Noticing my heightened interest in nutrition and meal choices, my mom encouraged me to cook dinner once a week for my family. Not only would it allow me the opportunity to spend time in the kitchen to prepare a meal, but my cooking would also encourage the family to eat healthier and lessen my mother’s burden of cooking. This suggestion came when I was fourteen. At first, I was very reluctant. What did I know about cooking beyond boiling water for pasta and reheating leftovers? Very little. However, I was willing to make the attempt and enter a domain that had long been foreign to me.
Admittedly, spending time in the kitchen initially induced a great deal of anxiety and fear. In high school, I became more conscious of the negative impact food could have on my physical appearance and behavior, and I came to realize the significance such factors could have on peer judgment. My relationship with food during my teens emphasizes Carole Counihan’s understanding about individuals’ concerns “with not eating too much or not letting food consume them. They fear losing the moral authority that comes from the self-control, and they fear the social condemnation that comes from being fat”. Food took this reign over me that created limits; I became so overwhelmed by the importance of nutrition and the negative aspects of my bodily image that I began to devalue food’s sensuousness. However, this all changed when I became a player in the kitchen.
It was because of my mom’s initiative that I dared to turn on the stove, and today I am forever grateful to my mom for encouraging me to begin cooking. Today, spending time in the kitchen is one of my greatest pleasures. I recognize now that during the course of my negative relationship with food, I had neglected to consider the effects my choices would have on my family. Often during this time, I would choose to boycott dinner or I would special order off a restaurant menu because I could not find anything that would suit my particular food rules. The food decisions had essentially created what Counihan described as a “battleground between parents and children.” Not only was I distancing myself from food, but also from the people I loved. Through cooking, I was able to re-establish a positive connection both with food and my family.
Cooking initiated a channel of communication between my family and I about food. This interaction reminds me of my earlier time in the school cafeteria. My family took on the roles of my peers; they became influenced by what I started cooking, and gradually all of us in the house became more willing to try different things. Previously, I had shunned certain foods and created new rules for myself while eating because of my great concern for my health. Cooking gave me the power to control exactly what I ate. This realization shifted the power of food back to me that I had previously relinquished. Additionally, I came to view cooking as a lively experiment, a comfortable method of exposure to food. As Julia Child once said, “You know what I love about cooking? I love that after a day where nothing is sure…you can come home and know that if you add egg yolks to chocolate and sugar and milk, it will get thick. It’s such a comfort.” Being in the kitchen encouraged me to try different ingredients and techniques of cooking to learn what was the healthiest satisfied my palate. There were no other influences on me, but I had the power to influence others with what I created. Knowing how to cook is a source of empowerment that greatly shapes my relationship with food today.
Eager to share my passion for food and cooking, as well as to thank her for her encouragement, this past Mother’s Day I gave my mom a gift certificate for a cooking class for the two of us. Taught by two local chefs, the class focused on cooking with wine. With my newfound love of wine and my eagerness to have any excuse to have a nice bottle in the house, I thought the class would be the perfect way to learn how to incorporate the liquid into our cooking repertoire. Among the items on the class’s menu: wine-poached tilapia, fish piccata, coq au vin, chicken Marsala, and the classic Italian custard zabaglione. The variety in the menu allowed us to learn how to incorporate those leftover bottles of white and red wines. Though there was little cooking done by us, we loved watching the two experts prepare the meal and listening to their explanations for their recipes techniques. And while the food was certainly delicious, the best part of the evening was being able to share one of my passions with the woman who inspired it.
Food is very complex and very personal, and the relationships that people have with food are equally complex and personal. There are no two people in the world who have the same set of rules of consumption. The many influences in one’s life that contribute to the formation of such rules include culture, beliefs, and societal pressures. In my own life, my peers, the power of reward, and social critique significantly shaped my food rules. As I grew older, food became less of a source of pleasure and more of anxiety. However, I was able to channel my concerns about health and nutrition through cooking and taking full control of my consumption. “Cooking,” says Michael Pollan, “is an activity that strikes a deep emotional chord in us, one that might even go to the heart of our identity as human beings.”