Mama Food

Writing books and essays about food, I hear a lot of stories about what people ate growing up. Because cooking was mostly women's work, those stories are almost always about mothers and grandmothers, and how the food made them feel - and how the memories of that food still do make them feel. There's a longing for the reclamation of the food of our past and our childhood. The food of love roots deep in us - the food we were given as acts of love by others sticks with us, gradually releasing nutrients that feed us deep inside for years, decades afterwards. I call it Mama food, even though it does not have to be made by mothers.

I have treasured childhood food memories - my paternal grandmother's peanut butter cookies, my great-grandmother's Polish feasts, my father, who cooked his way through Julia Child and Craig Claiborne before there were blogs about such things. But I don't have a deep memory of my mother's Mama food, because my mother didn't particularly cook. She does now, but she never enjoyed it, and when I was a child my father's joke (which was probably more unkind than it had to be like most such jokes) was that like Woody Allen's guitarist, my mother knew two recipes, one was tuna noodle casserole and one wasn't. My father took over the cooking immediately, and was good at it, if a bit ponderous.

The reason, or perhaps one of the reasons my mother didn't cook, is that I don't think her mother cooked. Grandma's cooking is much lauded in song and story, but as far as I can recall, I don't think NeNe, my mother's mother, ever cooked for us. She heated up food, but did not cook in the from-scratch sense that we think of when we talk about Grandmother food. My main memory of NeNe's house is of Kentucky Fried Chicken, not then called KFC. It was a rare treat in our lives, and I loved it. I also have vague memories of rice-a-roni, and plenty involving Friendly's ice cream. With Nene, you went out or ordered in, or opened a box of something. She was a loving grandmother, delighted to let you play with her cosmetics, take you shopping or for ice cream sundaes, but her love was not expressed in the kitchen.

If you think because I believe in fresh food I'm going to lament a mother or grandmother who didn't cook, you are wrong. My mother made sure we ate healthy and balanced meals, cut up salad with first my father and then my step-mother to make sure there were vegetables. She married two accomplished cooks, my father and my step-mother, and it is their delicious food, by and large, that made me a cook. That is sufficient. My grandmother, often in the 50s and 60s a desperately impoverished single mother did the best she could - she opened cans and boxes that she had been told were the most modern, the newest and the best way to get nutrition. Later, she gave her grandchildren, who rarely ate fried food, the treat of fried chicken. It was good. It was Mama food, even if it came in a bucket, because it was bound up in love.

I don't say this to critique them, but to make a larger point - I hear a great deal about "Mama Food" the food of our past, the food we try to reclaim when we are cold or lonely or sad or grief stricken or frightened. I hear a lot about grandmothers who canned and preserved and killed their own chickens, because that is what I do, and what I do reminds others of their past. But my own experience is different - and, at this point, probably more normative. I didn't grow up on a farm. Fresh killed chickens were not part of my childhood vocabulary. My step-mother made strawberry jam every year, and we gardened a few years, but by and large, my Mama food was not the food of three or four generations ago - it was the food of the 1970s. And a lot of it came from a can or a box. In this, I am not alone.

That is, while we hear a lot about grandmothers who cook from the old country, many, maybe even most Americans have mothers and grandmothers who fed them conventional purchased and processed food, and THIS *IS* THE NOSTALGIC FOOD OF CHILDHOOD for millions. And that has a huge effect on how we eat now - because while previous generations may have eaten this food while secretly remembering or longing for or thinking too hard a menu of fresh and unpreserved food, we now live in a world where the idea of food is that love comes in boxes and buckets.

This may seem obvious, but it is important, because we are constantly trying to return to our lost past at dinner time, and yet the past is truly lost for many of us - that is, a generation that remembers real food as a point of origin is rapidly slipping away. It is no coincidence that most of my correspondents who write to tell me of their Mother or Grandmother are baby boomers, the generation of my parents, or immigrants.

This matters because you don't cease to love the food of your childhood because it involves powdered orange cheese and and a box, you do not cease to have memories of love when the food is not nutritious or healing in a long-term sense. Moreover, most of us, if we did not fully learn to cook at someone's knee, at least have a vague sense of how food is made. If no one cooks, no one learns to cook, or even what to do with whole ingredients.

