I recently asked my developmental writing students to write up a descriptive piece about food: what foods they remember from their childhoods, and the associations these foods have now in their lives, now that they are out on their own for the first time, and growing into adulthood.
And oh, the papers I got--I just finished grading the final batch last night. I had tapped a vein, I think, and an abundant one. I got stories about family cook-outs, and macaroni and cheese casseroles dripping with cheese so gooey it spilled over the pans; I got stories about Thanksgiving dinners and tables groaning with candied yams, and sweet potato pies, and iced tea so sweet it makes you pucker. I got stories of biscuits served with sticky molasses, and one beautiful piece about a grandmother's red velvet cake. The grandmother has passed away, but the cake was there, rising like a jewel from the center of this student's paper, a legacy passed on from one matriarch, to another and to, this student hoped, herself one day. I didn't get (mercifully) a single, solitary essay about Twinkies, of Cap'n Crunch cereal, or Hamburger Helper.
As I read through my students' papers it was clear to me, even through the grammatical errors, the awkward sentences, the spelling mistakes, that say what you will about any negative effects the power of food might have over us, it also holds an undeniably good place in our lives, if we let it. It has the power to take us back in time; to conjure up, as we bend over a mixing bowl whipping batter as industriously as a wizard might, the people we loved and lost. They rise before us, like holograms, telling us to add a pinch of this, and a pinch of that. They are there in the kitchen with us, each time we dust off an old recipe, or crack open a cookbook. Just a spoonful from a dish we remember as rooted in our pasts can take us back there again, back to the sanctuary of childhood when looking forward to just a single piece of pie could right all the wrongs in the world.
My students know all about this. They are homesick, and uncertain about this college business; they pine for family gatherings, overflowing kitchens, and acceptance--even those students who have come from the most fragmented of families, and from unspeakably difficult lives.
Some time ago a friend asked me if I didn't worry that by investing so much love and effort in preparing the foods that mean so much to me, I wasn't setting my children up for a lifetime of unhealthy eating. Would they turn to food for comfort? Would the kitchen be their safe place, their comfort zone? (I almost laughed bitterly at this because as you know if you have a child who just won't eat. period. you'd give anything to see them downing food, no matter what the reason.) And while I felt a twinge of self-doubt and worry, I also know that there can never be anything bad found in something that connects you to the loved ones in your past--my students' writing was proof of that. By teaching your children to build healthy connections to food, and to cherish the associations and their heritage and family bonds, I firmly believe we are handing them a gift they will keep with them forever.