Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Food Matters

The Woolworth Building Reflected on Building 7

(Taken by my sister on Sunday)

“Recalling the pleasures of growing and gathering foods and preparing them with care, of relishing the changing seasons … was her way of preserving an important part of American life and sharing its rewards with others.”

- Judith Jones on Julia Child

My childhood food was all about sameness because my mother is about sameness. (If sameness is a word, why isn’t muchness a word?) One day we ate pasta with jarred Aunt Millie’s sauce. Another was bland sausage, spinach, and mushroom rolls from a local pasta place. Frozen eggplant or lasagna for another day. Friday was always take-out pizza. Here and there, we had hamburgers or turkey hotdogs. And for special occasions, my mother made fettuccini alfredo, always making a big deal about it being time consuming and difficult. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized it’s a fairly quick and simple dish, if not the healthiest meal.

As a mother, there are times that I don’t have a greater repertoire of recipes than my mother, although I try to create homemade dishes. But there are other times when I have more time or get inspired, and then we have a couple of weeks of Indian dishes or I go on a soup kick. That’s why I love living in a city because virtually every country’s cuisine is represented here, inspiring me to push my cooking skills even further.

When I reached adulthood, I expanded my culinary horizons. Tasting different foods became a journey, and the older I got, the more I appreciated it. As a result, I’ve never again weighed 95 pounds like I did when I left my mother’s house at nineteen. Sigh.

I visited my sister this weekend, and a big part of the trip was food-related. She works as a makeup artist on several cooking shows, and knows some of the best chefs in America and abroad. She sought their advice in choosing Saturday night’s restaurant. 5 Ninth was recommended, and she’d been there before, so that’s where we went.

My sister and I started with appetizers of marrow on toast and a grilled octopus salad. For the main course, she got monkfish (poor man’s lobster) wrapped in bacon, while I ate artic char (salmon-like) that had been perfectly seared on one side, but it somehow had been poached or steamed and it was moist as it bathed in a heavenly broth. This dish was a revelation - I spent most of the meal wondering how it had been prepared. For dessert, we ordered a cheese plate and bread pudding with ice cream. The entire meal was enhanced by a Grenache blend from Cortes de Rhone, France.

The next day, we ate a Savore in Soho. I love the place because the walls are lined with wine bottles and the back windows are from ceiling to floor and surrounded by brick. I’m a sucker for indoor brick. One appetizer was orzo with greens and grilled shrimp, while the other was a salad of blood orange, asparagus, greens, and lobster. My sister ordered truffle and goose ravioli, while I got chanterelle mushrooms and a cream sauce over pasta for my main course. No dessert this time!

While I don’t get to indulge like this often, I appreciate it when I get the opportunity.

My husband sent me an e-mail about the Chinese restaurant he and my kids went to on Friday night. This part is about my son:

I took the kids to Mary Chung for dinner and ---- ordered a spicy beef salad. The fact that it was so spicy led to warnings from several people, and ultimately visits to the table from almost every person working there to watch ---- eat it for a minute or two, while commenting on the fact that it was too hot for them to eat. The other funny part about it, was that it should have been very loosely defined as beef salad, it was a plate of, I think sliced stomach, tendons and maybe shin meat. ---- loved it, but was sad it was vacation week because he wanted to bring the leftovers to school to share with his friends.

When my son relayed the story on the phone, his voice was full of pride. The boy appreciates food. Even though my daughter eats sushi and smoked salmon, and appreciates an artisan bread, she’s much less adventurous.

I think about food when I write. If students are in a cafeteria, I picture what they’re eating. What is my protagonist’s family’s socio-economic status and ethnicity, family dynamics, and how does it dictate what they eat? When she’s out with friends, where do they eat? While I’m writing, I can see, smell, and even taste what my main character eats. If she’s upset, does she lose her appetite? Without these details, even if they’re in my head, and not on paper, make the people inside the book real to me. Without food, the book is one-dimensional.

I once heard Julia Child’s editor, Judith Jones interviewed on NPR. She said that if authors don’t mention food in their books, there’s something missing. Do you agree? What role does food play in your manuscripts?

As a teacher, I’ve cringed over some of my students’ poor diets. One year, more than half the class was on the heavy side, and talking to them made me realize that they had no idea about healthy eating. My first three years in the fifth-grade, the students took six or eight-week nutrition course run by some non-profit organization. There, they learned about food groups and even how to cook nutritiously in our school cafeteria. Even though these classes always came when we were getting ready for a slew of state tests, I was proud that the teacher I worked with made time for the two-hour classes. But when she left, the new teacher dropped the program because we didn’t “have time”. That was the year of the overweight class.

