What Your Mother Taught You about Food? 8 Examples of a Food Legacy
“My mother always told me that as you go through life, no matter what you do, or how you do it, you leave a little footprint, and that’s your legacy.” ~Jan Brewer, Arizona governor
Each of us carries with us a food legacy. Each of us has been taught how, what, and when to eat by our culture, our society, our media, and our parents. Our individual food legacies have been cultivated and grown into our individual eating habits that we have today. Each of us has a unique history with food. We have been taught our relationship with food. The importance of understanding our legacy with food lies in the old adage that history repeats itself. Until you understand what you eat and why you eat it, you will not be able to change your nutrition habits and you will be teaching these same habits to your kids. These habits are so deeply ingrained that most of us just reach in the cabinet and pull something out to eat. We probably have not thought about why that item is what we are choosing, how we feel about food, or why we eat what we eat.
What you remember about food is the start of revealing your relationship to food. We might remember our mothers forcing us to finish everything on our plates at dinner. We might remember going to bed hungry or our favorite meal. We might remember how our food was served growing up or what time we ate. What are the individual memories in your life story? What is your backstory regarding food? And how do you feel about food today?
If we are parents, each day we wake up and teach our children about food. We teach them that breakfast is an over sweetened granola bar or some Pop-Tarts. We teach them about the fast-food restaurants and that when they are tired or in a rush they can purchase a meal that will make them happy. It is, after all, a Happy Meal! We pass on processed meats in the form of a hot dog for dinner with some potato chips. We teach them that making a salad is too much work compared to just microwaving a frozen meal. Consciously or unconsciously, we are generationally passing on our food legacy to our children. We have the responsibility to do better for our kids to provide a better legacy for them. Let’s begin by examining our current and historical relationship to food and how it relates to our current diet.
FOOD = CONTROL
I realize now that I cooked like my mother. Meat and potatoes. Three meals a day. My mother makes steak and potatoes and salad for dinner. If she is being really healthy, maybe some Italian dressing will be on the salad instead of ranch. When we were young children, my mother would make hot dogs for the kids’ dinner and steaks for the adults’ dinner. There was always something that the kids couldn’t eat because it was special for our father. “Don’t touch the ice cream—that’s your father’s.” “Don’t eat your father’s potato chips—I bought those for him.”
Food equated to a measure of control for my mother. We always had to “finish the plate” before we were allowed to leave the table. On the nights that she made liver and onions, we knew it was going to be a very long evening as we sat at the kitchen table to finish the plate. I would take bites of the liver, chew, spit the liver in my napkin while pretending to cough, and lower the napkin to the dog under table. Or there was always the famous tuck the liver underneath the edge of the plate and then state loudly that it was your job to clear the table.
The other night we went to dinner at my mom’s house. She served a cured ham, white potatoes that were split and then baked face down in butter, and corn on the cob. My mother cooks like her mother, but her mother emigrated from Poland and her food included a Polish flare. Meat and potatoes are still meat and potatoes even when cabbage is added in. I have always eaten Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Three meals a day.
FOOD = ANXIETY
My husband says that he did not actually know that people ate three meals a day until he went to camp when he was ten years old. He tells a story that on the first day at camp, they woke up and were led to the lodge for breakfast. He says that there was a ton of food and they could eat as much as they wanted and it was good. After breakfast, his belly was full and they went to the lake to swim. After what seemed to be an hour, they were brought back to the lodge and told that they were going to eat again. He couldn’t believe that they were already eating another meal because he was still full from breakfast, but he figured that he better fill up because this would definitely be the last time he ate that day. Once again, they went back outside to play, and you would not believe it but, sure enough, a few hours later they were brought back to the lodge for dinner. They ate. Three times a day. Amazing.
At his childhood home in inner-city Detroit, one pot was usually on the stove, filled with pork and beans or black-eyed peas and greens or chitlins. That one pot generally served as breakfast, lunch, and dinner. During the school year, a school-provided lunch was the main meal. His food legacy is different from my food legacy. He recently came across a phrase that resonated with him: food anxiety. In other words, the deprivation of food creates an anxiety that there will be no food available. Therefore, when there is an opportunity to eat, one tends to over consume.
FOOD = LOVE
The other part of my food legacy is that in my family, food equals love. Each of us has earned the reputation and esteemed title of “Food Pusher.” I have been told that the number of ingredients you use in a dish equals the amount of love that you have for the person you are feeding. Family, especially elders, should be served the best cut of meat. Every part of a fruit or a sandwich has a “best” part or “best” bite, and if you love me, you will give me that bite. Offering food repeatedly toward the end of a meal is a way that I have been taught to show love. “Please take that last bite.” “I know that you are hungry for dessert.” “I don’t want to wrap the leftovers. You have room to finish this.” My kids have literally said to me, “Mom, stop pushing food” and, “You get that from Grandma.”
