www.whyville.net Apr 26, 2009 Weekly Issue

Times Writer

A Tribute to Food

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Food. What a strange word. If you say it repeatedly in your head, it begins to sound primitive. I guess that's because it's a simple word, composed of a mere four letters: f-o-o-d (and two of them are repeated). For such a simple word, it has so much importance. Food is considered a necessity to every living thing. However, "food" can mean practically anything, from a microscopic particle to a Thanksgiving feast. Furthermore, in many cultures, food serves as a gathering, or rather something to gather round. These cultures in particular, you could say, are obsessed with food. Thousands of books have been written on the endless options of preparing, decorating, and enjoying food. Some people have become so obsessed with food that they have even developed an illness, which causes them either to binge eat or starve themselves.

Although my relationship with food is a strange one, it has allowed me to appreciate my family, friends, heritage, and, most importantly, my well-being. I will only go into a few of these, however, let it be known that each is uniquely significant to whom I am today.

As a little girl, I use to love to sit in my grandmother's kitchen and watch her cook. I loved the sounds and smells. Although my grandmother had lost her sense of smell due to a removed brain tumor, I never excluded her.

"How does that pumpkin pie smell to you, Morg?" She would ask me.

"Delicious, Nane. It has the most wonderful smells." I would answer.

"Describe them to me."

"Warm cinnamon, Halloween pumpkins, crushed nutmeg, brown sugar, October leaves, sweet vanilla bean . . ." As she listened, she would close her eyes and inhale deeply, as if those smells had suddenly embraced her soft yet fragile frame.

These wonderful smells were not the only thing I enjoyed; I especially loved watching my grandmother's hands, like when she would make her homemade pierogi. Pierog is Polish for dumpling (but more specifically, a boiled, semicircular dumpling filled with either meat, cheese, or a vegetable). Pierogi are difficult to make and require much time and patience. However, they are sinfully delicious. My Nane followed a family recipe that was handed down to her from her mother-in-law, Ba. Since my grandmother has passed, my mother and aunt possess the family recipes and, occasionally, take on the dreadful (yet rewarding) task of preparing pierogi. Still, only my Nane's hands could make them with the utmost composure and serenity. Her hands were swift and ready, yet poised and patient. She had a smoothness and fluidity in the kitchen. I was convinced that if she were blindfolded, she would cook just as gracefully. Although I lack her patience, she has bequeathed to me her passion for food and cooking.

As you can tell, part of my ethnicity is Polish, that is, on my mother's side of the family. Although I have a diverse ethnic background like many Americans (Russian, French, German, Irish, to name a few, but mainly Polish and British), my mother's side seems to cater most to our Polish customs. Unfortunately, this includes both the good and the bad. Of course, the stubbornness and unintelligence of Poles is only a stereotype, right? Well, that is arguable. On the other hand, Poles are skillful in the kitchen. If there was one reason why I should be proud to be Polish, it would be because of the food! At family gatherings, my family and I always seem to flock to the kitchen. The pungent smell of borsch bubbling over the hearth, and the zesty kielbasa and red horseradish inevitably draws us in; but, of course, my mother usually shoos us all out.

"C'mon," we would plead, "let us have just a little taste!"

"No way!" My mother would argue as she placed a bowl of steaming hot kielbasa on the counter, "Besides, the kielbasa dish is almost ready. I just have to finish making this horseradish sauce."

Then, once she turned her back to return to cooking, we would each snatch a few kielbasa slices and hasten into another room to enjoy our loot. Despite my decision to go vegan a few years ago, the smell of the polish sausage irrevocably warms my heart with sweet memories of my Nane. Still, there is something else about the food that makes it so inviting; and I am not just referring to the taste and smell, but rather the fact that it can bring such a large, spread out family together. Furthermore, each dish is a place of comfort. It spreads a relaxed aura throughout the house, and it welcomes any unfamiliar faces. As each of us stand around a dish, it's as if we can smell the history, love, pain, and the culture, all of which fuse our individualities with our shared heritage. These traditional foods embody a reminder of our past and a reason to gather with friends and family.

