It has taken me half my life to associate food with love. For many years, especially when I was a young, single, working woman, food was fuel consumed with a large dash of guilt, and I closely monitored my intake.
But recently, I’ve realized that morsels of edible love have been coming my way for a long time — most of them prepared by the men in my life.
It started with my dad, who would cut my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches into four precise pieces. “Triangles or squares?” he would ask.
My relationship with my father was a rocky one and I often found him difficult to be around. But whenever I envision those tender triangles of grape jelly and creamy peanut butter layered between two slices of Pepperidge Farm white bread, the negative feelings fade away, and I feel cossetted and adored.
Once I became the mother of two young boys, the “food as love” concept was delivered more forcefully through a traditional Mother’s Day breakfast in bed. One year, “fortune” muffins were on the menu. A soggy slip of paper baked inside one of them announced in a penciled scrawl that I was “The Best Mother in the World.”
These days, that message of love, folded into a heaping cup of caring, is delivered with more subtlety via elaborate meals cooked by those same boys, now fully launched adults. Shakshuka — a spicy mélange of vegetables, feta cheese, and eggs — and crusty homemade pizza are among their specialties.
They absorbed this technique from my husband, who has also delivered a steady stream of edible love notes throughout our long marriage. There have been more pots of chicken soup to cure a cold than I can count, and for much of our time together — especially after the boys arrived — he has taken on what I once viewed as the daily drudgery of putting a meal on the table.
At first, cooking was a novelty. A rich minestrone soup or homemade brownies were a way to impress boyfriends, and, I naively thought, get them to take me seriously. But once I’d hooked my man via quiche and a curried mushroom soup, the novelty wore off when we became ensconced in family life. It was no longer fun to deal with food through the nausea of pregnancy and later through the film of fatigue and time pressure that came with combining work and kids.
But lately, there’s been a shift. I no longer get defensive if I don’t have an answer when asked, “What’s for dinner?” (What kind of wife/mother was I that I didn’t have a week of menus at the ready?) Now that we both work from home and it’s usually just the two of us, I look forward to the discussion — and even manage to plan a few meals in advance.
Homemade pizza and shakshuka are on regular rotation. They are my favorite meals, because when my husband and I are kneading dough, or chopping herbs and feta, it’s as though our sons are here too. I’m surrounded by my men, cossetted and adored all over again.
The Recipes (Shakshuka and New York Pizza)
The first time I ate shakshuka was in my older son’s Brooklyn apartment. He moved around his compact kitchen with ease, chopping and tossing ingredients into the pan like a pro. Watching him do all the work was incredibly relaxing. It was the best breakfast I’d had in a long time. Later, he sent me the recipe, which came from the New York Times.
Younger son is a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco, where all baking takes place over a gas flame inside a blue box. Oven temperature is gauged by eye. Pizza is not readily available there, and he often makes it when other Peace Corps volunteers arrive at his door. Recently, he sent us this recipe for New York Style pizza. The dough is best, he says, when it’s left to rise in the refrigerator for three days.
© Judith A. Ross
Judith A. Ross is a freelance writer who has written about topics ranging from “spreadsheet safety,” to how to communicate with adult children. Her byline has appeared in Harvard Business Review and other publications at Harvard Business Publishing. Currently, she is a contributing writer at Talking Writing where her “Talking Art” column appears regularly. She also writes for Moms Clean Air Force, Women’s Voices for Change, and blogs at Shifting Gears.
Image of the Pizza King, courtesy Kitty O’Riordan
Part of a series on food and love in celebration of Valentine’s week.
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