Again, this may be obvious, but it strikes me that it is under-addressed in the question of where to now in the healthier food revolution. In my neighborhood, there is much shock and dismay over new school lunch guidelines - many gasps that adding carrots to the school lunch trays resulted in carrots in the garbage and complaints about the lack of junk food. Well intentioned people who have worked to bring affordable produce to neighborhoods who don't have it - for example in our local program to put vegetables into convenience stores...find they get thrown away.

These programs are all new - the federal school lunch guidelines are only 2 years old, the convenience store program is only a bit over a year. And both of them are real and positive responses to serious problems, but expecting them to SOLVE the problems seems to be unrealistic. That is, the school lunch program can provide children with healthy food and change what is available to them - but it can't teach them to love and choose and eat all those foods instantly and without difficulty. The convenience store produce program can make food available - but we are still dealing with the effects of a multi-generational lack of familiarity, knowledge and access to these foods, and expecting that to change overnight, or with a single program is bound to failure. The truth is that most of the children and families targeted in these programs see commercial, industrial food as the root food, their "Mama food" and that can't be changed rapidly.

Because both my father and step-mother cooked, I grew up in a home where someone produced a home-cooked meal every single night after work. My father was a slow and laborious cook, and what I remember most was the frustration of waiting for him to make spaghetti sauce from scratch or make homemade mashed potatoes. But the food was good, even if it was late and we were tired and hungry when we finally ate, and the message was unmistakable - that dinner was important, that cooking was important, and that you held your appetite and waited until meals were provided. I don't think I realized how tiring it must have been to come home and spend 2 hours on your feet making dinner after leaving the house at 6:15 to catch two buses to get to work - I wished we ate pizza out more often, or that we could eat potatoes from a box. But we never did, and it was good.

My step-mother Susie was more attentive to the needs of young children - meals came on the table and there were more and fresher vegetables, but it was the same thing - cooking was what you did. She came home from work and made shepherd's pie and macaroni casserole and baked chicken. If my father's cooking was laborious, heavy and Frenchish, hers was a combination of a 1950s Italian inheritance that valued fresh things and 70s cookbooks. But it didn't matter WHAT it was, dinner mattered. I moaned that unlike all my friends I never at marshmallow fluff sandwiches or riceroni (except at my grandmother's once in a while). I didn't know how lucky I was - that I was getting, from my father and my step-mother, a Mama Food, a language and taste and nostalgia. It was good.

My mother, I suspect never had that - it is possible that her mother cooked more when she was young, but I don't think so. But she knew enough to know that food mattered, and made sure someone else always made it work. She gave us a Mama food as well - even if it was cooked by others.

Mama food for many kids is orange macaroni from a box, instant oatmeal, poptarts, gogurt, KFC and Happy Meals. That is, this is the food they remember, that makes them happy, that makes them feel loved and comforted. And just as I know that love can come in a bucket of chicken or a box of minute rice from my own grandmother, and feel just as loving and just as real, we know it isn't the quality of the food that makes it come with love. A single working mother who can't really afford it and stops at the drive through because her kids are hungry now loves them, and is showing love. An older sister opening that box and shaking out orange powder on pasty macaroni is loving her younger siblings as she waits for her long-working parents to come home. Soup from a can is love after standing in line at the food pantry to get it for hours so you won't miss the box that will feed your kids. HoHos are love when delivered by grandma on weekdays when she drops the kids off. It is, fundamentally, Mama Food, and it is good.

It is not, however, good for you, or good for the planet. It is not something that can go on forever, this centralizing and shipping and purchasing. It is not good for children and other living things, to paraphrase a hippie slogan. But it is real, and it is love, so we should not be shocked when no child ever says "Wow, I was just waiting for them to offer squash cubes instead of cupcakes" or "What the heck is this stuff." We shouldn't be surprised when people pass the pears and kale by at the convenience store - and that doesn't mean the programs are failing. It is true that not having access is a real part of the problem. But it isn't the whole of the problem, and we can't expect our food culture to change instantly.

