julia Child in the kitchen, but I’m starting to love the adventure of building a great meal, from scratch, from beginning to end.
The other day I happened to notice on my calendar that this Sunday is Grandparents’ Day. This made me think of my grandmother, Moss, who always makes me think of chicken and dumplings. In my humble opinion, there’s no greater comfort food than chicken and dumplings, and no one made it like Moss. Anytime we visited her in Idabel, Oklahoma, I would always ask her to make it for me, despite my mom’s protests. I can’t remember a time that Moss refused.
Moss got her name from my little cousin Stevie, and I think it came from saying Grand-MA’S, which eventually turned into Ma’s, then Moss. You know how these nicknames come about. Moss used to tell me that one day I would be a teacher, and she was right. She always had my Big Chief writing tablet waiting for me when we came to visit, and I would find a spot to sit and write plays, stories, poems, or whatever else came to mind. While I wrote, she was in the kitchen with my mom, making chicken and dumplings. I was a skinny kid, and she was always trying to fatten me up.
Both my mom and dad are from Broken Bow, and my sister and I were born in the nearest town that had a hospital, Idabel. Broken Bow was tiny, and they left there for Dallas shortly after my sister was born. They went back often, and we had lots of aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins in Broken Bow. I hated those three and a half hour drives, but my little sister and I always had tons of fun playing with our cousins once we got there. I learned to ride a bike in Broken Bow (thanks Becky), tried to learn to water ski (never successful), and huddled in a root cellar to dodge a tornado once (it was scary). We spent every major holiday in Broken Bow, had the best Easter egg hunts ever, and I now realize those were golden years.
One Friday we left Dallas to spend the weekend in Oklahoma. I was 13. Idabel, where Moss lived, is about a 20 minute drive down the road from Broken Bow, and was always our first stop. We stayed for awhile to visit, and I decided to spend the night with Moss while the rest of the family drove over to Broken Bow. Moss and her friend were going to go see a movie and I wanted to go with them. At the very last second, just as my family was backing up the car, I changed my mind. I wanted to go stay with cousins Keith and Becky instead.
The next morning, we were playing in one of the back bedrooms and the phone rang. I don’t remember the particulars of what was said, but I knew something was wrong because my mom started crying. I just sat there, listening, knowing something was wrong, and I think my dad came in to tell us what had happened. Moss and her friend had been killed in a car accident on the way home from the movie. Someone had rear-ended their car on the highway and they lost control. The police thought it was probably a drunk driver.
I remember Keith telling me it was okay to cry. I didn’t. I pretended nothing was wrong. But inside, I was thinking, what if I had spent the night? Would it have made a difference?
The rest of the weekend was a blur and I don’t remember much. I chose not to go to her funeral because I wanted to remember her alive. I think I wasn’t ready to let go. I don’t remember when I finally cried, but a few years ago, when I drove through Idabel to visit family in Broken Bow, the memories of Moss and that weekend came flooding back and I cried like my heart was breaking. Maybe that was the first time I truly cried from losing her.
She was gone way too early. Moss always loved and accepted me, and she didn’t care if I was skinny, or quiet, or mean, or bossy. She bought me finger paints, and she made me chicken and dumplings. I don’t remember her ever raising her voice, or getting angry, or being impatient. All I remember is love.
So yesterday I found a recipe and started cooking. I had only attempted chicken and dumplings once before, when I lived in Switzerland in the 80’s and craved something from my past. None of the Europeans were very impressed with my Southern comfort food.
This time I was older, a more experienced cook, and there was purpose behind the intent. I wanted to honor Moss and all the times she had made me such a time consuming dish for no other reason than she knew it would make me happy.
After the shock of eviscerating a chicken (I knew I should’ve gotten the cut up fryer), and frying it up for a nice brown crust (making me realize there’s a reason fried chicken has always been so popular), things got easier. The entire dish wasn’t difficult at all, but it was time consuming. It took me about 3 hours from start to finish, but it was worth it. Even Michael liked it, Ohio Yankee that he is (he still doesn’t like okra, though).
Was it as good as Moss’s chicken and dumplings? No, nothing will ever compare to that. Hers was infused with love for her children and grandchildren, the special ingredient that only grandmothers own. One day I hope to carry on the tradition and make chicken and dumplings for my grandchildren, without even thinking twice about it, and I’ll tell them all about their great-grandmother Moss, and how much she loved me.
I can’t wait!