ESSAY: Food and Family — Navigating New Holiday Traditions

by Holly Day

From the time I began eating solid food, my parents stressed its importance. My mom — sentimental and with few cooking skills — loved the way food brought people together. My dad — a foodie with a fast metabolism — loved to eat. Every Sunday my mom would grocery shop. Later, my parents would cook and my sister, Cheryl, and I would taste test. And at six o’clock each evening, we would eat as a family. Food and family, in my mind, were bound to one another.

When my parents first divorced there was a brief period of take-out and cereal for dinner. But as time passed, the food in my two new households diverged.

Now, each household has its own special way to bond around a meal. My mother has her style, and my father, his. But before we get to the part about the meal, we have to go shopping …

My mom usually buys too much at the grocery store. Our full cart and unnecessary purchases are the result of many complicating factors, one being my nine-year-old sister’s enthusiasm for food. She traipses down the cereal aisle arm extended, hitting boxes upon boxes that fall into our cart like dominoes. My mother — highly distractible — does not notice the growing pile of Honey Nut Cheerios, and we are left with a year’s supply of cereal. Usually, my mom forgets her shopping list in the car, but decides she doesn’t need it and goes by memory.

“I think we put bagels on the list,” she says, tossing in a bag.

Bagels are rarely on our list, yet after every shopping trip we find ourselves with a package of plain and a package of everything. At my mom’s, we always buy ingredients for cookies. “Just in case you and Sally want to make some this weekend,” she says. Our stash of Ghirardelli chocolate chips would withstand the apocalypse. Before my mother swipes her card at the checkout counter she looks at me, brow furrowed, and head tilted to the side. “Did we just buy $300 worth of groceries?”

At my father’s, we never buy ingredients for cookies. Our trips to the grocery store are dictated by a list carefully crafted by my stepmom. Her lists are like no other. They state the specific brand of almond milk we should look for, whether we should buy goat or cheddar cheese. When I go to the grocery store with my father, we are focused and fast. My dad — highly methodical — believes strategy is essential to grocery shopping. “Okay, you go get tomatoes, I’ll get sausage. Meet me back at the register.”

The two of us divide and conquer the Hunger Mountain Coop. Though productive in the moment, our hurried trips rarely last us. Beth, my stepmother, believes in meal-by-meal purchases. After shopping, we have enough food for a decadent dinner, but are scrounging for breakfast the next day.

On Christmas morning, my mother’s kitchen is flooded with the smell of cinnamon. Though my mom has never had the patience for cooking, on December 25 she is in the kitchen at dawn, rolling dough and dusting it with sugar. Her cinnamon rolls are her pride and joy, and our Christmas morning is structured around their consumption. We must walk past the precarious tower of presents under the tree and head first toward the dining room, where she and that familiar smell are waiting.

When I spend Christmas with my father, we have brunch. After cappuccinos, stockings and presents, we head to our holiday feast at about 11. Beth takes Christmas as an opportunity to sharpen her cooking skills. Each year, she attempts a recipe more complex, with ingredients more expensive and techniques more refined. Each year, the smell is unfamiliar. Last, it was baked brie. A creamy wheel of cheese delicately wrapped in filo dough and adorned with raspberries. The flaky filo is much thinner than the dense bread of cinnamon buns.

Preparing meals at my mother’s house is both a happy-making and haphazard task. Whenever we cook, our counters fill unusually quickly with dirty mixing bowls and a slew of ingredients. Our mom rarely asks us for dinner help, but we always volunteer. Sally and I experiment with spices while Cheryl plays her curated baking playlist. A list dominated by classic sing-along rock. It is remarkable how often we spill in the kitchen. Po, our chihuahua, is called upon to clean the terracotta floor when we dance to Queen’s “Somebody to Love,” forgetting about the cup of flour in our hands. Before dinner is served, we set the table with our favorite rooster plates and a mismatched set of water glasses. Silverware clinks and chatter rises and falls until dinner is over and my mother sighs. Her least favorite task awaits: cleaning the kitchen.

The kitchen smells like lavender both before and after dinner at my father’s house. As long as I have lived with Beth, she has bought the same counter top cleaner: Mrs. Meyer’s Multi-Surface Everyday Cleaner. My dad appreciates it’s multi-surface claim: “I mean you can clean the counters AND the stove with just one cleaner! That’s a money saver!” He raves. Their deep love of Mrs. Meyer’s product has inspired overuse. Before we make dinner, Beth requests that her space be clean, claiming a clean kitchen is  essential to high-level cooking. We spritz and wipe, wash dishes in the sink and put them on the drying rack. Then, and only then, do we begin dinner preparations. I always chop the vegetables and Beth always supervises. She makes sure I am using the right knife, and cutting the veggies to the proper size. “Do you remember how I taught you to slice those onions?” she asks.

“Ummm … I think so.” I always reply

“You think, or you know?” Beth grabs the knife and demonstrates again and again until there are no more onions for me to cut.

My dad likes to listen to National Public Radio as we cook. He asks if we are talking about the upcoming election at school and if we aren’t, he assures we talk about it then. “This election is like no other!”

When it comes time to set the table, Beth takes out her green, artisan plates and the round glass napkin rings. She joins me at the table and shows me that in the place I have just set, the sharp end of the knife should point in towards the fork instead of out. “I hope you know I’m teaching you this stuff so you can go out anywhere in the world and be successful. ” As soon as our plates are cleared, we rise to our feet. “Clean up,” Beth says smiling. “Many hands make light work.”

At the school cafeteria, I buy the same sandwich every day: a garlic and herb wrap with a little bit of mayonnaise, turkey, cheddar, tomatoes, banana peppers, and spinach. The lunch lady has memorized my order.

“Little bit of mayonnaise?”

“Yes,” I say.

“The usual then…?” she laughs.

“Yes,” I confirm.

Divorce has forced me to navigate two different worlds. When I travel from one house to the other, I must rework myself to accommodate each lifestyle. My food experience is no exception to this rule.  The disparity between my mother and father’s taste in food has brought inconsistency to my diet. In a whirlwind of baked brie and cinnamon buns, my wrap is stabilizing. Each day, it stands as a reminder that I still know what I like to eat.

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