Where’’s my dime bag of Garam Masala?

Have you ever seen two grown people searching feverishly for a small bag?  Calls of “Look in the pantry!”  “I did!”  “Look behind the backup flour and sugar!” and  “I DID ALREADY!” ring through the hall.  In our family, creating food is our central addiction.  Husband may say books are my dirty little secret, but I have dislodged many, many volumes from my stash since we met (don’t look too closely at the basement storage room, those boxes I can’t part with). 

The food processor, ice cream maker, and KitchenAid mixer are three of my favorite objects.  They do not sit on the counter to display any expertise, but are usually covered with schmutz, cords flung awry.  These are working tools; metal machines with big motors.  This is my version of Tool Time, and when seeing muscle machines I find myself drooling and muttering ‘Gruh, gruh”.  But I am not a cooking wimp, given to throwing any little spice into my coffee grinder.  I use the granite mortar and pestle as well, pounding and grinding, then mixing, cutting, and warming over a small flame (Toasting spices can be very effective, especially before pounding up).  It is not just the consumption of our creations, these infusions into our body chemistry that we enjoy.  Making food is a creative pursuit for us, and as Anthony Bourdain has said, an expression of love.  Love for a process, materials, and ultimately the experience of sharing a meal.  There is a reason “home food” is a term we associate with our mothers, fathers, aunts, and holidays.  It is an expression of simple pleasure, and of love.

We do not have an orderly kitchen, but usually a clean one- a distinction people who like to cook, or have small children understand completely.  The cycle of used dishes and pots is constant, and each new day brings cleanliness, clarity, creativity, then clutter.  The cycle of addiction is truly hard to break.

Part of the reason the West has food and appearance issues is the weird juncture of the love of food and the crappy food we are marketed, and subsequently buy.  The movement to buy food locally, and as organically as much as possible is one I applaud.  I never used to like red meat much, and did a simple comparison test recently.  Steaks of the same cut were purchased at almost even prices; one from the usual feed lot “finished”-cross country shipped- hormone stuffed-mega grocery chain bin, the other of the grass fed, pasture living, little drugs, recently butchered, organic variety courtesy of one of our local farmers market people.  Husband, the defacto grill cook, cooked them rather rare and slapped them on a plate with a slight dusting of salt and pepper.  I usually don’t like rare meat.  A few bites of each and it was clear:  the local, “happy cow” was significantly better.  I don’t like the metallic taste red meat has, and it was missing entirely from the happy cow.  The other steak was metallic tasting, and had a strange other flavor too.  I am told the manipulations animals go through in our modern “production” (from embryo to flesh stripping) cycles creates high levels of stress hormones in the flesh that do not taste good.  I believe it.

As a child we had a steady number of nine cows.  One a year was hauled off to the local butcher (and usually one of the cows had a calf to replace it) and in return we got the standard small white packages with scrawled writing to identify the parts.  The first bull Dad took away, Red, was a bit of a shock.  Try explaining to a six year old where one of her favorite animals went, and expect some surprise.  I did not speak to Dad for several days.  It didn’t help that I abhorred (and still do) liver.  After waiting for what seemed an eternity for a meal one day during one of my growth spurts, Dad sauntered into the living room with a hunk of cooked meat in his hand, greedily taking bites out of it.  “This is that bull you won’t eat.  Mmmmm.  Good steak. . .you want some?” He hands me down the hunk, and I took a big bite.  “Bleah!”  I spit the bite out yelling,” That wasn’t steak- that was liver!”  He and mom laughed about that for years.

