By Tom Robotham
When it comes to food, people generally fall into two camps: those who live to eat, and those who eat to live. Those, in other words, who regard food as the greatest pleasure in life, and those who think of it as necessary fuel, in the same way that they think about putting gasoline in their cars.
My relationship with food is a bit more complicated—and like most things, it’s rooted in childhood.
To put it bluntly, my mother hated cooking and routinely announced that to the family. Boiled potatoes were a staple in my household, and I didn’t mind that—with a little salt, pepper and butter, I still find them satisfying. But on more occasions than I can count, I’d hear my mother yell from the kitchen, “Ohhhh, I’ve burned the potatoes again.” She’d get distracted, apparently, and let the water boil way until parts of the potatoes were black and crusty.
“Just cut that off,” she’d say, as she dished the dry white lumps onto our plates.
Accompanying the potatoes, were frozen vegetables and some cheap cut of meat, broiled to the consistency of slightly moist leather. Generally there was bread on the table as well. She never bought Wonder Bread, and I always wondered why, since I saw it advertised on television all the time. But it was the equivalent, served with hard-refrigerated butter that tore holes in the slices when you tried to spread it.
And milk. That was good and may explain why I love it to this day—ice-cold milk: the feeling of being nourished by something that goes down easy.
In spite of all this drama and dreariness, my mother insisted on having dinners at the dining room table every night.
“That’s what refined people do,” she’d say, having learned this mantra at some point in her life.
And yet, nothing about our childhood dinners seemed refined. My mother would sit at one end of the table, complaining about one thing or another, while my father would sit at the other end looking miserable.
“Can I go eat in front of the TV?” I’d often ask. Sometimes the answer was yes, sometimes no.
When my mother didn’t even feel like making an attempt, Swanson’s frozen dinners were on the menu, which seemed like a step up, in spite of the skin that slipped off the chicken like a glove.
Holidays could be an exception. If “company” was coming, she’d work harder, cooking a roast beef or turkey and taking extra care with the vegetables. There might even be a salad of iceberg lettuce and tomatoes involved. And the potatoes would be mashed—although, by that, I mean simply mashed. No butter or milk; certainly no garlic.
Thanks to my friends and neighbors, I was familiar with garlic. Many of them were Italian-Americans, and when I’d go to their house for dinner I’d enjoy the most wonderful baked ziti, lasagna, chicken parm or spaghetti and meatballs.
“Eat some more! You’re so skinny,” my friend’s grandmother said to me one day after I’d consumed a bowl of spaghetti that seemed to me to be about three meals worth of food.
My untrained stomach could barely manage it.
There was an upside to all of this. When I went off to college, and friends would complain about the cafeteria. I was perfectly happy. Plenty of food prepared by people who didn’t complain about having to cook it. Sure, it was bland, but I was used to that.
It was only after college that I began to consider good food as a worthwhile pursuit. When I got my first apartment, I bought a wok, when woks were all the rage. I took pleasure in shopping, chopping, stir-frying and eating. For the first time in my life, in fact, I cooked for a girlfriend. I was proud.
Around that time, after my parents had split, my dad started taking me out to eat in Manhattan. He introduced me to sushi well before the rest of the country had a clue, and treated me to memorable dinners as well at the famous Algonquin Hotel. Good food; good wine, and conversation about Dorothy Parker and William Shawn, the legendary editor of The New Yorker. What could be better?
I also traveled on my own quite a bit during those years, and had some memorable meals. In particular, I remember the first time I went to San Francisco. After stopping in City Lights Bookstore, I dipped into a café and ordered an omelette with mornay sauce. It was one of the best things I’d ever tasted—so much so that five hours later, after a long and meandering walk to Fisherman’s Wharf, I sat down at a restaurant overlooking Alcatraz, and order crabmeat mornay.
Not long thereafter, I met the woman I would marry, and she blew me away with her cooking. “A symphony of flavors,” I remember telling her after one meal—and that was no bullshit. It was a delight.
During the two decades that we were married, I continued to enjoy her cooking, and sometimes I would cook as well. But we had a deal: If you do the cooking, I’ll do the dishes. My occasional forays into the oven notwithstanding, I usually ended up doing the dishes.
Eventually, the marriage fell apart. I was single once again. I know some people enjoy cooking for themselves, but I find it to be…Well, I won’t say depressing—just a pain in the ass. More often than not, I would opt for takeout, and if I did cook it was spaghetti with marinara sauce, or something comparably easy.
I continued to enjoy meals at restaurants, when I could afford them. And I continued to enjoy them when people cooked for me. But my desire to cook for myself was gone. So was my desire for good food, most of the time. A baloney sandwich and a glass of milk was all I needed.
This whole issue came to light last summer when I went to Paris. If you’re going to indulge in good food, what better place to do it?
I did, to some extent. I’ve had some of the best meals of my life in Paris—rivaled only, perhaps, by my next-door neighbor’s lasagna when I was growing up. But most of the time I just wanted to drink. This is not primarily about alcohol, though I’ll freely admit that I drink too much of that for my health. I’ve always preferred drinking. As a kid I didn’t care much for food, but I loved juice, soda and milk.
My troubled relationship with food has gotten serious at times. There are moments, when I’m gripped by anxiety, that I have trouble swallowing. I become overly conscious of it and fear that I might choke.
And yet, I long for a healthy relationship with food. One of my favorite television programs from the last few years has been Parts Unknown. I get the appeal—not only the “symphony of flavors,” as I once put it to my ex-wife, but the potential of breaking bread together as a bonding experience—and the potential of cooking to be the equivalent of conducting a symphony.
I also appreciate where the food came from, if it’s good, and value the ritual of grace. When I was in Vermont this summer, staying with a dear old friend, a mutual friend suggested that we hold hands around the table and sit in silence for a minute. No one was religious, in any conventional sense. It just seemed like an exercise in mindfulness—and it was lovely.
I don’t know whether I’ll ever have a good relationship with food again. In spite of all of my foodie-friends, it seems to me that our culture works against it: Drive-thru, scarf-down, move-on.
My upbringing, which I’ve not overcome, seems to reinforce that. But as I reflect on this, I’m reminded of something Bourdain said: “I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t love food. That’s like saying you don’t love music.”
At that point, I wanted to grab him and say, “But I do love music.” It’s not something I enjoy on occasion. It’s an essential part of my daily life. Someday I hope to learn to love food in the same way.