Changing your Mama food is a long term project - long, long, long. It depends on a million individual acts of personal change and cultural change. No one should be shocked when kids throw out their vegetables - because the process of getting them to eat them is one that can't be done instantly. But that doesn't make the federal lunch guidelines a failure - it means it is piece of a larger project of teaching people about food and food choices, and making them value those food choices.

Most of us don't eat only what our parents ate - if you grew up in the 1960s, a majority of non-Japanese parents did not eat sushi - but I bet a lot of you do. Greek yogurt was not a child's lunch box staple in the 1980s, but my sons see it as one. Mama food is not destiny - but it is a large piece of how we think about food, and if we want people to change, you don't get that change instantly, or by denying that Mama and Papa love can be bound up in lots of kinds of food. Instead, we have to begin a very long-term process of education and opening up - one that includes changing what is offered at the table in many respects, and also includes understanding the cultural importance of the food we ate from the cradle, teaching people to cook and to eat differently - so that the next generations of children can eat differently, and it will be good.


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Hi Sharon,

Thanks for posting this. As a child of two parents who never cooked, I completely understand and appreciate your post. My ex-husband had harsh feelings towards my mother for not providing me with homemade food, since his culture put that first and foremost. He often commented how he lacked respect for my mother because of this, and that he felt he had a better mother for this reason alone. I remember dinner at neighborhood Italian restaurants, my mom surprising me at elementary school to take me to the nearby McDonald's for lunch just so she could spend time with me because she missed me throughout the day. I remember my mother's attempts at making oversized meatballs that my dad and I slathered with ketchup. They were ugly, they fell apart...but they were good. I have great memories of time spent at various diners with my mom and grandma, going specifically on days that there were fried scallops and split pea soup on the menu. My grandmother cooked, but only occasionally, and only a few things, but I remember those few things well. I don't know why she did not pass down some tips to my mother, but I love my mother no less for it. She did what made me happy, and all of it meant that she spent more time with me, even if it came out of a takeout container or was eaten in the car. And it was good. :O)

By Michelle Olveira (not verified) on 23 Sep 2014 #permalink

Fascinating insights. I don't even know what some of the foodstuffs you cite ARE [two cultures separated by a common language; Hohos? riceroni? never heard of them... ] but I get the picture.
I learned to cook because my mother, bless her, couldn't cook food anyone but her own family would love her for. Everything was boiled.... to death. But it was made with love, and appreciated for that, and the odd boil-in-a-bag meal appreciated even more. And nowadays, having spent my entire adult life caring about exactly what goes into what i cook and hence into my family, I'm stuck with ready meals because I can't juggle caring for a sick mother and husband and spending hours cooking when I am myself disabled. And bless my mother, she doesn't even notice that it doesn't taste as good, and my husband recognises that it's served with love. But Oh, I would like to see cooking back on the school curriculum for all, even if not a return to a ruler across the knuckles if there was any waste left on the plate after school lunches.

By Sarah Waldock (not verified) on 23 Sep 2014 #permalink

A few years ago I taught a class called "Eating and Memory" as part of an environmental learning community in a campus dorm. The class focused on oral histories of food, on the ways that our memories of food shape our understandings of ourselves and our identities. On the surface, it wasn't immediately clear to the students (or to me) why this particular class fit into the curriculum of an environmentally-themed learning community. And yet, upon further discussion about just the topics you raise above, we all discovered together that these kinds of memories are at the very foundation of how people choose to eat what they eat. And if we want to change what people eat, for the good of the earth, we must begin by understanding motivations, history, memories, identity. The concrete decision of "what do I eat?" is deeply tied up with these far more intangible values.

