I didn’t realize it until the past few years, but food it a big way I tell people I care about them.
After my marriage ended, the first gal I dated had never been married nor had kids, and so had the dining habits of a bachelor. Oh, she knew how to order sushi and wine in a restaurant; but cook? No. Lunch or dinner to her might be a cheese and lettuce sandwich and a handful of blueberries, eaten standing up at the kitchen counter. The whole process, from preparation to eating to cleaning up took about 10 minutes. I kept cooking meals for her but as much as she enjoyed them, it didn’t mean the same thing to her that it did to me. And my obsession with sharing mealtime and the rituals of its preparation actually became a frustration for both of us – me struggling to speak to her in my language, and her not entirely getting the point of the conversation.
Separated from my children and previous life, I was trying to connect with her via the echo of a ritual that was deep in me. That was my “aha! moment;” the moment when I saw I wasn't simply trying to cook for her.
When I was a child, my family ate dinner together regularly. Likewise, when my kids were small, their mother and I saw to it that we ate together as a family 4 or 5 times a week. It didn’t matter so much what we were eating – could be fish sticks or 49 cent pot pies from Aldi’s, just that we were connecting as a family every evening. For years I was the sole breadwinner and so wasn’t doing that much cooking, but after their mom went back to work and the kids got older I was cooking more while the meals together got harder to coordinate around 5 schedules. So I spent countless Saturday or Sunday afternoons restoring my old house while meat smoked on the grill, bread rose in the kitchen, and veggies from the garden waited on the counter. From time to time I’d brush the paint chips and sawdust off my shirt and knead dough or tend the grill, then climb back up the scaffolding. At the end of the day we eventually gathered around the table with marinated chicken, steamed broccoli, and fresh bread.
There was something obsessive in my instance that everyone be there and that every dish be ready at just the right moment. Sometime showing love takes a lot of work and sometimes it just takes sitting and eating, appreciating what was put before you. If you’re thinking about it right, either part you play is fine.
I still laugh at the times when it went wrong.
I recall cooking a ridiculously doomed and elaborate meal for a girl when I was in my early 20s. I fell for her in England when we were both visiting BSU students in London. After we returned to Muncie I knocked myself out fixing a dinner for her. A week earlier she had invited me over for lunch and served me hot dogs sautee’d in barbeque sauce, barbeque potato chips, and root beer (I’m not making this up). Hell, with a menu like that, maybe she was trying to kill me. But, trying to speak her language, I made barbeque sauce from scratch and grilled some chicken, made my great aunt’s baked bean recipe, and God knows what else for a quiet dinner together in my little basement apartment on Calvert. The evening was a disaster. Not a loud explosive disaster, but a slow, quiet, suffocating - get me the hell outta here disaster.
I guess sometimes you outta just talk directly to people instead of trying to bribe them with food. Maybe I was afraid of the responses she’d give me, so thought I’d tip-toe to her heart through her stomach. Whatever I was trying to do, it didn’t work. She dumped me and went back to her old boyfriend.
Still most of the time spent cooking for people is a good thing. The times it went wrong are a reality check.
In trying to understand how food became a symbol of affection to me I recognized that gift giving and acts of service are a language of love I was raised on. The Meyers are gift givers. Of the generation of Meyers who raised me – if you were waiting for one of them to say, “I love you,” it was gonna be a long fucking wait. But in my times of need they were quietly fixing my problems or writing me a birthday check they knew I’d spend on something I needed or loved.
Or . . . they were preparing food for me or picking up the check at a restaurant.
And I find it passed down to another generation. My cousin Margaux has a lovely habit of opening her house to a wide circle of friends, presenting meals and events to draw close the people she loves. She learned it from her father – my father’s brother. My oldest son is a self-taught chef of Asian food. I can’t count the nights in the past 2 years Cal cooked me an amazing meal. My middle son Jack cooks for those he loves and recently I’ve found my youngest, Sally cooking for her boyfriend – eggs, lots of eggs.
But we are a younger generations of Meyers. We have no problem saying, “I love you." But that old language of giving in lieu of talking is wrapped up in our way of showing affection.
On Halloween night Micki was to arrive after work. I’d cooked a pot of chili and mixed batter for corn cake. Much of the ingredients for the chili were items I canned from my summer garden. But when a full waiting room kept her unexpectedly late at the office seeing patients, we agreed I’d drive up to Ft. Wayne and save her the trip down to Noblesville. After I set the pots of food on the floorboards of my car and stood to close the passenger door, I froze, staring at the dishes. It occurred to me I’d loaded the food in the car before I’d even thrown clothes in a suitcase.
Hmmm. Why was that my automatic first action? I guess becoming aware of your motivations doesn’t stop the reflex. And maybe there’s no need to stop it. It was me offering perhaps the most important thing I would put in the car besides myself – something I’d made to nourish a person I loved.
So if I’ve cooked something for you, or if you’re one of that handful of people who have been handed a jar of my homemade Sriracha sauce or canned black raspberry jam, or if I’ve dropped off a fresh-baked loaf of bread at your door or a just-picked bag of green beans from my garden, it was a note from me saying, “I love you.”
That’s not literally what I’m thinking when I do it, but I can see now that’s really what it is.