Friday, November 26, 2010

Food Rules!

by Sheila Connolly

Heirloom tomatoes
Michael Pollan sent me an email this week. In case you aren't familiar with him, he writes "books and articles about the places where nature and culture intersect" (that's what his website says). Several of the books have been bestsellers, including The Omnivore's Dilemma and The Botany of Desire (which opened my eyes to what Johnny Appleseed was really up to). I've read some of these because I write fiction about raising, distributing and consuming apples. That's why I signed up for his intermittent newsletter.

Last year he published Food Rules, which provides 64 rules for eating well. Now he wants to update it and include more contributions from readers, so he sent out that email asking for rules that we have found "memorable and useful," possibly passed down within the family.

I'd love to participate, but then I realized that my family didn't cook, or more accurately, nobody up the line invested a lot of emotional energy into cooking. I know, nobody said you had to be in love with food in order to cook, and I did survive childhood in reasonably good health. But it wasn't until I left home that I discovered (to borrow a phrase) the joy of cooking.

It's kind of a sad history:

My mother: When I was growing up, she was a good plain cook. We ate protein/starch/veg every night. We ate chicken, but rarely fish. At least the meat wasn't overcooked and the vegetables were usually fresh rather than frozen–I'll give her points for that. I don't think she tried making a tomato sauce until after I had left for college. When I was younger, I remember her making cakes and pies, but they kind of disappeared along the way, replaced by omnipresent ice cream.

My mother's mother: She never learned to cook, or at least, never admitted it. She was raised as a foster child, and while I know she acquired a lot of domestic skills (she was a manic cleaner, and excelled at hand-sewing), somehow cooking escaped her. She could make fudge, meatloaf and gravy. Period. Each was good, but it was a kind of limited repertory. I can remember early on when my parents went away and she babysat for my sister and me, our dinners usually consisted of ice cream and cereal. Hey, we thought it was fun!

My mother's father: He died of a heart attack at 44, brought on in no small part by his life-long affection for cream and butter. In the last decade of his life he decided he wanted to be a dairy farmer; he chose the breed for his herd based on the fat content of the milk. Of the top dairy cow breeds, he just had to have Guernseys, which have the second highest butterfat content, right after Jerseys. Not a good role model. (Maybe that's where the family ice cream tradition came from.)

My mother's grandmother (since her mother was orphaned, my mother knew only one grandmother): There I draw a total blank. I can't remember any mention of her in conjunction with food. Since she was a woman of some physical substance, I have to assume she ate, but I have no idea what. No treasured family recipes have come down from that side.

My father's family: They were Irish. I never knew my father's parents, but his sister was of the school that produced a tunafish casserole every Friday, made with cream of something soup, with crushed potato chips sprinkled over. My father never talked fondly of the wonderful meals shared around the family table. There was a rumor that one of his aunts was a cook for a renowned family in New York, but I never tasted her cooking. Actually, another aunt did leave a few scribbled recipes–I'll have to drag them out and try them.

So, Michael, I'm having a hard time answering your call. And I really want to. I have taken your advice to heart. I frequent local farmers markets and chat with the farmers. I try new vegetables whenever I find them (would you believe six different kinds of eggplant?). I compost. I have an organic garden (that grows badly because it doesn't get enough sun) and four apple trees (that haven't produced a single apple yet). I'm trying, really I am.

If there is any wisdom I can pass along, it's that we should savor our food. Don't just fill your stomach–taste what you're eating! And if it doesn't have any flavor, or tastes like nothing nature intended, go out and find something better!


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Love the post, Sheila. My Hungarian grandmother was a fabulous Hungarian cook, but her American daughters ordered her to cut out the fat-rich recipes before I was born. She was a lousy American cook. My Irish husband got an A on an hilarious essay for freshman English entitled, "My Mother's Meatloaf." Genre? Horror!

Sandra Parshall said...

The trouble is... the better it tastes, the more I eat. Sometimes I think I'd be lucky if I lost my sense of taste!

Paul said...

Pollan is an excellent writer, and he gets well informed about his subjects, but it seems that lately he's just been singing one note: the whole food story. I'm hoping he branches out again.

(You're right about the Johnny Appleseed enlightenment though. If there were nothing else to that book, The Botany of Desire would be thoroughly worthwhile for that revelation alone!)