We had a garden, and every year it was more of a circus than an orderly enterprise.  One year my previously urban mother planted rows and rows of melons, not realizing how they reproduced.  Most rotted in the field, or were stealthily stacked next to the doors of friends and neighbors.  One year all the corn fell over, and another year the onions all rotted.  By contrast, mom’s baked goods were never in doubt.  The granddaughter of a professional baker, she had picked up many of his ideas and skills.  Her recipes are sparse notes, missing the changes and footnotes she held in her head, like most cooks.  I have yet to have at any restaurant, bakery or home the equal of her cakes, pies, cookies, or especially, her éclairs.  No matter how poor we were, she could manage to whip up an amazing dessert.  It was as if, in the vast rural wasteland into which she found herself, she would create her own small, private oases of momentary bliss and offer them to us.  Her offering of love.  She wasn’t always good at saying it, but she could show it.  The battered red apple cookie jar was never empty, and now it sits proudly on my counter tempting my little boys with what lies hidden inside.  It had been my Grandmother’s, and she had given it to my mother.  Love can come in the most subtle of ways, and remain in memory through the tokens we live with.

Of course the abundance of food we have in the US is a double-edged sword. There are enough articles clogging the newspapers about obesity (but don’t look too closely at how the BMI index was created or how it’s used), and not enough about how to can veg and fruit, and eat locally.  When talking to a fresh young Coop-extension agent recently, he admitted he knew little to nothing about the local food movement in all it’s manifestations, or organic produce and meats.  Still worse, he came from a mega poultry and beef industry family in TX, and had learned nothing from his grand folks about the small doing, of raising food, processing it yourself, and keeping it.  I find his educated, empty mind a travesty, if not a waste of my tax dollars.

We are not foodies who seek out the truly exotic.  I get my highs from small things, like the basil fresh from my garden with my fresh red tomatoes (no cast iron tasteless rocks), or in winter the fresh rosemary that grows near the lavender bushes sprinkled on a locally obtained pork roast; or eating breakfast eggs from “happy” chickens, as our neighbor likes to call his crazy bug eating, free range dinosaurs.  We share our tools, our materials, and the results with our friends.  In kind, we have had the luck to taste real Korean fish stew, exquisite Japanese vegetable dishes, Thai carrot butterflies, a northern Indian curry, and other dishes I am not well versed in cooking, or know how to tweak myself.  This is love: taste, experience, creativity, community, memory.  Who wouldn’t do unusual things for love: satisfy the addiction for sensation; slake thirst and hunger, while having substantive human connections?  Remember that the next time the anonymous dealer who parades his wealth via TV ads entices you with the promise of crisp fries, or easy satiating.  With just a little more effort, you could have so much more.  One more trip to the local international food mart and I’ll replenish my supplies.  I’ll scrounge my change dishes and get that small bag, that magic that will help transform the daily habits of life into bliss.  Who needs big pharma or illicit drugs when we can cook?


What does critical discourse have to do with my floor?

We wanted it.  I reminded myself of that this morning.  We wanted it.  The dirty floor that only stays clean every morning for half an hour.  The dusty shelves.  The sweet little face coming to crawl into my lap, while smelling of an open sewer.  Ok, I am really ready for this child to learn to use the potty.  But the whole scene, the whole reality, even if we didn’t know the stressors, and the surprises good and bad- we wanted it.

I don’t think you can ever really know what you are getting into when you have children.  That’s probably why so many of us see it as a clear line between being in the club and not.  It’s not purposefully exclusionary.  People who have not had children simply can’t and don’t “get it” about kids.  The time management, the responsibility, the stress, the guilt, the failures, the groundedness, the day to day subtleties.  We didn’t know the totality either before we had kids and we were well into our late thirties with four advanced degrees between us, and two bachelor degrees.  We were not DINKS (double income no kids, if people still use that acronym), but rather WEMIS (well educated marginal incomes). 

I was reading a series of essays and rebuttals this week regarding stay at home moms.  One of the irritations I had was that I know two very smart, capable men who are stay at home parents.  I also know two couples that use a blended approach- each works ¾ time, much of that at home, and they both handle childcare.  None of us are rich, and everyone I know is a WEMI.  I fully admit my life experience is anecdotal.  I have trouble mapping on many of the points of view I was reading into my communal reality, these “expert” points of view which strive to express profundity and summarize a social phenomenon. 