As a teacher, do you notice nutrition (or lack thereof) playing a big role in student weight or behavior? Does you school ignore the problem or take steps to address the epidemic?

The adage that, “We are what we eat” is true.

* Update * This just came up on Yahoo:



  1. Hi

    Welcome back!! It sounds like you had a feast treat with your sister!

    Your meals at these restaurants had me salivating and I'm a vegetarian - so your writer-ly descriptions here shone through!

    Before I discovered the joys of baking and cooking from scratch, I've never really brought cooking to my stories. Now I'm more inclined to make them an integral part of a character and I think it's because I know how to bake and cook now with confidence!

    It's such a shame about that important nutrition lesson being dropped. How silly was that? Eating habits are learned and good eating should be promoted so people don't rely on fast food so much and cause all sorts of health problems in later life!

    You definitely are what you eat!

    p.s. I've been trying to think of books I've read where food play a major part and I can only think of one at the top of my head: Like Water for Chocolate! Lovely little book -very romantic - chocolate a plenty!

    Take care

  2. Wow, you are adventurous! Grilled octopus? Wow.

    Food plays a big role in my books because they are quest/adventure novels and my characters have to scrounge for every meal. Also, in my space opera, the station has run out of real food and uses recycled food generators. So yes, food is an important part of life, and should be included in novels!

  3. Hi Theresa, Sounds like a great break, you will love the fish dishes in Ireland.
    Jamie Oliver in England did a huge makeover of the english school food system and had major success, totally changed the way kids eat and therefore act in school.
    Thanks for mentioning the 'food' in books subject as I was looking for this quote for ages and made myself find it today, it's from James Joyce ' A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man' and was one of my favourites quotes:
    ......"Whenever the car drew up before a house he waited to catch a glimpse of a well scrubbed kitchen or of a softly lighted hall and to see how the servant would hold the jug and how she would close the door. He thought it should be a pleasant life enough, driving along the roads every evening to deliver milk, if he had warm gloves and a fat bag of gingernuts in his pocket to eat from"............
    Lovely image, yes, I think food very important in books, very evocative. Apologies for the long comment, thought you'd like the quote.

  4. This is something I worry about a lot -- kids' food choices. "Kid food" is often so salty, sugary, and filling -- and they don't often have an appreciation for really GOOD food. Kudos to your son for his open-mindedness....refreshing to hear about a kid who spurns chicken nuggets and mac & cheese in favor of trying something more real.

  5. I love it when writers include food in their work; it's one of life's passions filled with sensory appeal and a feast of images.

  6. Ahhh Food! Sure enjoyed this Theresa, I felt like I was reading the Eat section again of Eat,Pray,Love. (I'm on the Pray section right now and it's just not as fun!!)

    As for kids poor diets, sorry to say it in this liberated climate, but that's the mom's fault. Fast food, microwave burritos, no sitting down to eat dinner together as a family. Everyone on their own. It's sad. SOMEONE has to cook in a family. If not mom, let's hope dad takes over. All my sons cook to help out in this area of family life. Their dad doesn't though lol!

  7. Old Kitty, I'm glad my non-vegetarian descriptions didn't offend you!

    I love the pictures of your baking successes (and those poor little buns that one time).

    We need a national school food program. I think that's similar Michelle Obama's big issue - tackling obesity.

    Chocolat was another fun food book. I bought In the Kitchen by Monica Ali, but I haven't read it yet.

    I love nonfiction books on food too:

    The Man Who Ate Everything
    Kitchen Confidential
    No Reservations
    A Cook's Tour
    My Life in France

    Aubrie, the way you use food books is so clever. Recycled food generators? Very cool.

  8. Brigid, I've been on such a fish kick these days, so I'm excited to eat a lot of fish in Ireland.

    Jamie Oliver tried something similar in The States. Maybe Florida? But I don't know what happened.

    Thanks for the wonderful food quote by James Joyce. Don't worry about the length!

    Empty Refrigerator, I look back at what I used to feed by kids and cringe, even why I tried to avoid the bad stuff as much as possible. When I read the healthy approach to food and how they develop children's palates in Why French Women Don't get Fat, I felt even guiltier.

  9. Paul C, beautifully said.

    KarenG, I've heard a lot of good things about Eat, Pray, Love. As far as verbs, that first one sounds pretty good!

    You're right that our approach to meals has caused this. It's hard to make the time, but it's important.

    My husband loves to cook and bake. He and my son cooked fish on Sunday night, and my son was thrilled because he was mostly in charge. The more they do, the better they eat and the more adventurous they get.

  10. Sounds like you had a great time exploring new foods. It made me hungry just reading about it. Kids diets are so poor. It is not just the cafeteria food, it is what parents give their kids for snack. I am amazed.

