Food Trauma and Legacies

It's been said that St. Patrick's Day (typically) marks the end of snow and the chilliest days of winter, but this year it was Easter. And so hosting dinner was an added pleasure, exchanging cold, grey days for warm sunlight and, in keeping with Easter, the promise of new life. And then there's the feast to enjoy (yes, ham) along with all the other foods that take light years to prepare and thirty seconds to eat. Still no event would be complete without food trauma.

It's strange, Beth says, re-tasting the potato salad, but this is just like my family's recipe -- my sisters have been making it for years. Always one to reveal the trick in my own magic show to empower others, I gave it away. Greg found the recipe online, I said, or maybe it was on the back of the Hellmann's Mayonnaise jar. Her jaw dropped. “You mean all this time my family’s potato salad wasn't our own secret recipe?” Whoops! Now it was my jaw’s turn to drop. Good going, Margaret Polly-frigging-Anna! 

Although it would register low on the Richter scale of shocking revelations, it would be categorized in the quasi bummer genre which begins in childhood with things like, There is no such thing as Santa Claus, ditto for the Easter bunny; zero stork deliveries (and enjoy the additional surprises about womanhood.) But I got it. I understood what I'd just said.

Hadn't I experienced it myself when, after buzzing around every year to get our aunt's Irish soda bread recipe for St. Patrick's Day, I saw it in our PTA fundraiser cookbook? It was like experiencing that first Christmas without Santa all over again, or childbirth without The Stork. So, yeah, our aunt didn't create that recipe, wearing an apron in the 1950s. The gene pool wouldn't be receiving any culinary medals for Irish soda bread.

Somebody out there might be yelling at their computer monitor or smartphone device right now. Hey, Margaret, this post has zero focus on the true depth of Easter! And you're right. But if you've been able to keep yours going right through all the phases of holy holiday family gatherings, please pray for the rest of us. And hang in there with me, because this only gets more complicated.

Family food shocks aren't new. In one of my earliest memories of breakfast with my in-laws, my father-in-law chose a chocolate doughnut from the variety pack, inciting a collective gasp around the kitchen table.

You don't eat chocolate donuts, my brother-in-law said. My husband laughed. Wow, never saw you eat one either. My mother-in-law looked impressed, like he'd just punched out a ninja that flirted with his woman. I've never seen you eat a chocolate doughnut, she said. He hurled it back to the plate. Okay. I won't eat a chocolate doughnut, he said.

I was stunned, scanning their faces for an explanation, replaying the dialogue in my head. I mean, when you're on the younger end of nine kids, you can eat your arm out of the socket and nobody will notice.  So I watched. Would he pick it up again, eat the chocolate doughnut? (Yes, he would.)

Eating or sampling a different desert on a holiday is acceptable, but expanding the entree to bring in new foods and flavors, not so much. 

As we learned in our large family, a virtual League of Nations, you can't hold back family expansion. The paradigm of tradition will suffer inevitable strain at the dinner table (regardless of who's tongue is clicking) to make room for new foods and ideas, because, heck, not everybody acquiesces. Hullo.

It was in the early 1970s, on Thanksgiving when I first saw eggplant parmigiana on my brother-in-law's family's Thanksgiving table, and I was aghast, offended even. I loved that kind of thing, but, seriously, what did tomato sauce and fried foods have to do with Indians and pilgrims? What's more, Mom never served that! I was invited to enjoy their foods, and since I'd already eaten, I'd taken just a small bit to be polite, but nothing at all from the tomato family.

After my sisters had each married into an Italian family, tomato sauce infiltrated every holiday, like the angel of death at the first Passover. At first, I thought my sisters sold out their roots. Had they even used Bell's seasoning in their Thanksgiving stuffing? 

Over time, I stopped judging the tomato sauce and thinking negative thoughts about my family being been hijacked. And many more years later, I served it too, alongside our own traditional meals. And for the same reason my sisters made it, for my husband. And I grew to like it!

But when I served it alongside the Easter ham last year (as I thought I'd been doing all along), Aunt Babe had a chocolate doughnut reaction. Lasagna? We never ate lasagna on Easter (in the family tradition). And I joined her shock, because, now that I thought of it, we never ate red ham on Easter, or tomato sauce on Thanksgiving or any other major holiday. (Like the ham, I was heading into a spiral.) I wanted to pour Bells seasoning on the red ham and the red lasagna, even though Mom only used it in the stuffing on Thanksgiving.  

And as I write this, and talk about the traditions my mother kept, I miss her. And maybe that's why we each hold onto things that really aren't anything, just because they're something.

A friend said to me last week, I miss them (the people we've lost). The world felt better when they were in it. My friend's son said it this way when he'd lived at his aunt and uncle's for a period: I like that every morning at the same time, my uncle opens the blinds, and at night, he closes them. And his aunt made dinner the same time each night. 

Maybe this is is why tradition feels so important at times. We each wish to grasp and hold onto, something tangible and personal. We appreciate any rhythm or continuity that connects us to our loved ones, and separates our human experience from the masses, even something as simple as a family recipe. 

Whatever love (or food trauma) we exhibit or experience, though, I thought about what my parents really taught me, that our love is just a reflection -- like the moon reflects the sun -- we imperfectly reflect God's perfect love. Imagine that.

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
— Romans 5:6-8