This post is very close to the bone for me. I do cook, every day, and I really like to cook. Most of the time, I am using ingredients that come from our farm, and most of the time, we sit down to dinner together. I work very hard to provide interesting, healthy, attractive, and good-tasting food for my family. I do this because I think it's extremely important for any number of reasons, but As anyone who has ever tried to do this can testify, this isn't an easy thing to do day after ever-loving day. It's easy for me to slip into martyr mode, especially when my school aged kids voice their opinions at the table that mac n' cheese from a box is SO MUCH BETTER than my homemade pasta casserole. Or that the school lunch hot dogs are SO MUCH BETTER than goat-meat chorizo. I forgive them; they are kids. One day they may think it all worth it just to amaze their friends by telling them that their mother makes homemade goat-meat chorizo :) That's not my point though - my point is that most kids these days inhabit a mixed food landscape, at least they do if their parents DO cook. Even the very crunchiest of my granola friends has been known to let their kids eat school lunch once ion a while or lets their grandma pamper them with fast food. And then those kids are like the squirrel in Over the Hedge when he eats a cheeto and his head explodes. How does the parent who cooks compete with the food-science industry? My kids have been eating my cooking for their entire lives and they would still rather have a Big Mac. I swear, I'm no slouch in the kitchen. But more and more I find myself cooking because I enjoy it, and less and less attempting to please people who, I suspect, cannot reliably be pleased by home cooking because they are habituated to industrial food. It's like somebody who watches triple X porn trying to get excited over a glimpse of ankle under a long wool skirt.

My mother was an excellent cook, and I am pretty good myself.
However, one of my major memories is of hot dogs. While I was in highschool, we rebuilt barns, tore down barns, built fence, made new pens, etc. I would walk the mile in from where the bus let me off. Mother and Daddy would already be out working. On the table would be a bag of 10 weenies, a loaf of white bread, a jar of mustard and a stewpan. I would put the weenies on to steam and go change to work clothes. Then I would lay out 10 slices of bread, mustard them up, put the weenies in place, and consume them. That was enough fuel for my teenage metabolism to get me through to suppertime after dark.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 23 Sep 2014 #permalink

aimee you are SO right! My 16-year-old is fruitlessly trying to convince me that frozen dinners are cheaper than making food from scratch, which I do most days of the week. And Sharon, you are right, too. In junior high (around 1982) I was in Home Ec class, where they actually taught you how to follow a recipe and cook some things. It was obviously very eye opening for some kids! But that 2-month class didn't teach enough, it was just an introduction. But I suspect that class isn't offered anywhere at all, anymore. But a great many kids and adults both could benefit from learning the basics of turning produce into something yummy, healthy, and less expensive. But how to do that kind of massive education program?

Or~ when your 10 year old begs and pleads for your most wonderful homemade brownies because they bring the best trades of store bought goodies from his friends at lunch ("2 Twinkies for just 1 of your brownies, Mom!"

By Elizabeth (not verified) on 23 Sep 2014 #permalink

Thank you! My mother was (and still is, when her health permits), a fine cook. My grandmother started working full-time at age 16. Other family members and hired neighbors did the cooking, and Grama never learned to cook until my mother, as a teen, decided she wanted to learn before she left for college. Grama never mastered anything other than cookies. She left, instead, a legacy of hard work and female ambition that would be impressive even today and was certainly notable before WWI, when she first got the then "male" job of bookkeeper.

Oh yes, this. My grandmother did not cook, and was a dedicated fan of Kentucky Fried Chicken. We had KFC and ice cream for her 100th birthday. She was an amazing woman in many ways, but when people go on about "grandma's cooking" I just laugh. The dreaded corned beef hash from a can with a fried egg on top.

By Charlotte (not verified) on 24 Sep 2014 #permalink

Oh my yes. I come from a long line of cooks and gardeners. Both grandmothers were good cooks and served a strange 70's blend of vegetables from their gardens, Campbell's soup and cake mixes. My mother was not as enthusiastic a cook, but we never ate out. A childhood obsession of mine was Velveeta cheese. My grandmothers had it at their houses, but my mother deemed it "too expensive" so we never had it. I haven't eaten it for many years, but I make a vegan approximation of it. Brings back good memories. We rarely eat processed foods now so I'm curious to see what kinds of foods my kids seek out when they are adults.

Until early elementary school, we lived on a farm and my mother cooked everything from scratch. I still have very strong sensory memories of some of the foods we ate. And yet, I was horribly, terribly embarrassed by being different from the other kids at school. I would have given anything to have Wonder bread instead of my mom's homemade whole wheat bread for my lunch sandwiches. Fast forward a few years, my parents divorced, my mom moved to town and raised us on her own. She worked full-time and relied on packaged convenience food to feed us. She never taught me to cook. As an adult, I tried to recover the lost foods of my rural childhood. I taught myself how to cook. I bake my own bread and garden. Even though I had years of processed foods and no knowledge or skill for cooking passed on to me, those early years were so crucial in defining my tastes and preferences for what real comfort food is. And now, few thing make me happier than when my daughter tells me that she can't abide store-bought bread.

