The most gratifying thing about this project is the bond it’s created between me and my mom. A close second, though, is the chord it’s struck with the people around me. All I have to do is mention what I’m doing, and people just fairly burst with stories of how their childhood foods tasted, smelled, felt. And so very many people have offered to be part of the project. I am blown away.
Here are some ideas for how you can start your own Mom Food Project (or Dad Food Project or Granny Food Project or whatever):
1. Identify your Mom Food influences
Mom food isn’t always made by mothers. In my life, the food of love and belonging usually came from my mother, but there were other influences, too: my church youth leaders, Pat and Nina, were a big one; the woman who babysat us when I was young, too, had her Mom Food moments. In your life, it may have been mom, or some other combination of people, who made sure you were fed, and did it with love. Your dad; an aunt or uncle; a neighbor; a teacher; someone else.
Think back on your childhood and identify a few people who made the foods that still comfort you today. Sometimes, these memories are sad or complicated. For instance, while my mother is the source of almost all my Mom Food memories, she’s also the source of some of my pain around eating-disorder stuff from my youth. That’s okay. Love isn’t always neat and pretty.
Your Mom Food influences don’t have to be perfect pictures of love. If it helps, think of the foods themselves (the hot cereal you have on a winter morning; the tea you drink when you’re sick), and then identify who brought those things to you, or taught you that they would make you feel better. Let yourself be sad if there’s sadness there. Love and sadness can and often do coexist.
2. Thank them
Your Mom Food folks may not be around any more. They may have died, or moved out of your life in some other way. If you’re still in contact with them, write or call and tell them you appreciate what they gave you. If you’re not in touch with them, or they’re no longer around, sit for a moment and think about the love that came from their simple act of feeding you. Feeding people with love is one way to keep them whole and strong, and it behooves us to cultivate gratitude for the people who did that for us, even if they were flawed as people.
3. Gather their recipes
This project was born when I decided to try to get my mom to tell me how to make the foods of my childhood so that I could cook her foods even though I’m five hundred miles away from her. It’s been the best part of the process for me to call or visit my mom and ask her to teach me to make the foods I loved as a girl: matzoh balls, her all-day spaghetti sauce, latkes, etc.
If you can get your mom (or whoever — I’ll say “mom” from here on in, but remember that your Mom Food may be Dad Food or Aunt Food or whatever) to write her recipes down for you in her own handwriting, all the better—instant heirloom. Otherwise, have her tell you and you write it down. Ask clarifying questions: what size pot did she use? Did she preheat the oven? Sharp or mild cheddar? And enlist her help in making a list of all the Mom Food you both can remember from your childhood — and from hers!
Even if your mom’s alive, but especially if she isn’t, other people can be great resources for this step. If you have siblings, ask them if they remember foods from your childhood. Ask your other parent(s). Ask your grandparents, if they’re around. Keep digging. I’ve found that people LOVE to reminisce about the foods of their childhoods, and no one yet has been anything but thrilled to help me put this puzzle together.
4. Practice, practice, practice!
I took in my sister’s child a few years ago, and one of the things she and I have been working on is recreating the foods from her childhood, which she mostly spent living with me and/or my mother. To do this, I have her describe the food she’s remembering. If it’s not one of my dishes, I do my best to recreate it, and then she tastes the food, tells me what’s missing or wrong, and I make it again, until I get it right.
I do the same sort of thing with my Mom Food, but I’m the taste-tester. I’m lucky enough to be able to pick up the phone and say to my mom “The chicken came out less crisp than yours; what am I doing wrong?” If I didn’t have that resource, I could still practice making mom’s recipes and tweaking them until they taste the way I remember.
Mom Food may change over time according to your own preferences. My mom’s chicken and rice casserole had three cans of cream-of-something soup in it (chicken, celery, and mushroom). I hate cream of chicken soup; can’t stand the stuff. Now that soup has been replaced with an additional can of cream of mushroom, and my Mom Food chicken casserole still hits the Mom Food spot, but doesn’t contain the ingredient I always wished it didn’t when I was a kid. Eventually, I’ll perfect a version that’s free of canned foods, but I’ll probably still return to the trashy version for comfort from time to time.
5. Teach it!
Once you’ve mastered your Mom Food, the only way to keep it alive is to pass it on. Write it down; blog it; teach it to your kids or to the children in your life. Cook the food for potlucks and pass out the recipe when people rave over it. Serve it to your family and make it part of their own Mom Food tradition. Serve the food with love. When this happens, you have become the Mom in Mom Food, and the circle is complete.
One final note
As you’re doing this, don’t forget the tag line: Food is not love. Feeding people is love.
Food is not love.
Feeding people is love.
The emotions this stuff invokes aren’t actually in the food itself. Those cinnamon rolls aren’t Grandpa Food because of the cinnamon—they make you feel the way they do because Grandpa saved you the end piece with less icing, because he knew that’s what you wanted. The chicken soup your mother made when you were sick still makes you feel better because she cared enough to make it, not because of the soup itself. The food is a talisman of sorts, a way to bring to mind the memories of lovingkindness inherent in the act of giving sustenance to a child. If you don’t eat chicken any more, you’re not excluded from the exercise of passing that love on to those around you. You just get to do it with different foods.
We can’t bring back the days of childhood, not really. But let’s bring them to mind and honor them, shall we?
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