Sarah Gilbert is a freelance financial writer; she keeps chickens; and she’s a beginning urban farmer. She lives with her three small boys and husband in Portland, Oregon, and keeps her own blog, Cafe Mama.

Cooking in my mother’s kitchen

My food, 52 weeks a year

December 5, 2008

I have read many sprightly missives from the local-foods and “green” columnists and bloggers of late, reminding us true believers that, while visiting family, we must suspend our demanding ways, we must love the people and (silently) hate their ways with recycling and corn syrup. We must honor the truth that, well, we do right the other 51 weeks of the year.

That is not my practice. “I feel like you’re one-upping me!” says my mother. I am staying with her and my dad for a week, along with my sister, Jenny, and her husband and baby daughter, visiting from Panama. “I always worked so hard to make you children nutritious food.”

She did, there’s no denying it. I still struggle with a principle she mastered from my earliest memories: making each meal balanced, protein-carb-veg-fruit, providing a nice range of colors on the plate, keeping desserts to a respectable minimum. We did not grow up with chips and soda readily at hand, though whether that was more from health or financial concerns is impossible to say.

Salt and pepper from Portland salt store The Meadow.

But somewhere along the tortuous road that is providing nutrition to your family, my mother was hoodwinked. I am not singling her out. She was not only common, but in the vast majority. She learned about nutrition in those months and years as World War II was ending, as our food industry bred itself like rabbits and sent its hoppy little emissaries into every Western kitchen, and nutrition was offering canned vegetables and margarine and fat-free mayonnaise substitute to your loved ones. It was the value pack of pork chops, braised in diced tomatoes in a can, served with white rice from a bag and salad from a bag and tomatoes from her garden lovingly dressed with Thousand Island: ketchup, relish, fat-free mayo. It was 1-percent milk, fully pasteurized and homogenized, because we must not have fat but skim milk tastes like water.

When I visit, I bring things. Gallons of creamy whole raw milk. Jars of Prado Fino sea salt. Organic cinnamon and pepper. The week’s haul from the farmers’ market: potatoes and sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts and onions and beets and two kinds of apples and organic cranberries and yellow end-of-the-season sweet peppers. Several quarts of organic cream and a jar of buttermilk so I can culture and churn butter. Water kefir grains, which I’m experimenting with. A big jar of honey.

I cook in my mother’s kitchen, trying to strike a balance between concern for my family’s health and the obnoxiousness that only an oldest daughter can offer a woman approaching 70 years old. She and my dad ask me questions.

“What is the benefit of making your own butter?” they want to know, and I explain about the culture, which brings back the enzymes and good bacteria I want; the control I have over the cream that’s used; the quarts of buttermilk I have to use in casseroles, biscuits, and soups; the superior taste.

“Why is honey OK when sugar isn’t?” they ask, and I talk about more enzymes and good bacteria, and of course the beautiful natural processes of the hardworking honey bees. Nature always yields more attractive food than a factory.

I bite back commentary when my son Everett keeps asking for corn flakes with sugar (all cold breakfast cereals are banned from my kitchen; explode a grain with heat and pressure and you screw with both the nutrition and the molecular structure, rendering your frosted flakes no part of any healthy breakfast). Or when my son Truman returns to the cabinet for bowlful after bowlful of store-brand peanut butter (pesticides, hydrogenated oils, and sugars, makes my stomach churn). Or when the family eagerly digs into cookies-and-cream ice cream for dessert (sugar, among other things).

But I do not simply sit on my hands and eat my mother’s food without question. I look at the labels before I pour dressing on my salad of garden lettuce and farmers’ market tomatoes. I skip the ice cream, the plastic-package cookies, the fat-free mayo, the supermarket bread. I churn butter. I make shortbread cookies with honey. I bake bread. I make cranberry sauce with apples; I mash the potatoes with buttermilk and sea salt.

I soak the plastic-bag beans overnight before making turkey chili; I use my own crème fraîche for the lentil dip I make for the football game. I offer to buy my parents flour and oats from Bob's Red Mill. I make a mental note to buy a little organic cumin and paprika and cinnamon and pepper and bring it when I next visit.

One day my sister’s husband, an indijeno Wounaan, makes hojaldra, fry bread, and he makes it with these modern ingredients in my mother’s kitchen, Fred Meyer white flour and corn oil and baking powder. It must sit all night and I think to myself, Aha, here is ancient cuisine, adapted to today’s time, and he is using the same practices I am, though he does not know why.

I thank my mother for her hospitality, I leave a quart of buttermilk in her freezer, and I go home and begin my dreaming. I will make a batch of hojaldra dough with whole-wheat flour and sourdough starter. I will fry it in lard. And I will offer it to my brother-in-law.

Perhaps this is what culture and family are all about: learning things from each other and making them better while honoring their real intentions, finding nutrition that is honest and has its roots in the long ago, when “food industry” was a woman and her children, churning butter.

There are 5 comments on this item
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1. by CJMcD on Dec 7, 2008 at 8:03 AM PST

Your lifestyle is obviously different from your folks. If I were them, I’d clean my house, prepare for guests and kick back to enjoy family, allowing you to handle all the kitchen duties. That would save a lot of frustration on both of your parts.

2. by Steve on Dec 9, 2008 at 6:42 AM PST

Thanks for sharing, Sarah. This post really resonated with me.

3. by anonymous on Dec 10, 2008 at 10:08 AM PST

Your mom’s culinary efforts obviously sparked an interest in good food and nutrition in you and it is a testament to her thoughtful efforts that you took the ball and ran with it. I always thought my mom was a pretty good cook but she always says that I am much better than she ever was. A lot changes in culinary styles and availability too over the years. I never saw the range of foods available now in the markets that I did 40 years ago. She should be very proud of your ability, I know I would be.

4. by FoodRenegade on Dec 10, 2008 at 8:08 PM PST

I did what you did for a long while, then I broke down and just bought my mom Nourishing Traditions. She was instantly hooked! Now she’s on my team, and we swap stories.

It’s funny you should mention cold cereal because I just put a post up about a healthy cold cereal concoction of mine which my family eats almost daily with raw milk & honey. It may be what you need to temper your son’s cold cereal fever.

5. by Chris Musser on Dec 17, 2008 at 9:58 AM PST

I do some of the same things when I visit my folks back east. When I was there in October, I ordered raw milk/cream so I could make cream cheese, baked bread. My mom’s a decent scratch cook, but she too has bought into the fear of fat/cholesterol and insists faux eggs and skim milk. I’ve been thinking of passing along Real Food to her--she’d never read NT. When I was growing up, she did cook with fewer processed ingredients then, grew a big vegetable garden, canned her own tomatoes, peaches, etc. I have a distinct memory of asking to buy tomatoes at the grocery store and her telling me that store-bought tomatoes taste like cardboard, so I do credit her in part with setting me on the path I’m on today. I do wish I could convince her to stop eating those damn Egg Beaters...

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