I also come from a "hybrid" family. My mom considered herself an indifferent cook but made delicious pickles and always canned green beans. Velveeta cheese graced our table throughout my childhood as did white bread, and I have wonderful memories of both. These days, I can't consider myself a purist, but we do our best to provide (mostly) wholesome foods, Sometimes appreciated, sometimes not.

I can absolutely understand how difficult it must be to transition to preparing and eating vegetables and fruits when you are unfamiliar with them. I am a highly educated person with a lot of common sense, but my mum never cooked or gardened either, and when I moved into my first little house with a bunch of lovely fruit trees out the back, I simply could not get my head around fruit that grew on trees, and had blemishes, and all ripened at once in a period of two weeks. I theoretically knew that there was such a thing as preserving fruit, but had no idea how to go about it, and was also highly suspicious of fruit that didn't come from the supermarket. It took years of working beside good friends to learn the 'secrets' of gardening and cooking that seem so simple and self-obvious now.
So yes, I can sympathise with the person who looks at a bag of green beans in the convenience store and simply does not even know how to fit it into their frame of reference for 'food'.
However, by the sounds of it, Australia has the edge on the US here - every Australian primary school I have ever been involved with has a 'fruit break' either at the beginning of recess or during story time, where the children may only eat a fruit or vegetable (brought from home, no school lunches here), and only drink water.
Also, every Australian high school has home economics as part of the curriculum, at least a year of compulsory cooking instruction, after which it is an elective.

In this part of the world, we call them our recettes de famille, and their strong related memories. Poutine, with its nutritious and comforting pile of patates frites et crottes de fromage covered in sauce brune is more restaurant food than homemade. We eat simply, keeping our stong preferences for familiar foods alive in our daily choices, for the most part. Apple perfume has always fueled me. By all means, let`s keep writing.


Danielle Charbonneau
Community and Environmental Advocate
volunteer, non-afiliated

By Danielle Charboneau (not verified) on 30 Sep 2014 #permalink

Neither of my grandmothers was a particularly good cook. My father's mother cooked all sorts of strange things to stretch the food (meatloaf with this morning's leftover Cheerios, for example), and wasn't very good at it either. Supposedly her Thanksgiving turkey was so dry you could light a match on it. By the time I knew her, she had stopped cooking for family (there were too many of us, and everyone would insist that she "have some fun with the grandbabies". Somehow this drove my dad to learn to cook pretty well. (although he would put hot dogs in the mac'n'cheese so my bother and I would refuse to eat it so he could have it to himself. Sneaky.)

My mother's mother learned to cook during the Depression, and when they lived on a ranch in Arizona, but she wasn't ever very interested in cooking. The first time I ever used boxed cake mix was with her. In her 90's she announced that since we would not let her live on a diet of Ensure (meal-replacement drinks), she wanted to move into a home and never have to cook again. So she did.

My mom is a great cook. When I was a child we lived out in a rural-ish area, but worked and schooled in the city. There was never really the option of take-out, so she cooked every night. And I remember my brother and I whining for the box mac'n'cheese, plastic wrapped cheese and Oreos.

Now that I'm an adult, I cook dinner from scratch almost every night (even though I live in the city). And while I still like boxed mac'n'cheese I know that because my mom (and dad) taught me that home-cooked was normal, I'm probably saving money and hopefully adding years to my life. But it is more work, and sometimes my husband doesn't understand why I torture myself with it. "Because it's the only way I know how."

So Roz and Aimee, They'll grow out of it, and thank you (and maybe even look back with a touch of shame.)

By JustaTech (not verified) on 01 Oct 2014 #permalink

To Aimee: When your children are grown, they will probably (a) have good eating habits, a very a healthy diet, and (b) actually *thank you* for cooking the way you did in their childhood.

It's a *long* time to wait, but I bet it *will* happen. This is exactly what has happened with my daughter.


By Pat Meadows (not verified) on 02 Oct 2014 #permalink