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On Food

Mother's Day Reflections

I wanted to be a mom for a very long time, but motherhood eluded me. Then a divorce in my early 30’s put me out of the running for some years. I finally decided that being a single mom was far better than not being a mother at all.

In my case, this meant adoption and I became one of the very lucky people to go to China and adopt a daughter, early in 1994. I was beside myself with happiness when I came home with a very tiny, very skinny, but perfect baby. Her middle name means Remarkable Plum Blossom in Chinese and I was home only two days when the plum trees on my street burst into bloom in the short, February false-spring we often have in Northern California. We got used to each other very quickly, and holed up with her godfathers and aunties to watch the winter Olympics and went for neighborhood walks until I was called back to work, way before I was ready.

I brought my daughter into a boisterous, loving family, but one with a raft of food issues. We are stocky people, and there has never been, to my knowledge, one female on either side of the family who was happy with her body. Nonetheless, I decided early on that I would break the cycle and make sure that food in our little world was a good thing. I vowed not to utter a negative syllable about calories, weight, or body image in her presence. I had come home with a seriously underweight baby with funky hair and I knew that the fat in mothers’ milk and formula was good, especially for growing a healthy brain, and hair, and teeth, so I set about getting her onto the growth chart. She was so small that she was off the bottom.

She was hungry, and boy did she eat. My girl became known as the protein queen. She loved her bottle, her first tiny bites of steak, and could eventually eat any version of chicken and rice served in San Francisco’s plethora of inexpensive ethnic restaurants. As it turned out, she had the most marvelous metabolism one could ever hope for. She was a picky eater, but liked a few vegetables, plenty of protein, and was the first person in our family to eat half a cookie and leave the rest. By age one she was firmly ensconced in the 10th percentile for both height and weight, and there she remains today: tiny, perfectly proportioned, and blessed with the metabolism of a hummingbird. As I told my mom, kids like her are the ones who allow kids like the other ones in our family to be in the 99th percentile, because someone has to be at the bottom.

At the time, I was lucky to be producing a public TV cooking show for French chef Jacques Pepin. Although I didn’t feel ready to go back to work, I certainly couldn’t complain about what I got to do. Occasionally when we worked late I would bring her to the office, and Jacques was responsible for handing her her first bite of real food – a crusty piece of baguette which she happily gummed, teething away.

There was one event I particularly remember. One night, late after a long day of taping shows, Jacques and two of his friends, also French chefs, attended a restaurant opening, and I was invited along. There was a bit of a stir when we walked in, and we were seated right in the center of the crowded dining room. It felt like a fishbowl, and the service was lavish and solicitous. With each course, Jacques was asked for his opinion which he generously gave.

Conversation turned to family and food – wives, children and vegetable gardens, whose batch of cidre had turned out well and whose had exploded in the basement, what to do about gophers, where to find the best chanterelles. One chef asked about my family and I told him about my new baby. They all wanted to know what she ate – of course, they were chefs! But she wasn’t eating much yet so I thought that was the end of the conversation. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

All of a sudden I felt like I was before a tribunal. Was I going to eat dinner with her? What was I going to fix? Would I set the table each night with placemats and candles? One banged on the table for emphasis – while they all really loved America, were happy they had emigrated from the strict confines of French society and its cuisine, they all agreed there was one thing seriously lacking in American culture: families did not spend enough time together at the table. This cornerstone of French family life, where parents and children got to share their daily lives, trade intimate details, and forge bonds, would last a lifetime. They bemoaned its fate in America.

People were openly staring at us. I felt like they were staring at me since I was on the witness stand, but our conversation was animated and all I could think was, if you only knew. Here I was, the lone woman with three powerful French men at a chichi gathering, but I felt like I was having dinner with my uncles, and they were freely dispensing advice. They knew exactly how I needed to raise my daughter and they had no trouble telling me what that meant: sit down for a home-cooked dinner with her every night, spend time discussing the day’s events, and make sure she ate a variety of foods as their children had done – yes, that meant pheasant, duck, fresh greens, fish, etc. I was to discuss life, art, and culture over a well-balanced homemade meal, sit there for a good long time – and do it every night.

At first, the irony was almost ludicrous. My daughter could barely talk and didn’t really eat much yet either, but sure, no problem – I would rush home from work each day, go out to the back 40 and harvest a few perfectly ripe vegetables, throw them in to roast with a nice chunk of venison and sit down to eat, so that my baby and I could discuss Voltaire and the latest New Yorker.

But resistant as I was, that one conversation probably influenced me more than volumes of baby books and opinions expressed by my own family… because I took it to heart. I did fix dinner every night. We sat at the table and talked about whatever my tired, single-mom brain could conjure up. We chatted about the world, and what we did that day. I told her about my trip to get her and about China in as much detail as I could remember. I told her about her cousins, and aunts, and her four great-grandparents whom she would never meet. I called my parents and put them on speaker and they sang songs to her. I told her about black & white TV, and about growing up in Philadelphia, the cradle of liberty. As for my hopes of avoiding food issues, the only rule was “something fresh at every meal” and if she hated what I made then she had apple slices and some chicken or meat and the subject ended there. I learned in my bones what it meant to be “at table” and we never stopped. Later, when she was a gymnast getting home late from practice, we had dinner at 9 and it lasted only fifteen minutes, but we sat, we ate and we talked. Whether it was a bad day or a good one, for her or for me, we shared it and gave each other support. I got the scoop from her about school and gym and her friends, and even today she still calls me – now from college – to fill me in.

So when Mother’s Day rolls around, I am glad to declare what I want to do that day and we do it, from watching herons nesting in trees high above a salt marsh, to hiking in the hills (both of which are as exciting to her as a dentist appointment). But on Mother’s Day, to be honest, I celebrate my daughter. She is the person who made me a mother and fulfilled my life’s fondest dream, even though bittersweet – and at another woman’s expense – in a tragic collision of politics, poverty and overpopulation. I get to have the life I wanted because of her.

And oh – by the way – my family now has at least one female member with a positive self-image. She eats when she’s hungry, adores potstickers and broccoli beef, lox and cucumbers, curry and mango lassi. She loves to bake, but she can still leave half a cookie on the plate.

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