All aspects of culture are slaves of fashion, and cooking and by extension our relationship to food is no exception.
These days, food is wrapped up in emotion. You can see this especially in the way diet programs advertise, or in the way we talk about eating disorders. People either eat or don’t eat because their emotions compel them to. Contrast this with medieval notions of gorging and abstention, which were framed in terms of religion (for more on this topic, I would recommend Caroline Bynum’s seminal work Holy Feast, Holy Fast). When I say that the experience of food in the Middle Ages was framed by religion, I don’t mean that people turned to religion to tell them how to feel about food. Rather, people used the language of religion to make sense of their experiences – to justify, admonish, and process using a set of references that were so enmeshed in the culture of the time that they themselves didn’t need explanation because popular understanding of them was fluent. It’s like how you don’t need an explanation of what is supposed to be funny about an SNL skit that aired last week – you live in this time, you get its references and the forms in which it presents information, even if you don’t have a degree in comedy studies (is that a thing?). In the Middle Ages, religion was a common theme that most people (who wrote) understood well because most people who wrote were monks. So today’s framing of food in terms of emotion can similarly be seen as a common thread – for all that we talk about the emotional damage or unavailability of half the population, our current culture understands the language surrounding emotion and therefore interprets culture through the concepts of emotion (even the lack of emotion).
In the last few years, this trend of emotional food has really blossomed in the public face of cooking, most notably the Disneyfied brand that is the Food Network. From food tv stars to random line cooks who appear on Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives, every person on the Food Network has an emotional tie to food. And the story is almost always the same: food brings us together and makes us family, I as a cook feel food is important because a formative figure in my life shared cooking with me and that’s how I learned to express love. And this is very on-brand and consistent, but also pervasive throughout the current food culture more broadly, especially now that we’ve seen a resurgence in comfort food and “traditional” cooking methods [sidebar: I should write an essay about what is meant by the word traditional and why I hate it]. The problem for me (Robin) is that I have emotions attached to making food, but they’re not emotions akin to familial love. Yes, my parents and grandparents cooked for me and this was a kind of love. But cooking for me is much more about loneliness and learning to become self-sufficient, and frankly that’s a really uncomfortable story to hear and, to a certain extent, to share.
I always liked the alchemy of cooking (noticing a theme here?) – I liked the image of standing over a big pot with a long wooden spoon and mixing together something that would be greater than the sum of its parts. But I didn’t really learn to cook until I was in high school, and around that time I was alone a lot. My older brothers had all moved away, my parents were divorced, and both of my parents were going through extremely difficult life experiences that made them frequently absent. I would say without exaggeration that I lived alone for stretches of high school. And while on occasion I ordered pizza or bought prepared soup, I took this opportunity of being alone to make myself dinner. The first thing I remember making around this time was the creatively-titled “Tuna Pasta”, which is canned tuna, mayonnaise, chili flakes, and shell pasta, because I was alone in my dad’s apartment and that’s literally all he had in the cabinets. A feature of my parents’ absence was the fact that I had no spending money, so most of what I cooked around this time was scrounged from whatever I could find already in the house. Tuna Pasta became my regular lonely meal, and I still make it sometimes when I don’t know what to eat but I’m very hungry (although I now typically use egg noodles and hot sauce). For a long time after this period of my life, Tuna Pasta was deeply depressing to me – it represented a time when I was alone in a way that I should not have been as a teenager. I remember coming home from a theater rehearsal around 9pm one night in my senior year, riding the bus with another girl in my class. We were both exhausted and commiserating about how much work we had to do, and she said “I’m just really looking forward to whatever my mom made for dinner.” I think in retrospect I’ve cried about this moment, but at the time I was just quiet. I knew there was no way for me to explain that when I got home I was responsible for dinner for myself, and for my cats, and then studying and bed. There was no one to make me food, and by extension no one to take care of me.
It’s not that I’ve never had that loving connection to making food, but it’s never been uncomplicated. Even before my lonely teenage years, my dad was gone most of the time for work, and I was always keenly aware of how much my mom resented having all the domestic responsibility. I also noticed early on that I never saw her eat. I think for that reason food always seemed like a burden. It doesn’t help that my experience of eating is also burdensome. I always ate extremely slowly because there was always something more interesting going on that got in the way of eating, like a debate among my brothers or an interesting tv show. On top of that I have long-undiagnosed GERD, a form of severe acid reflux, which makes eating certain things and eating quickly painful or even sickening. When I was around 9 or 10 I transferred that idea of burdensome food preparation onto my grandmother. My grandmother also had a difficult time eating – she was already quite old and plagued with a limited heart disease-friendly diet. For most of my life she looked like a frail little bird. This frail bird was also responsible for hosting Thanksgiving, which was the only holiday my family actually celebrated. So I volunteered to help my grandmother prepare Thanksgiving, and for about five years my dad would drive me to Queens on Wednesday afternoon and I’d spend the next day and a half carrying groceries and lifting heavy pots of soup and turkeys. But through this experience of burden I also got that familial love – these special para-holiday events are how I got to spend time with my aunt who lived all over the place and would usually come in the day before, and they’re how I developed a relationship with my great uncle, who died soon after. They’re also how I connected to my family’s past, digging through the closets in my grandmother’s apartment – my first archaeological excavation. I discovered my mom’s childhood through LPs and shockingly sexy dresses, and I imagined my grandfather, whom I never met, through an old camera. But even in these moments of family, I was still alone – alone in my discoveries, alone a day later when everyone went home. Making food brought me closer to these people, but in almost an imaginary way.
Toward the end of high school and into college I really learned how to cook, and again it was at arm’s length from human interaction. Aside from necessity, I largely learned from the Food Network – Everyday Italian, Barefoot Contessa, and, of course, Good Eats. My teachers didn’t know me, couldn’t see me, and never tasted my food. But still, I was adopting their quirks and learning their preferences along with their skills. I was always eager to share this new skill with people, but I found more often than not that cooking for people was how I got taken advantage of, dine and dash style. Now I tend to be more guarded about sharing food. Cooking is still how I express love for my husband, and it’s one of the ways I’ve bonded with his mother. But it’s also been the site of a lot of emotional abuse and so I cook for people more sparingly.
For me, food is complicated. It will always be the case that my formative cooking experiences were based in loneliness and abandonment. I will always have those experiences of emotional abuse through cooking, even as they become less important and fade from memory. I will always have my grandmother’s slow decline tinting our special time cooking together. But right now I also have dinners with my husband and holiday feasts with my in-laws. In the future I hope to teach my kids to cook, as a kind of care I can pass on to them and that they can provide for themselves. I don’t know that I cognitively believe that cooking should be about familial love, but I think as a part of this society it’s hard for me to avoid that as an ideal. Even though that hasn’t been my lifetime experience of cooking, despite how important cooking has become as a skill, a hobby, a creative outlet, and even a topic of research, I guess I’m hoping that’s what it will become.