How Cooking Connects Us to Our Families and Ourselves

April 22, 2010 at 10:55 pm , by

Severson headshot“The kitchen is where I learned all my lessons,” writes New York Times food writer Kim Severson in her memoir, Spoon Fed, which came out last week. In the book, which has hit the bestseller list already, Kim, a friend of mine—that’s her in the picture—writes about wisdom she’s gathered from celebrity chefs she’s come to know, like Rachael Ray and Alice Waters. Cooking, for Kim, is a way of connecting with those famous women, with her Italian-American midwestern mom, Anne Marie, and ultimately, with herself.

I can so relate. But for me, cooking isn’t so much about connecting with my mom, who cooks out of necessity and hates it—she’d rather be out raking the yard. It’s my way of knowing and connecting to my dad, who died when I was not quite two years old. And now, as a single mom, it’s my way of connecting my three-year-old son to his grandfather, to his male roots, and to all the food-loving southern relatives on that side of the family whom he may never get to know. For Scott and for me, cooking is a daily visit with the father and grandfather we never knew; a hands-on untangling of the mystery of our genes. Do you have a story of how cooking has helped you find your identity? After the jump, here’s mine.

I definitely get my interest in cooking from my dad—or so my mom has told me since I was old enough to make Aunt Jemima pancakes in an electric skillet and bring them to her in bed. (Was I seven? Surely no older than nine.) Soon enough, I ditched the mix and developed a taste for which herb goes well with what, and by age 12 I was developing recipes of my own and catering my mom’s dinner parties, serving quiche and watercress soup.

Was it really the genes, I sometimes wonder, or was encouraging my interest in cooking a way for my mom to connect with the charismatic man she was so in love with, and with the marriage that was cut too short to ever get stale? Was I really destined to be a cook on a cellular level, or was cooking my way of keeping hold of the daddy my toddler self went searching for, all through the house, for weeks after he died? In any case, it became an important part of my identity.

I cook by instinct, and I’m lazy—I’m good at throwing together a meal out of random components, but I don’t have the patience for long, complex recipes. When I do follow a recipe I tend to disobey it or tinker with it somehow. Do I get this rebelliousness, too, from my father? Jim Sloan was a World War II ace pilot who liked to shoot a squirrel out of a tree in his suburban Virginia backyard using a hand mirror to aim, the gun facing backwards over his shoulder. He’d nail it, skin it and pop it into a Brunswick stew. It’s a wonder he was never arrested, but then again, he was a successful businessman, a respected community member, a decorated veteran—and a damn good shot.

Jim may have been a rebel, but he was also a cook. He and my baby nurse, Leoria Johnson, would get into a 1963 home version of Iron Chef, competing for who could best season whatever was for dinner, sneaking behind each other’s backs to add a little of this or a little of that. Jim died a year and a half later at age 42, but Leoria’s still sharp as a tack at 93. Until recently she still made roast venison from my dad’s recipe, written in the back of an old cookbook in handwriting that looks a lot like mine.

Scott-green eggsLast week, Jim’s three-year-old grandson (that’s him yesterday, whipping up some green eggs and ham) rattled off the ingredients for a banana milkshake, which he hadn’t had since last summer: “We need milk, banana, ice, sugar and vanilla,” he said without hesitation. Vanilla? Seriously, he remembered the vanilla? He’s three! I have to believe—or want to believe—it must be in the genes.

“All the Sloan men are good cooks,” I tell Scott, whose only parent is me. He beams at the news, at the male tradition and the connection to a grandfather he’ll never meet. For him, it’s already starting to be true.  “No more cilantro,” he cautioned me as I was making chili the other day. “It will be too much.”

And when the subject of grandfathers comes up, the eyes of my native New Yorker light up like those of a true Southern boy: “Squirrel stew!” Scott says, entranced by the idea of it. “My grandfather made squirrel stew!”

Can you share a story of how cooking has connected you to your loved ones, or to yourself?