The Food We Eat Tells a Story
It is a fact that families create valuable memories while sitting around a table and enjoying a meal together. I think any good Southerner would agree that many amazing family stories are attached to some kind of delicious food. We are a particularly food-centered people with many diverse culinary traditions. From the work done in our grandmas’ kitchens to the warm meals we gather around, the food we eat and how we make it tells a story.
Also a fact: there is nothing like creating and nurturing another human life to make you feel the urgent need to define yourself and your culture. We rush to make traditions for our kids, hoping to give our new family some unifying identity.
Yet building a story through food with your family can be a tricky thing. Many adults have a complicated relationship with food (and their extended family, for that matter). What follows are three simple steps to cultivating food memories with your kids that are both meaningful and lasting.
Step 1: Pick a few foods you really enjoy making or eating on certain occasions.
Sometimes it’s the food you eat that is unique to your family’s heritage. My Sicilian family eats boiled eggs in our pasta; we bake Aunt Mary’s braided breads, and make cucidati fig cookies at Christmastime. Those recipes and special foods connect us together as a unit. On the flip side, these foods might be more about traditions you’ve made for yourself or with your spouse, giving you an emotional connection. For example, when living by ourselves in California, my husband and I began a tradition of celebrating the 4th of July by ordering a takeout feast from our favorite Indian restaurant.
At the end of the day, you choose the foods you want to center these memories around. Regardless of the amount of cooking involved or the degree of ancestral influence, the story you tell through food will be comprised of the traditions you make for your family and the memories you consistently create together around the dinner table.
Step 2: Be consistent.
Whatever foods or food traditions you particularly enjoy, be intentional in how you share them with your kids. Be explicit about the origins of what you are eating and why the food is important to you. Make room for your spouse to do the same.
Every time my kids eat spaghetti, I serve them a boiled egg on the side. I tell them, “This is a Sicilian tradition to eat pasta with an egg.” When we bake Aunt Mary’s bread, my kids wear aprons handed down from their great-great grandmothers. They hear about these women and their connection to the food we are making. Likewise, on the 4th of July, instead of going outside to grill, my husband and I set the table with takeout food. As the smells of Indian spices and curries fill our home, William and I remember the moments we sat together in our tiny apartment alone, enjoying an easy meal to the soundtrack of fireworks and celebration outside.
These are just a few family food traditions that we try to do yearly with our kids. The consistency of these events makes for lasting memories, while the enjoyment of the food and time spent together make them meaningful.
Step 3: Be flexible.
Leave room for your kids to explore (or not) and allow them to create a story through food for themselves. It won’t look the same as yours, and that’s okay! Culinary traditions change over time and grow with the people who create them and the families that enjoy them. The most important thing is to share your story with your kids and enjoy the time you have together. Instilling a love of quality time through food is the key, and this looks different for everyone.
My kids are young still, and I am sure there will come a time when they want to hang out with their friends on Independence Day instead of eat Indian food with mom and dad (whaaat?!). As much as I am thrilled to be sharing those evenings with my babies right now, I will also be joyful when the time comes for my husband and I to share that meal alone as a couple once again.
While I hope that my kids will one day serve their own children spaghetti with boiled eggs and teach them how to bake braided bread from Aunt Mary’s recipe, I also know that lots of people think boiled eggs are gross and some people prefer breaking bread to baking bread. That’s okay. As long as my kids are surrounded by people they love and as long as they are happy, I’m fine being the matriarch who makes the best food. In the end, that’s what will get us the good holidays!