  11. Choices, I agree that the snacking is pretty bad. When I teach, I've had students eat edamame while others have TWO Poptarts. Yes, 400 calories of that sugary stuff for a snack during school hours.

  12. Oh, you've made me so hungry now! I'm like you - I grew up eating rather generic food, the same thing over and over.

    But now I love to try different things! And write about food, too.

  13. LOL: Your mother and my mother sounded very similar! All about the sameness at her house--the same ol', same ol' every night! My husband is always grateful I didn't pick up my cooking skills from my mom's!

  14. Talli, I guess the repetition was pretty common. Reading about food is interesting, so it makes sense to incorporate it into our writing.

    Beth, I'm glad we don't have to eat like that anymore. I don't blame your husband!

  15. Not a book, but The Sopranos really goes in fod food symbolism... I'm starting to think you could probably see entire family plotlines in what food who's bringing over to whom where!

    @ Theresa - don't know the details, but apparently Jamie Oliver tried to do a nutrition show in the US like the one he did here, and just got lots of 'who's this interfering Brit?'-type feedback... Then again, when he did the one here, he got a lot of 'who's this interfering southerner?' :)

  16. Wow sounds like it was quite the adventure!! I'm super hungry now!!!

    I am not a teacher however I would hope that are schools take nutrition seriously and we are making sure our children are making good choices and selections when it comes to healthy foods. However when your a child all you want are chocolate chip cookies and pizza, and I can't blame them!

  17. Hampshireflyer, I only watched a few of The Sopranos episodes, so I missed the food.

    Years ago I saw the Jamie Oliver show about nutrition in the US, but I don't know what happened to the show or the program.

    Jen, the Cambridge Public Schools has really improved nutrition in the last few years. They had the sam issue you mention - make healthy food that kids will eat, rather than throw out because it's not like what they're used to.

  18. I love when writers incorporate food images into their writing because I'm kind of a food-information junkie. I'm actually working on reading a book right now where in I'll confess my food-love when I do my review. Haha.

    You might be interested in this blog called Fed Up With Lunch: The School Lunch Project (http://fedupwithschoollunch.blogspot.com/)

    She's eating what the kids eat every day of 2010 and rallying for better food in schools. Very interesting!

  19. I used to be the pickiest eater ever, aside from one other person I know. I ate everything plain and never tried anything new. I finally started trying new kinds of food when I was in my late teens, and I was pleasantly surprised. :) Great that your kids are good eaters.

    All of my stories have food in them. Which is funny, because I like I said, it's not even that I'm a great eater myself. I just think that including meals is so vital. It's what keeps us alive, plus it shows significant details about our characters.

  20. Food really does affect the kids I see everyday, from the obeses to the ones who come in and sleep because they haven't eaten breakfast to the ones who come back bouncing off the walls because they sugared up at lunch. We really are what we eat.

  21. Tiffany, I'll keep an eye out for your review.

    Thanks for the link - I'll check it out.

    Shelley, my daughter is much pickier than my son, but they sound more adventurous than you were as a child. My son is way more adventurous than me since he's eaten chicken feet.

    You make good points about having information about our characters through food.

    Sarahjayne, it's amazing how students are affected by food. I used to send letters home before standardized tests, reminding parents to put their children to bed early, and feed them a healthy breakfast. Too bad the parents didn't listen. An hour in, the kids would crash.

  22. What wonderful meals you had during your weekend with your sister. My mouth was watering here. I love fish. I am so looking forward to indulging in fresh fish when I get home in four weeks.

    I think it is very important to incorporate food into the writing. It tells so much about people. My mother was a wonderful cook. My fondest memories relate to the smells of baking and cooking coming from the kitchen.

    Well done you, for expanding your culinary horizons.

  23. Ann, I'm going to e-mail you to find out where you live in Ireland (when you're there).

  24. I'm glad you had a good time with your sister. I became a follower because once, when dinosaurs still roamed the earth and politicians still kept their promises, I was a substitute teacher. We subbies have to stick together!

  25. Roland, I'm glad that you got out. Thanks for following!

  26. Hope you had a great trip-sounds like you did.

    I teach college and MAKE my students read "Fast Food Nation." It really changes their lives!

  27. I love food adventures!!! Every friday, me and my husband try to go out and eat something tasty, exciting, and new. (must be all three.)

    That being said, YOU ARE SO BRAVE -- I mean marrow, marrow? Grilled octopus? I hope it was delicious.

