I was speaking with a friend recently about party-planning, and she confessed to me that she hates cooking. It stresses her out, and makes her feel incompetent and flustered. I'm the exact opposite: Cooking actually relaxes and de-stresses me. When I'm in the kitchen, mixing and pouring, or kneading dough, with the smells from the different ingredients rising up around me and my T. helping in her own messy ways, I feel a sense of peace and calm.
I thought about this on Saturday morning as I prepared food for the family Christmas party we hosted. I mixed in molasses for this bread, by far one of my favorite breads to make this year (absolutely divine served warm with apple butter, or a dark cherry jam), and T. breathed in the thick, syrupy smell, stuck her finger into the batter, and declared, "Molasses makes me happy."
It makes me happy, too. One time, a year or two ago, when I was telling a (childless) acquaintance about a cooking project I did with the kids, and about how important food-centered traditions were to me, she asked whether I wasn't worried that associating comfort with food would set my kids up for unhealthy relationships with food for the rest of their lives. This was a bizarre and sad comment to make--one of those comments people who you don't know well might make, leaving you a little speechless and confused. But even though her comment was extreme, it does echo certain negative sentiments--or fears--that many Americans have with cooking and food. There is so much emphasis in our culture (the same culture that gave birth to the TV dinner) on packaged and already-prepared foods. We diet obsessively without understanding the fundamentals of nutrition; we open bags and cartons without giving a thought to where the food or the ingredients came from; we focus on the end results and not the long, rich process behind cooking and making magic in the kitchen. Why are we so afraid of food? Why are we so afraid of creating for our children memories that might be intertwined with warm smells and textures, and the comfort of something sweet to offset the salty bitterness of growing up?
I didn't actively help my mom much in the kitchen when I was growing up, but food and food-centered traditions were always so important in our family. We had traditional Easter cookies for Easter, and Christmas ones in the winter; for New Year's Eve my mother always made this bread, and even now when I bake the bread myself in January, the feel of the yeasty dough under my fists and the smell of it baking surround me with a blanket of warm comfort and memories. I think about my Greek grandmother, and about what it must have been like for my own mother to have three children to raise, and to be so far away from home. I imagine that into the dough she kneaded and the cookies she baked, she not only wove a little of her own homesickness, but also a tremendous amount of the love that existed between herself and her parents, and the traditions connecting herself to the country she left and the home she made for all of us.
I don't think that sharing a love of food and cooking, and cultivating the kitchen as a warm and comforting heart of the home, are bad or damaging things. Certainly, passing on a poor understanding of nutrition is damaging, and feeding your kids nothing but junk food is bound to damage them at some point in their lives. But I hope I can pass on to my own children some of the same recipes I grew up with, and the new ones I made traditional in my home, as well. I hope they will always associate comfort and love with the rituals of cooking, and that maybe one day T. will unscrew the lid on a bottle of molasses and the memories will flood out, filling the room with memories of the two of us, in a kitchen long ago.