How I Eat and Why

By Bernadette Noll

Cooking is my recreation. When home alone, I can cook all day for my family of six, with all four burners and the oven going. I love to linger over prep and listen to the radio or meditate in the rare silence. When my mom visits, she marvels at my ease. “I don’t know where you picked that up,” she’ll laugh, and we both know I didn’t learn the joy of cooking from her. My job of cooking for four, or even six, must seem a breeze compared to the responsibility of cooking for a family of 11! Yes, I’m the eighth of nine children.

Each afternoon my mom would stop whatever she was doing, put her head in her hands and sigh despondently.

“Ohmigod,” she’d say, “I’ve got to make supper.”

It was a daily, daunting responsibility that never released her from its weight.

It wasn’t mealtime she hated. Truly, she loved that even with all the activities and the people underfoot, this was the one time each day when all 11 of us came together to share food and stories, highs and lows, and even the occasional jab. But in order to arrive at domestic togetherness, my mother had to prepare a hot, nutritious meal every night. And she hated to cook.

So she assembled most meals in one giant vessel, perhaps feeding a baby or listening to multiplication tables at the same time. Because she often forgot to defrost large chunks of ground beef, she’d end up standing watch over the sizzling-yet-frozen meat, skillet handle in one hand, fork in another, flipping and scraping the icy mound. There wasn’t much variety to her cuisine, and often there were groans about its quality, but we ate it anyway, sometimes enthusiastically. Her standbys ranged from lentil soup with hot dogs to chicken cacciatore—nothing more than chicken with stewed tomatoes and her trademark frozen peas and carrots on top—to ground beef with more frozen vegetables. But I looked forward to “snow soup”—Campbell’s tomato with a mound of cottage cheese, reserved for winter nights and snowy mornings. Whenever I think of it, I feel warm.

At the table, my dad served us from the giant pot, and then the sharing and talking and laughing and fighting would begin. And the eating, of course, though it seemed secondary.

Today, I too am faced with making suppers on distracted evenings, but I love escaping into dinner prep and a cold beer. My life is different than my mother’s was—less restrained by societal norms; requiring less perfection. If dinner is nothing more than popcorn with nutritional yeast and peach smoothies, so be it. I feel free to use recipes as inspiration, cooking partly from instinct and partly from what’s in the house.

But what’s in my house in Austin, Texas in 2007 is a far cry from what I ate as a child in the ’60s and ’70s, when frozen was king and no freezer was big enough to hold it all. In the produce aisle there was one kind of lettuce, packaged by Dole and served with Green Goddess dressing, and I thought spinach was a wet, fluorescent, stringy food that came in a frozen block. Basil was a dehydrated condiment in a plastic jar. And I was at least 25 before I saw an avocado, let alone French sorrel or Brussels sprout greens.

In Austin, I’m lucky to have access to freshly grown and seasonal produce, bursting with life and color, including the full, crisp leaves of the fresh basil and spinach my kids eat by the bushel. Food is never secondary during dinners at our house, but it’s still accompanied by the sharing and talking and laughing and fighting my mother appreciated so much. And, it is clear now, this nightly coming together was her gift to us all.

From my mom, I learned the value of family dinners. From Austin, I learned the beauty of fresh, delicious foods. To both I raise my beer and say, salud!