Several years ago, I started watching the Food Network channel and the cooking shows. My favorites to watch are Giada De Laurentiis, Emeril Lagasse, and Ina Garten. I love the connection I feel to them as they talk me through their recipes and tell me stories about their own relationship with food. They have inspired me; so much in fact, whenever I was cooking alone in the kitchen, I would pretend I had my own cooking show. I would look into the imaginary camera and talk my way through a recipe - explaining in detail each ingredient I was using and why, and perhaps telling an anecdote to hold my invisible audience's attention - and, all the while, imagining my pretend producer and cameramen were intently listening and smiling at me. I would practice this whenever I was making something, whether it was a simple bowl of cereal or a fancy dessert. Sometimes, I would even pretend my dog Stewart was my audience.

"Okay, Stewart," I would start, "We're going to take a bowl - a good-sized bowl - and fill it with about a half a cup of milk. We don't want to fill the bowl too much with milk, otherwise there will be an imbalance between milk and cereal; and the key is to keep a balance. I suggest having one-part milk, two-part cereal. Now, I'm going to use soy milk because that's what I prefer and have on hand. Of course, you can use any type of dairy or non-dairy beverage that you like or have in the fridge."

Naturally, Stewart would not say anything but occasionally lean his head from side to side. "So, now we're going to pour about a cup of cereal into the bowl. As you see here, I'm using a good quality, whole grain cereal, instead of processed cereal. Although the whole grain cereals are more expensive, they are truly delicious and healthful cereals, and are definitely worth the investment. Of course, if you're making this last minute, you can just use whatever cereal you happen to have." Having said this, I would then set the bowl of cereal on the counter, "Okay, there we have it! Remember, you can find this recipe and many others on www.foodnetwork.com. Thanks for watching!"

My relationship with food changed dramatically when my mother was diagnosed with cancer. I was fourteen-years-old. I suddenly began to realize all the things that could cause cancer; hydrogenated-oils are suspected to be one of them. Hydrogenated-oils (sometimes seen on nutrition labels as "partially hydrogenated soybean-oils" or "trans-fat") contain trans-fatty acids and are used in most processed foods to lengthen shelf life. These trans-fats are terrible for your health and presumably cause cancer. Although my family had already rid our cabinets of such foods, I felt obliged to divest myself from all unhealthy foods, whether they contained trans-fats or not. Gradually, however, I began to exclude myself from so much more than I had realized. Having watched my mother lose her hair and go through so much distress and suffering, I became afraid and obsessed. I felt estranged from -- and maybe even betrayed by the culture of cookery, as if I had lost my grandmother's passion for food. I felt unworthy of this wonderful skill. It was not until I was 16, almost a year after my mother was cleared, that I realized the aftermath. I thought that I had lost my passion for cooking, when really I had only lost touch with myself.

Since then, I have been gradually mending my relationship with food, and friends. Although neither has been fully restored, I have come a long way. I have begun to feel it in my bones and in my blood; that enthusiasm, that zeal for cooking and entertaining that I feared would never return. Those who have heard this story about my relationship with food would often say to me, "You know, Morgan, you should really consider going into the culinary business; perhaps going to culinary school?" Although this might seem like a reasonable idea, I think otherwise. Besides the fact that the culinary business is a very difficult one to succeed in, I cannot imagine turning this passion into a career. Don't get me wrong, I think that one should be passionate about their career (thus the countless restaurants and cooking shows); however, I find that when someone mixes their leisure with business, they tend to lose sight of that enthusiasm, and, in fact, no longer regard it as a passion. It becomes their job, their time spent away from family and friends, and their workload. Unfortunately, they may even become bored with it. I fear that if I were to go into the culinary business, this would happen to me. Over the years, I have realized how valuable my passion for cooking is; it has taught me so much about my relationships and myself. I cannot imagine losing such a precious thing again.

On the contrary, it would be a lie to say that I would turn down the Food Network producers who happen to show up at my front door to ask me if I would like my own cooking show. Who wouldn't take this once-in-a-lifetime offer? For now, however, I must take things one day at a time and honor my ancestors' passion which I have been so gratefully endowed.


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