A week ago my family lost our dad to cancer. Although it has been a sad time for all of us, there was something joyful about going through old pictures and reminiscing about all the good times he gave us. As the dust settles, and we all find ourselves trying to get used to the “new normal” as one wise person I know described it, a few food and eating topics came to mind that I should write about. I decided to first write about what I am going to refer to as a “food legacy”.
I had to be sure “legacy” was the right word, so I looked it up. According to the Mirriam-Webster dictionary:
Simple Definition of legacy
: something (such as property or money) that is received from someone who has died
: something that happened in the past or that comes from someone in the past
As we reminisced these past few days, I realized one of the most wonderful gifts my dad gave us were memories that revolved in some way around food and eating.We all had our funny stories about how he always gave the best parts of everything to his children (such as giving us the top of the broccoli while he took the stalks, the best part of the steak, the best piece of chicken, etc.). He put everyone first, always.
But besides his unselfish personality, my dad also was old school Italian which meant a family dinner every single night. All four of us children and my mom sat at the table where he first said grace followed by the serving bowls being put on the table. Even though my parents were not wealthy and even had times of financial struggle, there was always a family dinner. If often was something cooked in tomato sauce (my mom was Italian too). I often joke that when you don’t have much money, you can always throw whatever you do have in tomato sauce, sprinkle a little cheese on it, and voila! Hence, hot dog stew! Yes, hot dog stew was actually one of my dad’s specialties, made from fresh green beans, fresh carrots and potatoes, home made tomato sauce, and of course those hot dogs. Or it could be chicken cacciatore, rice and meat in tomato sauce, classic pasta with meat sauce, and of course every Sunday was meatballs, sausage, Italian bread and pasta with sauce after church. There was also the meat and potato meals, very simple but good. TV dinners were only a few times a year when my parents went out somewhere.
Besides family meals most nights, we also spent many a holiday at my grandmother’s or aunt’s house where the food traditions were reinforced. Always the Italian dishes along with gigantic fruit and nut trays, figs, olives and pastries. My parents started some of their own traditions such as a yearly picnic in August to celebrate the birthdays of my grandmother, my mother and my sister which were all within a few days of each other and also happened at the time of the month in August the Hot Air Balloon Festival was going on in the park next to my parents house. We would all make foods that would become everyone’s favorites as time went by. Michelle and her caramel brownies, my cream puffs, the watermelon fruit basket, my dad’s barbecue chicken, Paul’s pistachio salad, Fran’s spinach bread, Ernie’s clam dip, Karen’s beans and mom’s potato salad. As I got older and had my own children, I carried on these traditions and prepared much of the same foods so my children would be sure to experience it. When my children were growing up one of the highlights of our day was always dinner time. No matter what it was, we all sat down together to eat it. If friends were over, everybody ate (it is true what they say about Italians, at least in my family, we always make enough to feed the army as my mom always says). Sometimes three kids turned into six. What I love about dinner time is it gives everyone a chance to really and truly connect. We connected about the food but also about what was going on in everyone’s lives. We talked and laughed and planned the future. Life was good growing up, and I tried to recreate that for my own children.
Today, things are different. Kids have cell phones, people are more electronically connected, both parents work, life is busier it seems. I have learned from the hundreds or probably thousands of families I have worked with over the years that family dinners are not always happening. Not everyone has the time or energy to keep family dinner and traditions in their lives. It may not seem that important at that moment when you are exhausted from a ten hour work day and you have ten minutes to get your son to baseball practice. We know family meals promote healthier children both physically and psychologically, but in my experience, especially after this week, I feel family meals are much more than that in a spiritual way. They can become a very important way to incorporate connection and meaning into a child’s life, even into an adult’s life.
If you are one of those busy parents or even if you don’t have children, live alone or with a partner, there is a way to start creating connection through meals and food. Some suggestions:
- Look at your calendar ahead of time. Is there even a day or two when nothing is planned, no sports events, no commitments where you can plan a family meal?
- Keep it simple. Even if it is take out food, plan to eat together.
- Turn off all electronics. No cell phones, no TV, no eating in the bedroom. No distractions other than conversations.
- Don’t allow arguing or discussing heavy matters at the table. Keep it positive. Ask about one great thing that happened that day. Make it enjoyable.
- Ask family members such as aunts, grandparents or cousins for family recipes. All of my holiday cookie recipes I got from my Aunt Maryanne (she was the baker in the family, not my mom. I love my mother’s cooking, but her cakes looked like the leaning Tower of Pisa)
- Start your own traditions. My neighbor has a yearly July 4th party to celebrate her mother who passed away then. We have been making “infused fruit” which we serve in our garden on tables with flowers and table cloths and classic music. We have rum raison bananas, grilled infused pineapple, Margarita melon balls, etc. People meander about enjoying the fruit, music and garden. Everyone loves it. As far as holidays, Christmas Eve is always baked stuffed shrimp, New Year’s day is lasagna.
I am so thankful for all of the wonderful memories my dad gave me. Memories around food and eating, the importance of family meals and celebrating together with food is a legacy he left that I hope to give to my family, too. What about you?