January 1, 2011

On Holiday Food, Family, and Velveeta Cheese

While catching up with friends post-holiday this year I noticed a trend. 

Those of us who normally eat crazy stuff like raw cheese, tatsoi, and pastured eggs can become frustrated when we spend the holidays with parents or relatives who believe healthy means low fat or that cheese dip should be canary yellow. If you spend enough time eating things cooked from scratch with whole and wholesome ingredients, both the mind and the body rebel when you consume the foods of childhood: the green been casserole made with canned condensed soup, the GMO tortilla chips dipped in Velveeta queso, or the wiggly Jello salad complete with marshmallows and Cool Whip. What is a body to do?

All this reminded me of an op-ed piece by Andi McDaniel I read in the Washington Post a few years ago. Andi is a friend of mine from college, journalist, blogger, big thinker and all around cool gal. She was nice enough to let me reprint her insightful piece for you to enjoy.

Mom's Cooking, So Hold The Arugula
by Andi McDaniel
I confess. I’m one of those “thoughtful” eaters you’ve been hearing so much about — the ones interrogating the arugula in the produce section or scrutinizing the ingredients on each box of Annie’s mac and cheese. When there’s a traffic jam in Aisle 3, it’s usually us, commandeering the tortilla chips, weighing the question of local vs. organic against any number of other eco-socio-ethical concerns.
I shop like this because, according to what I’ve learned from books such as “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “Fast Food Nation” and from spending two summers working on organic farms, it’s the most effective way to “vote” for a healthier food system.
But for all my pondering in the produce aisle, there’s a point where I draw the line. The few times a year when I visit my folks at my childhood home in suburban Chicago, you won’t hear me talking about food miles or the sheer horror of a transcontinental February tomato. When Mom’s cooking, I check my dogma at the door.
It wasn’t always this way. It used to be that when I went home to visit, Mom would have to get up to speed on my latest food philosophy.
“Are you eating meat these days, honey? Or are you still worried about those poor cows being all cooped up?”
“I couldn’t find organic yogurt, sweetie, so I just got you low-fat.”
“I can’t remember. What is it you’re boycotting this week?”
Looking back, I’m amazed at her diplomacy. But at the time, I thought I was the one with the admirable values.
It all started about six years ago, when I was 20. Leaving behind my Kraft cheese childhood, I’d gone off to get a first-class liberal arts education (financed by Mom and Dad). It was at college that I began thinking systemically, questioning authority and reading books with titles such as “Milk: The Deadly Poison.” Before long, I’d learned so many dark secrets about the all-American diet that I completely lost my appetite.
“Natural flavors” are manufactured in New Jersey? Milk really doesn’t do a body good? Oranges are picked by underpaid immigrants? Easy Cheese isn’t cheese at all?
I was fascinated to learn how things really work, but on a deeper level, I was confused. How could my mom — with her loving hands and her legendary sloppy Joes — have been enabling such a compassionless industrial food system? How could her careful nutritional nurturing have been based, at least in part, on lies and misinformation? She meant well, right? So what went wrong?
I tried to realign the incongruent parts. If I could just explain to her what I’d learned, I figured she’d come to the same conclusions I had. Soon we’d be eating sprouts-and-hummus sandwiches together while watching documentaries for fun.
The crusade began. I introduced her to bok choy. I demonstrated how to make pumpkin pie with real pumpkins. I built her a compost bin and told her it would reduce her weekly garbage by half. And I accompanied her to the supermarket, providing running commentary free of charge.
Trouper that she is, Mom tried to listen. “Interesting, interesting,” she’d say, tossing a bag of iceberg lettuce into her grocery cart as I decried its utter lack of nutritive value. “Hormones in milk?!” she would gasp halfheartedly, while scanning the shelf for whichever brand happened to be on sale.
The fact was, Mom wasn’t interested in rebuilding her lifestyle from scratch. But it was a long time before that dawned on me. For several years, I’d visit and she’d try to accommodate my vegetarian diet, then my preference for organic products, then my conviction that local trumps organic.
Not that we actually discussed much of this at all. Usually when I brought up my “food politics,” her eyes would glaze over and she’d say something like, “Well, you know more about this stuff than I do.”
And I did. But did I know enough about where she was coming from?
Back when she was a young mother, nutrition was certainly a concern — but the guidelines of the day offered little beyond the food pyramid and a recommendation to eat three servings of fruit a day. Never mind if you were consuming canned pears in sugary syrup or a tasteless tomato, harvested green and shipped from Mexico for your convenience.
What’s more, processed foods such as TV dinners and Hamburger Helper represented progress. No more time wasted canning vegetables — or making pumpkin pies from scratch.
But the most important thing I’ve come to realize is that, to my mom, food is a language. When I go home to visit, I constantly have food before me. The message has always been clear: As long as there’s food on our plates, everything’s okay. Feeling down? Have a snack; it’s probably your blood sugar. Missing your ex-boyfriend? Here, a gingersnap will help.
When my mom slides a little plate with a few orange wedges, a cup of Yoplait and some Ritz crackers in front of me, what she’s really saying is, “We love you, honey.”
So one Thanksgiving, toward the end of my vegetarian phase, when I sat down with my family and plunged a fork into Mom’s buttery mashed potatoes to find three small pieces of roasted meat underneath, I knew what she was saying: “Is it really going to kill you to eat one bite of turkey on Thanksgiving? Do you know how long it took to cook this thing?”
And for some reason — maybe I’d reached a certain maturity, or maybe I was tickled by the sentiment, or it could be that I was just tired of scrutinizing my food — I ate that turkey. And I asked for seconds. And things haven’t been the same since.
Now I tell her to serve it up. “Sure!” I say. “Gimme some of those Hungry Jack pancakes, marooned in Aunt Jemima’s “maple” syrup! Serve me that famous spaghetti sauce, made with good ol’ feed-lot-style ground beef! And while you’re at it, scoop me some of that vanilla ice cream, artificial flavors and all.”
What I’ve realized is that sometimes the food itself isn’t all that important. Because even when what she serves is somehow corrupt, my mom’s message is pure. And how can I refuse a helping of that?


