By Ruby Roberts
Food has been on my mind, of late. Well, honestly, food is always on my mind, but more so, lately. Stepping on a scale and watching the kilos nudging 100 will do that to a girl. Yep, there’s no denying it. I’m out of shape. I’ve loved food maybe a little too much for my own good. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it, don’t get me wrong. But, there it is. My love of food and possibly my feminist politics about body acceptance have caught up with me, in the form of a body that doesn’t function quite as well as it once did.
I am not someone who judges folks who choose not to buy into that whole ‘thin’ mentality. In fact, I have always kind of admired women who throw caution to the wind and gorge themselves silly if the whim takes them. I’ve been one of those women, and it was a lot of fun. But for me, I have things I want to do in life that require a body that is functioning at its peak. That’s a whole other story.
And truly, the whole body image subject has been written about endlessly by people with far more smarts than I. I have not got a lot more to add to that discussion, other than to say that I do not judge folks on their size or lifestyle. Everybody has their own path. For me, I have really begun to realise that I need to build a healthier relationship with food and myself, and this goes way back into childhood. I don’t want to talk about bodies. I want to talk about food.
I believe that building a healthy relationship with food is one of the best things we can do for ourselves and our children; that excess or denial both have their own capacity to warp our thinking and impact our health. I believe we all have to find a connection with food that brings us peace, health and self-acceptance, and for many of us, that means changing old habits or making peace with our past. Not all of us need to do this, but many of us will.
What a potent part of our lives is food. From the moment we suckle at a breast or bottle, a powerful relationship begins; a complex, multifaceted and possibly button-pushing history develops. I hazard a guess that most of us have powerful memories of what food meant to us as kids; driving our parents crazy with fussy demands, happy memories of themed birthday cakes, rewards and punishments, power dynamics. Food used to nurture and reward. Shaming with food. Watching our mother (and possibly our father) pinching fat, fussing and fretting over food, perhaps. Food rituals, like eating fish and chips on the beach, or Christmas dinner, or the Sunday roast.
Food is powerful.
What do you remember about food in your home when you were a kid? Were you a ‘no elbows on the table, dinner every night at 6’ kind of family, or were you eating TV dinners on your lap? Were you fussy? Did your parents insist that you clear your plate before you left the table, or did they bribe you with dessert? What about your favourite foods? Was there anything your mum or dad cooked that made you squeal with excitement, or your stomach turn? Did your parents force you to clear your plate before you left the table? Did they show love with food? Did they reward you for eating vegetables by giving you ice cream? How has that impacted you now?
Food is nurturing. Food is punishment and reward. Some food is ‘naughty’. Food can be shameful. Dieting can be shameful. Overeating can be shameful. Food can be love. Food is social. Food can be a secret, hidden shame. Food can be an unhealthy replacement for nurturing and love. When somebody is born or somebody dies, we mums tend to rally around with food. We mark weddings, births and deaths with food. Eating is a powerful part of just about every ritual we have.
I grew up on a farm, and my whole understanding of food began at its source. We slaughtered our own sheep and chickens, gathered our own eggs and my dad grew huge fields of vegetables. We went shopping infrequently and used powdered milk. Mum baked a lot. We ate a lot of soup and lentils. For me, food preparation involved picking things first, cleaning off slugs and bugs and dirt before the actual cooking began. I grew up thinking about food in this way. This all sounds very romantic, and it was a good way to grow up, but it also meant that sometimes we sat down to Brussels sprouts with cooked caterpillars inside, we had to wash poo smears off our eggs and our fruit and veg did not always resemble the glossy rows of stuff so artfully lit up at the supermarket. It took time, energy and commitment. It was a great life, but not for everyone.
My mum was a health nut. Back then it was weird, not cool. I was the only kid I knew who ate seaweed and lentils and unsweetened carob. I remember being really embarrassed to be the only kid who didn’t eat vegemite sandwiches and Twisties. Instead, I took big, misshapen hunks of rye bread, spread with ground peanuts and almonds, randomly cut carrots and little pill boxes full of seeds. Other kids laughed at me and accused me of eating bird seed. This one day, I went in to feed the class budgie and I got curious. Was the stuff my mum gave me REALLY anything like birdseed? The classroom was empty so I poured some seeds into my hand and popped them in my mouth, only to get SPRUNG by the meanest boy in the class! It took me a while to live that one down. I don’t hold it against my mum.
Although I don’t give my son unsweetened carob easter eggs, I have taken on my parents’ values around food. I like to grow my own, make my own.
It has been interesting to me, as an adult who gardens, living in a world of processed food. My son, who lives part time with his dad and grandparents, spends half his life with folks who make everything from scratch and the other half, with people who love the convenience of instant food. It’s confronting to me when he looks at the misshapen food we have grown and turns up his nose.
Times are changing. Not everyone has the time or even the inclination to grow everything themselves, or even prepare food from scratch. These days, if you want a meal, you can save yourself a lot of time by making it using packets and jars. I can understand the appeal. We’re tired, right, mamas? We get home from work, the homework and baths are awaiting. Or we have crying toddlers poking each other in the eye or velcroing themselves to our legs and demanding our full attention and energy. Who has time to be slaving over a hot stove for hours? Certainly not me. My son has had Weetbix for dinner. I admit it.
My concern is that many of us are at risk of training our kids to expect food to look and taste a certain way. They will happily eat the whitened chicken covered in yellow crumbs, but they reject the sinewy, fibrous chicken. They will eat salty, chemically enhanced foods, but they find regular fruit and vegetables bland and unappetising. We’re teaching them that it’s easier to make stuff out of packets and jars.
And while convenience foods obviously have their place and benefits, I wonder about the impact of this style of eating on our culture. I think of all the generations of women, passing down family recipes, and I hope that these will continue down the line.
Perhaps this is why Mamabake as a movement appeals to me – I love the convenience, combined with the whole ethos of supporting one another to keep good, old fashioned home cooking alive, even for payroll mums and those who are just plain old tired out.