I recently discovered a fascinating cookbook: Rufus Estes’ Good Things To Eat. Written in 1911, this cookbook is the first ever written by an African-American chef. Born a slave, Estes triumphed over unimaginable odds to become one of Chicago’s finest chefs. I read the recipes, made his delicious “Potted Chicken,” but it was the “Sketch of My Life” at the beginning of the book that captivated me:
“After the war broke out all the male slaves in the neighborhood for miles around ran off and joined the ‘Yankees.’ This left us little folks [note, he was five years old at the time] to bear the burdens…Two of my brothers were lost in the war, a fact that wrecked my mother’s health somewhat and I thought I could be of better service to her and prolong her life by getting work.”
So began Estes’ forays into gathering, serving and eventually cooking food for some of the most famous people at the turn of the century. The book is a testament to triumph and to the close link between children, mothers, and food as more than sustenance alone.
Years ago, a pediatrician dispensed advice to me with rote exasperation, as if he just couldn’t fathom parents unable to intuit the basic tenets of child rearing.
“Don’t be a short order cook,” he barked at me. “You cook one meal for everyone. Period. Good mothers don’t kowtow to their kids and fix different meals for each one.” Sure, one meal for everyone. I could do that. I could be a good mother.
Books I read these past two weeks include Black Aperture, Matt Rasmussen’s attempt to understand his brother’s suicide; Should Our Undoing Come Down Upon Us White, which makes me long for winter; and Viral, an astounding collection of poems that is “an extended elegy for Tyler Clementi (the Rutgers student whose privacy was brutally invaded by his roommate and sent out on the web, precipitating Tyler’s suicide).” The poems are devastating. I dog-eared almost every page of this book.
Since I’ve been on a cooking kick lately, I keep The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food & Drink in the kitchen. Edited by Kevin Young, it’s a compilation of 185 poems about food and drink by some of our most beloved poets. I agree with Kevin: “When read aloud, the best poems provide a particular joy for the mouth.”
When my younger daughter E was five years old, meals at our house became traumatic events. She stopped wanting to eat what everyone else ate, and I’d make her sit at the table until she tried everything on her plate. I watched her gag on the tip of a string bean or choke down a small square of chicken as she cried the whole time. She was always the last one to leave the table. It was excruciating.
If it’s possible to nurture every sentence in a book to the point of perfection; if it’s possible to capture the way religion, science, and nature are reshaping our world; if it’s possible to weave together the love story of an Englishman captured by jihadists in Africa and a mathematician obsessed with the meaning of life found on the ocean floor, then J.M. Ledgard has done all of that with Submergence. It is one of the best novels I have read in years.
I also couldn’t put down Men We Reaped (and I highly recommend her 2011 National Book Award Winner Salvage the Bones). I’ve just started my favorite author’s sequel to The Shining, Dr. Sleep and then up next is Meaty, Unexploded, and At Night We Walk In Circles.
One day, I found myself sitting across from Nancy, my therapist, worrying about E, about her obstinacy at the table. “Why can’t she eat what she wants?” my therapist asked. I heard the pediatrician’s voice in my head, his “good mother” directives. I struggled for an answer. “Your job is to make sure your children always feel nurtured, safe, and loved,” she said. “And what better way than to tell E, ‘You will always be loved at my table. You can eat what you want. You will have what you need?'”
Soon after that conversation with my therapist, it was Thanksgiving: the epic meal to end all meals. I’d shared my therapist’s mantra with E and she was relieved. She sat happily at the table with a giant bowl of macaroni and cheese while we piled our plates with turkey and all the trimmings. We went around the table to give thanks and when it came to E, she said, “I am thankful for Nancy.”
Thanks to tracking down some books recommended in the comments section of my pervious Book Roundup column, I came across Quiet the Mind, an illustrated guide about how to meditate for people of all ages. I shared it with both of my girls. They are also enjoying these YA books: Ask the Passengers, Far Far Away, and The Shade of the Moon (book 4 of the fabulous Life as We Knew It series).
Food is nourishment. Feeding your child is an act of love. E was a five-year-old kid longing for control. Her world was growing scary with her dad’s churning moods (due to an undiagnosed mental illness) and her mom’s active denial about it. I know now that taking a stand at the table was the only way she knew to ask for help.
I received my first copy of Forklift Ohio: A Journal of Poetry, Cooking & Light Industrial Safety in the mail, and I can’t wait to dive in. It’s a gorgeous, handmade poetry journal. Poetry books up next are Bury My Clothes, White Egrets, and Mary Ruefle’s new collection Trances of the Blast.