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When food means 'I love you'

My daughter recently presented me with a second-grade St. Patrick's Day-themed art project that read: "my mom is worth more than gold to me because she cooks me food." As a feminist writer who has considered the complex emotional connections women make with food, their families and their lives, I laughed, wiped away a tear and wondered if I had enough flour to bake her a cake.

My Grandma Rose's butter-based cuisine (not her words) expressed her affection for her large family. I never heard her say "I love you," but I tasted it in every decadent, from-scratch chocolate chip cookie.

Now that I am older, with a family of my own, I suspect she could have saved herself a lot of hard work (and hardened arteries) by speaking her love, instead of baking it.

Of course, to a girl growing up on a North Dakota farm in the early 20th century, discussing emotion was as foreign as a European dish called "pizza." And becoming a terrific cook was not a gesture of generosity or kindness, but a matter of survival, especially when the Great Depression hit. I remember too well the disappointment on her face whenever I ate only the white meat off the hunks of chicken on my dinner plate. She didn't lament the rejected dark meat and marrow because she feared I didn't love her; rather, she mourned the meal that could be made out of what I considered scraps.

We live to eat, we eat to live; we eat to love, we love to eat. Women are doubly cursed by these cultural imperatives, as we are expected not only to produce fine meals of exceptional taste and abundance, but also to avoid eating more than two bites for fear of gaining an ounce. My grandmother was quite plump until various age-related afflictions ended her tenure as family chef; by the time she died, she was slight enough to wear clothes from the girls' department. I lie somewhere in the literally mushy middle, striving for emotional and nutritional balance, learning from my grandmother's example.

I know well that Rose never chose the job of housewife-it was thrust upon her by culture and circumstances. These days, many women choose to be home, and it's that choice that has informed the blossoming of parenting as "lifestyle," especially where food is concerned.

I follow a number of so-called "mom blogs," and you'd think to read them that not even abortion is as loaded a topic as whether children ought to eat yogurt that contains high-fructose corn syrup. Even though we 21st-century moms aren't shy about telling our little darlings we love them, our culture compels us to express our care and concern through cookery.

I use the word "cookery" deliberately, for to love a child in the modern era, only homemade, organic, non-GMO treats will do. It's worth noting that this kind of nurturing requires a great deal of time and even more money. As a mom of six, my grandma Rose never had enough of either. I bet she was thrilled when cheap supermarket bread meant she didn't have to toil by a hot oven all day, corn syrup be damned.

In the end, I didn't bake Miriam a cake to thank her for her artwork. I gave her an enormous hug, and I told her this: "I love you so much."

Her response?

"Mom, what's for dinner ?"

Shannon Drury is a self-described radical housewife. She lives in Minneapolis.

Read more: In 2009, Shannon wrote a feature story for the Women's Press about modern housewifery, "Feminists in the Kitchen." Read it online at tinyurl.com/a3ooqj5


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