  1. Great article by your friend Andi! Thanks for sharing. I used to stock up on those cans of condensed cream soups and now I find it is really hard to use them. I still have a few on the shelf, but the stock is finally dwindling down. My tummy did rebel when I made a casserole with one a few weeks ago. Amazing, interesting and scary. Amazing - no, not really. Interesting - no, not really. Scary - HECK YES! After making such big changes in what we eat, it is hard for me to get through a meal outside our house and not think about what is in it. I keep my mouth shut (verbally) and get through it. Emily

  2. Thank you for posting this Annie! Thank you for writing this, Andi! I was definitely a food-evangelist with my well-meaning and ever-patient mom this Christmas. I have noticed myself getting more annoyed with their food habits the more I move toward a whole food, cook-from-scratch diet. Andi is right, it's time to leave my food dogma at the door and appreciate my parents as they are.

  3. I'm so glad that helped. I definitely decided to post it after our conversations recently.

  4. Thanks for your post, Annie! This food-culture-clash is becoming a sort of universal experience, yes? Makes for some very entertaining moments, to be sure. I had a full-on argument with my mother this year while picking up the Thanksgiving turkey I'd ordered from a local farm (via the co-op). It was an 11-pounder, the size recommended for our party of 5-6 (hosted the first T-day at our house this year). She INSISTED we upgrade to 20 lbs, because, well... she couldn't really say why, but it was hilarious when she remembered the article, and said she could just see the scene that was unfolding appearing in a future pieces... perhaps it will!

  5. Great article! It's such a good reminder that while good food is important, family is even more important. It's not worth alienating loved ones to prove a point.