THE FRUITS OF FAMILY TREES
When I was young, I would often spend the weekend at my grandmother’s house. On my way in, Friday night, she would lift me from the ground in one of her fire-smothering hugs. And on the way out, Sunday afternoon, I was again taken into the air. It wasn’t until years later that I realized she was weighing me.
My grandmother survived World War II barefoot, scavenging Eastern Europe for other people’s inedibles: rotting potatoes, discarded scraps of meat, skins and the bits that clung to bones and pits. So she never cared if I colored outside the lines, as long as I cut coupons along the dashes. I remember hotel buffets: while the rest of us erected Golden Calves of breakfast, she would make sandwich upon sandwich to swaddle in napkins and stash in her bag for lunch. It was my grandmother who taught me that one tea bag makes as many cups of tea as you’re serving, and that every part of the apple is edible.
Her obsession with food wasn’t an obsession with money. (Many of those coupons I clipped were for foods she would never buy.)
Her obsession wasn’t with health. (She would beg me to drink Coke.)
My grandmother never set a place for herself at family dinners. Even when there was nothing more to be done — no soup bowls to be topped off, no pots to be stirred or ovens checked — she stayed in the kitchen, like a vigilant guard (or prisoner) in a tower. As far as I could tell, the sustenance she got from the food she made didn’t require her to eat it.
We thought she was the greatest chef who ever lived. My brothers and I would tell her as much several times a meal. And yet we were worldly enough kids to know that the greatest chef who ever lived would probably have more than one recipe (chicken with carrots), and that most great recipes involved more than two ingredients.
And why didn’t we question her when she told us that dark food is inherently more healthful than light food, or that the bulk of the nutrients are found in the peel or crust? (The sandwiches of those weekend stays were made with the saved ends of pumpernickel loaves.) She taught us that animals that are bigger than you are very good for you, animals that are smaller than you are good for you, fish (which aren’t animals) are fine for you, then tuna (which aren’t fish), then vegetables, fruits, cakes, cookies and sodas. No foods are bad for you. Sugars are great. Fats are tremendous. The fatter a child is, the fitter it is — especially if it’s a boy. Lunch is not one meal, but three, to be eaten at 11, 12:30 and 3. You are always starving.
In fact, her chicken with carrots probably was the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten. But that had little to do with how it was prepared, or even how it tasted. Her food was delicious because we believed it was delicious. We believed in our grandmother’s cooking more fervently than we believed in God.
More stories could be told about my grandmother than about anyone else I’ve ever met — her otherwordly childhood, the hairline margin of her survival, the totality of her loss, her immigration and further loss, the triumph and tragedy of her assimilation — and while I will one day try to tell them to my children, we almost never told them to one another. Nor did we call her by any of the obvious and earned titles. We called her the Greatest Chef.
The story of her relationship to food holds all of the other stories that could be told about her. Food, for her, is not food. It is terror, dignity, gratitude, vengeance, joy, humiliation, religion, history and, of course, love. It was as if the fruits she always offered us were picked from the destroyed branches of our family tree.
When I was 2, the heroes of all my bedtime books were animals. The first thing I can remember learning in school was how to pet a guinea pig without accidentally killing it. One summer my family fostered a cousin’s dog. I kicked it. My father told me we don’t kick animals. When I was 7, I mourned the death of a goldfish I’d won the previous weekend. I discovered that my father had flushed it down the toilet. I told my father — using other, less familial language — we don’t flush animals down the toilet. When I was 9, I had a baby sitter who didn’t want to hurt anything. She put it just like that when I asked her why she wasn’t having chicken with my older brother and me.
“Hurt anything?” I asked.
“You know that chicken is chicken, right?”
Frank shot me a look: Mom and Dad entrusted this stupid woman with their precious babies?
Jonathan Safran Foer is a novelist. This article is adapted from his coming book, “Eating Animals,” which will be published in November.
Eating Matters: You are what you Eat… Check this article from Jon Foer, something most should consider, or at least think about for sure 🙂