My brother and I went home to visit our parents in Minnesota last weekend for their 40th wedding anniversary. We didn’t have much in the way of plans in place, but knew that we wanted to do two things for sure: cook and eat.
When I thought recently about how much our family life has come to revolve around food since I went off to college, it struck me as a bit of a surprise. I didn’t grow up in a “foodie” household. My mother, who did the lion’s share of the cooking, relied on tried and true recipes for heartland classics like ziti hotdish and beef stew. We rarely went out to eat and when we did, we generally went to the Indian restaurant in the strip mall or the Thai restaurant in a different strip mall (both of which, I might add, are excellent). When we went on a roadtrip to Washington, DC when I was 10, we packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in a cooler in the back of the van and ate them for two days straight.
Yet looking back, I realize that our family rituals always centered around food, even if it wasn’t fancy or unusual. Evening mealtime together was something I could count on, like a stake anchoring the day. Sunday mornings I used to lie in bed pretending to be asleep until the last possible moment, hoping Mom and Dad would forget about me until it was too late to make it to church, but the smell of bacon or chocolate Malt-o-Meal eventually got me up every time. Every fall, when the Haralson apple trees in our front yard hung heavy with crisp, tart fruit, Dad would peel and chop them while Mom mixed up topping for apple crisp. We’d eat for dessert later that night while it was still warm, in shallow bowls puddled with cream.
There were the simple snacks we used to make, things I haven’t had in years and am old enough to be nostalgic for now: thick slices of tomato pulled fresh from the garden and sprinkled with sugar; graham crackers spread generously with chocolate frosting and eaten like a sandwich; the popcorn Dad popped in the Whirly-Pop on the stove every Wednesday and Thursday just before we sat down to watch Law and Order or ER.
If we were connoisseurs of anything, it was bread. That was the one item my mother refused to buy at the grocery store, instead driving across town to the bakery that made boules and baguettes and babkas the way she liked them. I hardly buy bread anymore (The carbs! The freezer space! There’s no good bakeries nearby, and the good stuff at the farmers’ market doesn’t come sliced!), but as a family we used to go through several loaves of it each week. In the mornings, or as an afternoon snack, there was peanut butter toast, onto which Mom would slather butter underneath the peanut butter. (The peanut butter doesn’t stick to the roof of your mouth this way, and contrary to what you might think, the taste of the butter still comes through.) Sometimes there was cinnamon toast (buttered toast sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar), which is one of the most comforting foods I know. In the winter, when we came in from ice skating on the pond across the street, there was cocoa and toast, which is just what it sounds like, except the toast would be—surprise!—buttered, then cut vertically into four strips for dipping.
Little things have changed about meals at home over the years: there are fewer highly processed foods (almost none, in fact), more alcohol, and vegetables that never showed up before, like kale and chard. It’s often my brother and I who do the cooking these days when we’re at home. What hasn’t changed is the way the kitchen serves as the magnet that pulls us together, whether from different corners of the house or halfway across the country.