My relationship with food is a long, almost comedic-like one. Something like a “Big Fat Italian Wedding” or “Maria & Tony’s.” You see, I come from a New York Italian – American family. Black dyed hair, acrylic tips, and velour pant suits are the normal wardrobe and the menu: cheese, meat, pasta, bread, rinse, and repeat. Most of them men and women in my family were professional cooks and pastry chefs at one point or another. My grandfather, grandmother, aunts, uncles, and father either owned a restaurant or cooked professionally.
Imparted on my young Irish mother from the age of 19 when she married my father was the tradition of Italian cuisine, or our Southern Italian family’s version of it. She blossomed into, in my opinion, the best cook in the family by the time my brother and I were born. If there were to be a “legacy” of our family, it would be food.
We cooked together for every occasion, be it a birthday or just a Sunday afternoon, divvying up responsibilities according to age. You started with shredding the mozzarella around three years of age (lots and lots of mozzarella!) Eventually, you moved up the ranks to some of the better, yet still totally undesirable kitchen duties such as: onion and garlic chopping, tomato crushing, and worst of all, breading chicken or eggplant for frying. You could be absolutely certain that during all of this Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, or some other cliché Italian music from days past was playing and that there was a fight about who was the “best” male vocalist: Bobby, Dean, Frank, Bing… It never ended and yet they always acted like the conversation was happening for the very first time, even though it happened every…single…time…
Being home for dinner was never optional. It was unequivocally designated a mandatory “family time”. We were the house that friends wanted to eat at every night. Sauce, meatballs, eggplant, fresh pasta, salads. Unbeknownst to us we were the luckiest family in the world to have a mother that worked from home and was able to make these amazing meals but above that, to provide us with this sacred time together as a family to connect every night. We did our “highs and lows” of the day. Had a family game night, no phone, no television. As we got older, we implemented a night a week where we took turns making our favorite dishes.
I grew up in a very liberal and feminist centered household. My mother instilled a desire and appreciation of the ability to be a domestic and maternal, yet independent and empowered. She worked tirelessly with me to prevent having body issues or the horrible insecurities that wreak havoc on most young adolescent female’s lives and psyches. She gave me a copy of “Reviving Ophelia” when I was 12. She had “the talk” about my body when I was 10. She used to sit all my friends and I around and ask us to share one thing we liked about ourselves every day.
My brother and I grew up in a household where our mother constantly reminded us that someday we would have a family, someday we would have children, and, of course, “someday you will understand” why she was constantly trying to teach us how to care for ourselves and why being “normal” or like everyone else wasn’t all its chalked up to be.
Unbeknownst to us, the meals, the time together, the act of cooking and creating things as a family were of immeasurable value. They were the literal tie that bound and kept us together amidst the chaos that is modern day family. When I was 21 my mother died very unexpectedly of heart disease, she was just barely 47 and seemingly healthy.
Nothing was the same. No more nightly meals, no more Dean or Frank playing. My passion for food became the only way to cope with my grief as I struggled to take her place in the kitchen and the home as the matriarch of such a large family with such deep and meaningful traditions. Our food became the only “normal” routine we had. At first, I didn’t deviate from any recipe or meal. I made the sauce exactly the same, the meatballs exactly the same. I kept all our traditional birthday meals and prepared them with the exact precision that she had. Over time, my love for cooking became an outlet for me to explore – deviate away from the old and find my own way. It really was a metaphor in many ways for my grief and how I was actually growing as a person with the food I was making. Our family’s food became her legacy. We had family at our house every weekend to cook and eat and just be together. We constantly recalled the tradition she had created in the kitchen. We even created a cookbook of all our family and friends favorite recipes, donating all the proceeds to a foundation that researches Women’s heart disease.
By this time, I had been a vegetarian for years already. Originally my eating habits were entirely based on ethics. But this grew in me as well. I started reading more about food sourcing, ingredients (from where and when they came to be) and the effects that sugar, flour, and other processed preservatives and other chemicals that are affecting our health. I realized that my passion for food, my vegetarianism could be part of something bigger: awareness to young women (and men) about the importance of learning to cook for yourself; about the ingredients and where they came from. It was no coincidence that I was a political science major in school. What could be a more political act than what we eat? Whether it’s the added hormones, sweetener based preservatives, added sodium or fossil fuel based chemicals that are so clearly linked to so many health issues effecting the now 50%+ of Americans that are dangerously obese, at risk of diabetes or, in my case, heart disease. I felt I had no choice but to learn about what “real” food is, and avoid the endless struggle woman go through with dietary fads, scams, pills and folklore about the secret to belly fat. My life, quite literally, could depend on it.
By twenty three I had found my way into the cooking world professionally. I was lucky enough to work for a restaurant with entirely locally sourced ingredients and even started up a (mostly) vegetarian catering company with my best friend. One of the most important learning experiences I have had in the industry was realizing how much people’s dietary choices are almost entirely dependent on socioeconomics and education. People ate what they knew to eat. It was as simple as that. But through education and involvement, people become very easily excited about the idea of being a part of how their own food is farmed or grown. I was even good at budgeting for myself and other young poor college student, showing them that you don’t really have to have lots of money to eat healthy. Simple tomato sauce, fresh meatballs, fresh pasta, soups, stews, stocks etc. were all inexpensive and if made with real ingredients the finished product was nothing short of healthful and nutritional. It is about the little things: each individual ingredient.
Although professionally I have moved away from cooking it is still with me every day. I spend most Sundays in the kitchen cooking a big Sunday meal and prepping for my week’s lunches. Cooking and connecting with myself in the kitchen has very much become my way of coping with life’s stresses and feeling closer to my mother.