    And it sounds like your kids are brave eaters, too. Bravo :)

  28. I agree... muchness really does need to be a word.

  29. Great post - I'm drooling!

    I spend a fair amount of time discussing healthy lifestyle choices with my kids. A lot of them come from homes without a lot of money so we talk about how to do it without spending tons of money. We also do daily phys ed - the 'warm up' at the beginniing of each period used to exhaust some of the kids - now they're in much better shape.

  30. Bossy Betty, that is awesome that you make your students read Fast Food Nation. I see that they have a non-adult version of Omnivore's Dilemma, which is similarly eye-opening.

    MBW, my husband and I l enjoy going to restaurants as well. I like to eat something I can't make easily at home.

    I won't get into my love for marrow! It would warrant its own post.

    India, did you see the new Alice in Wonderland too?

    Jemi, it's great when teachers like you take the time to incorporate diet and exercise into their teaching. I'm a necessity these days.

  31. I'm not a teacher, but as to the writing part, I do the same thing. I use food and meals to help show the emotions and sometimes as a contrast.

    Great post and now I'm hungry. lol

  32. My daughter rarely eats the school lunches. She's an athlete (so unlike me!) and very conscious of what she eats. Plus, her best friend's parents are super fit and health conscious, so I guess she's picked up a lot from them, so she only eats the school lunches when she absolutely has to (like when we run out of whole wheat bread). She says they'll have things like mashed potatoes and glutinous pasta "ON THE SAME PLATE, MOM! And they consider corn a vegetable! Corn is not a vegetable. Ugh!" It's kind of funny, actually. But I agree--I wish school lunches could be a bit healthier.

    These restaurants you went to sound amazing! I am so hungry now.

  33. I'm not a teacher, so I can't talk to nutrition in the schools nowadays. We had some nutrition training in my school days, but cafeteria lunches were limited. And my mother's cooking was probably some of the worst on the planet. LOL Mine is better, but not great. Which is fine with my husband because his mom only cooked slightly better than mine.

    It sounds like you and your sister are both gourmets. I envy you your eager enjoyment of so many foods!

  34. Happily, my school works hard to address the issue of student diet. In fact, on testing days (standardized, of course) we provide fruit and milk and orange juice. You make excellent points here, Theresa! Great post. :-)

  35. Mary McDonald, I like the idea of using food as a contrast in writing.

    Carolina, your daughter sounds smart and she's probably healthier for it.

    Mary Anne, I often brought lunch from home as a kid. When I became a teenager, I bought more often and realized that I wasn't missing anything!

    Shannon, that's great that your school is trying to improve diet. It's hard when the students have dinner and snacks at home + all three meals on the weekend. The more we teach them and expose them to alternatives, the better for them.

  36. School lunches are awful, and even worse when you realize that they're the most balanced meal that some students will get that day. I don't know the answer, except to put more money into it and buy better food. Sadly, that's not likely to happen

  37. Vagabond Teacher, it is sad that for many students, that lunch is the most balanced meal of the day. I'm glad that my school provides unlimited fresh fruit and vegetables. They get local apples (in season), bananas, and baby carrots. At first, many students ignored these options, but now I see more kids taking advantage.

  38. Ah, yes, I love food too. The only problem with food is you can't ever escape it. You need it to live. So I'm constantly thinking about food while I write too. Mostly because my characters hardly ever know where their next meal is coming from and I HAVE to think about food while writing.

  39. Elana, your and Aubrie's characters have the same problems with food scarcity. The manuscript I'm currently working on has characters who have to save the world from destruction, including food scarcity.

  40. It's just sad when kids are overweight due to lack of ed. and poor eating habits! Good for you for trying to make a difference! And substituting aint easy! Thanks for commenting on my blog today! :)

  41. Laura, thanks for visiting my blog.

    It is sad when children are overweight, and it's often a sign of lack of nutrition.

  42. I am wondering if your mother and mine were related. They certainly were similar when it came to their culinary prowess! sigh

    All you have to do today is look in the lunch boxes of public school students to learn why many are overweight. Lunchables, twinkies, cookies, shall I go on?

  43. VKT, there's something wrong when fruit and vegetables cost more than the junk you mention.

    Those Lunchables are bad news!
    Look at the sodium count:

  44. What a great post! I had a fantastic weeke
    I love this post!  I had a fantastic weekend with you!  Most of my greatest memories revolve around food - fried mars bars in Scotland, homemade pizza with arugula, blue cheese & fig in Charlestown, tapas in Granada, to many delicious dinners at your house from pulled pork to grilled fish to homemade soups to four cheese lasagna.

    I feel privileged to live in a city that allows me to take a culinary journey around the world whenever I want & lucky that I get to share great food & memorIes with the people that I love.  

  45. Kathleen, sounds like you've had a lot of interesting food. It's nice to share meals with people you care about.