For the women in our family, one of our favorite family functions is “Pierogi Day.” A pierogi is a polish dish of white dough with farmer’s cheese, potatoes, or sauerkraut inside. The four generations of women meet to make them once a year. My mom, the eldest and a great-grandmother, is usually the conductor. She waves ingredients in and out of bowls and pots with the fury of the conductor at a grand symphony. Each person has a role in the assembly line of pierogi crafters, from the teenage daughter who pulls the pierogis from the flash boil when they rise to the top to the three-year-old who sits on the counter and helps mix ingredients. We all pour love and family into the pierogis. And yes, I do love the tradition of recreating the recipe of my grandmother from Poland and the fact that as a family we are working together, enjoying each other’s company and creating memories. And boy, do we create! On Pierogi Day, we make hundreds of pierogis that never seem to be enough when they are argued over and split up at the end of the day. We take our gallon plastic bags filled with pierogis back home to our freezers or to college. We dole them out for dinner or snacks and fry them in a significant amount of butter.
FOOD = MONEY
Food is here to sustain us, to provide nourishment to our bodies. People defend their positions on food. Just ask someone to consider not eating meat or not drinking a beer you will find a population that is rooted in its cultural norms and food values. When I asked my mother to consider not eating as much meat (she eats it three times a day as a staple of her diet), she stated, “I will never give up meat.” The day after I asked my mother to eat less meat, she walked through my front door at 11 a.m. and without even a hello proudly stated, “My steak and eggs were great for breakfast this morning.”
She has a very interesting relationship with food. It stems from the fact that she is number thirteen of fourteen children in a very poor family. She needed to eat really fast out of the one pot that was put on the table for everyone. She knows that one of her relationships with food is portion size. Dare I say she has “food anxiety” from never having enough? Also, food equals lack where there is a perceived monetary value on the ability to eat meat three times a day: There are also the resonating concepts of food equals money and food equals luxury, which she did not have growing up with an impoverished family. Over the last two years, my mother is a prime example of a woman who is evolving. After lots of conversation and presenting articles regarding the harmful effects of processed and red meat, she has changed her nutrition and removed these items from her diet. If my mom can change and is now able to avoid processed and red meat, you can too.
FOOD = PLEASURE
Pleasure is the one relationship to food that we all have in common. There is a pleasure derived from eating our favorite foods that is almost a high to us. When asking people about their nutrition and if they would give up animal products, most people respond immediately with what they will never give up. I will never stop eating chicken. I will never stop eating ice cream. I will never stop drinking milk. I will never stop eating steak. Just fill in the blank with the one food you find so much pleasure in that you do not want to give up. Dr. Neal Bernard teaches us in Breaking the Food Seduction that animal products contain the same root ingredient as the addictive drug morphine and other opiates. Therefore, the receptors in the brain are responding to an addiction to animal products. Asking someone who eats animal products to give up steak produces a similar reaction to asking a drug user to give up their drugs.
As humans, our first response to change is usually to focus on what we won’t do. We start in a place of why a change won’t work rather than looking at what we can do. We also view immediate pleasure as more important than long-term health. We think, “I don’t care if I have to take this pill for the rest of my life; just leave me alone and let me eat my steak.” And for many people, the immediate pleasure response outweighs the risk or the long-term consequences. We do not envision ourselves having a heart attack or stroke at the age of forty-five, having diabetes at the age of fifty, or dying at an early age because the steak might have affected us in a negative way. We do not link the steak to premature death. We only want the immediate satisfaction and gratification that it brings to us. We do not think beyond the instantaneous pleasure. We do not think about how our actions are affecting our health, teaching our children, or impacting society.
FOOD = RECREATION
Foodie is a word recently added to our dictionary. The definition is “keenly interested in food, especially in relationship to eating,” but the most interesting thing about the word is that it is derived partially from the word junkie. Food is a pastime in our culture. Food is what we do on the weekends. Food is our new form of recreation. Food is our topic of conversation when we talk about what we will do on the weekend, what restaurant we will go to, what we will eat, what drink will go with each food. We take pictures of our food like we would take a picture of our child and post them and share them. Instead of skiing or basketball, food is our recreational hobby.
FOOD = REWARD
I am guilty of using food as a reward. As a mom, it is really easy to fall into the trap of making food a reward for my children. “Oh, you won the soccer game. Let’s go celebrate at Dairy Queen.” “You earned an A on the math test. Let me take you to Starbuck’s for a hot chocolate.” When our kids were little and were learning how to use the toilet, we would reward them with M&M’s every time they used the bathroom. Nothing says “congratulations” for a two year old like a bowl of M&M’s on the back of the toilet. How we reward our children and ourselves is a lesson in our relationship with food. Why is food the reward? What are we teaching our children if every time we do something good, we need to eat something? There are other alternatives for rewards, such as a sincere compliment, checking out a new book from the library, going to a movie, making a card for your child that says congratulations and how much you love him or her, or just playing catch in the yard.
What Is Your Relationship?
I ask that you examine your relationship with food. What is your primary feeling about food? Is it comfort, love, security, control, anxiety, pleasure, anger, or something else? In order to evolve, you need to understand the root of your relationship. Where do your feelings originate about food and what is the new relationship that you need to form with food? What are your memories about food? What do those memories tell you about your association with food and your feelings toward food? What is your legacy? What does food mean to me?