There is a popular critique that somehow stay at home moms have copped out.  That we should be blamed for holding back other women, for reinforcing stereotypes.  Little mention is made of the fact that on average, women still only make about seventy cents for every mans dollar when we work- regardless of position, or income level.  One essay detailed the difference between stay at home parents today and those of fifty years ago, summarizing by saying a clean floor was her last priority, and she was ok with that.  For many of us, having a parent provide early childhood care is a necessity and a luxury as well.  We can’t afford daycare, and the pre-school programs we so enthusiastically enroll our children into only meet a few days a week for a few hours at a time.  We are also lucky that we are not having our feet held over a fire by government authorities to work or lose our children, and our lives- subsequently having to put our children into dubious situations while we work body and mind numbing jobs for minimum wages that won’t cover diapers.  Even extended families are a luxury now.  Grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins- the stuff of legendary loyalty, strife, and support have gone the way of RV’s and the global moving workforce.  The very poor may have relatives near by, but those of us who are WEMI’s may be caring for children as well as aging parents at the same time (we waited so long to have kids the distance in age between our children and our parents is the same for the very poor between four, even five generations).

I am not complaining, it’s just the facts.  The choices we make to “stay at home” are not nearly as clear-cut as many of the writers I have read seem to think.

I also do not think stay at home parents can be categorized so easily into groups anymore.  Just as some women who stay at home are more educated than those of fifty years ago, women do not feel the need (or guilt) to greet their suit wearing man at the door with a martini.  The WEMI’s I know all had jobs before they had kids, and male or female, chose to be a partner in the whole family process.  Stereotypical roles simply do not work, and each family has to figure out what makes sense for them.  Usually, that means a clean floor ends up being a low priority, included in the team-family barrage of Saturday cleaning.

The anxieties we suffer are more about preparing our children as best we can to get along in the world, get good educations, and be happy, balanced individuals who can fly from the nest and manage a checking account, bills, taxes, their bodies, social situations, read at the twelfth grade level, have solid moral character grounding, and problem-solve with strong core mental tool boxes that include three R’s as well as science, the arts, philosophy, and history.  We worry about money, about our own health, and having stable, equitable communities at all levels.  We also worry about mundane things, like getting enough sleep and if our pants make our butts look big (men too).  We have the same problems our parents had, but we have significantly more social flexibility to meet those challenges as partners than at any time before.  As Husband recently replied after a barb from his friend for liking the drink lemon drop during guys night, “Do I look like a man who is insecure in his masculinity?”  His friend thought for a moment then said, “No.  No you don’t.”   I don’t think we need to worry about whether or not we fit into roles, represent our genders well, or are reproducing stereotypes that keep others down.  When it’s important and explicit we do what we can to make the world a more balanced, fair place.  Post-modern sociology has made it clear that the personal is political, and that the implicit, the subtextural, matters in the big scheme of things.  Yet in our daily lives we do the best we can, and are revolutionary for simply doing things differently, trying to meet the challenges of parenting with as much creativity and honesty as we can.

We chose it.  We wanted the knowledge of family.  We wanted the day-to-day demands, the reality of having children in our lives 24/7.  There are bigger sacrifices ahead, challenges, and surprises with this choice.  We expect that.  How we respond is something I can’t forecast right now, but I do know the last thing we need is academic criticism, social constraint, or institutionalized religious guilt for things that don’t matter.  We all need support.  We need to laugh, and have our sense of humor reinforced.  We need others to know we are doing the best we can, and when we don’t, we already know it.  So back off analysts.  No saints or sinners here, just parents trying to get along in life- put your energies into getting fair wages, parental leave, and nationalized early childhood education.  Do something more productive than glamorizing or demonizing those who stay at home. 

For a start, you can come on over and clean my floor.