I am a true foodie. I love the whole process of cooking and sharing food. The creativity of preparing a meal or the social aspect of having dinner with friends or family is one of my favorite pastimes. Living abroad can be both good and bad for this. We are always up for trying something new within some limits-I am relatively adventurous when it comes to eating but gone are the days when as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon, I would try delicacies like viper and crocodile. Or anything goat-related.
I believe that Mia and Zoë will share my love of food as well. They are relatively courageous in trying new things (they love mussels, must be the Belgian side!) and they both have an odd love affair with pickled onions, thanks to Sacha. No kisses for Mum after a snack of those, thank you very much. Remi is still undecided, however-she is currently in the stage of spitting out most food products unless it’s mashed potatoes. I always start out with high hopes when feeding her as she opens her little baby-bird mouth so wide and accommodatingly, takes a big bite of whatever it is that I am giving her, chews and chews and chews rather thoughtfully, grins widely, and then proceeds to hock the food deftly from her cheeky little mouth onto her highchair tray. I am still holding out for her, though, and I am pretty sure she will come around. Plus, I am one determined Mama and I have more willpower and obstinance than a hundred food-spitting babies.
I have learned to be extremely creative in my hunt for cooking ingredients living in a developing country. Most of my favorite dishes, I can find a substitute that works. I have been doing this for years now. As a semi-starved Peace Corps volunteer, I used to make pasta Alfredo with “Laughing Cow “cheese. My tastes (and my wallet) have upgraded considerably since then, but I can still appreciate the idea. Now, I use plain yogurt all the time to substitute for buttermilk or sour cream, and I use locally made crème fraîche for sour cream. Anyone who knows me is aware that I ADORE Mexican good and I do it all homemade. Most ingredients, I can get here, thank GOODNESS! Fresh tortillas, homemade salsa (the key for me is the red onions and fresh cilantro) and guac, chicken enchiladas, mmmmmmm. Plus I have my dishy bartender who runs the grill (and by the way, makes an AWESOME lime marinade for the chicken or beef) as well as tasty margaritas with fresh ginger/lemon syrup. Can someone say YUM???!!! Then I have my secret weapon-my Mum. Dear Maureen Knies lovingly and faithfully sends me treats from either the UK or the US (when she is on vacation) and we jump with giddy excitement when a packet arrives from her because we know of the tasty treats inside! My Mum even sends me good, basic English tea because she shares my passion for a lovely cuppa. In that sense, I am a tea snob all the way. (On that note, though, I am not drinking Queen Elizabeth’s royal blend of loose tea, I am talking about just a very simple black tea like PG Tips or Tetley’s.) There is nothing better! As long as the person making the tea knows how to make it properly. It’s also highly connected to emotions and memories-part of me loving my cup of tea is the nostalgia that goes along with it. For as long as I can remember, we have had tea-time together as a family. Okay, once again, I am losing track of my topic. Food!
My mother is also a huge part of how and why I cook as an adult. Growing up, my Mum made everything from scratch. No boxed cakes or canned tins in our house. Nothing “arti-physical” as she used to joke. Not a whole lot of sugar lying around either, unless it was in a homemade dessert. My Mum didn’t do this out of snobbiness, it was just what she knew from her childhood. She grew up in the UK as a WWII baby when boxed goods were a luxury item. She then moved to Uganda, East Africa, as a young nurse and frankly didn’t have the option of buying anything but fresh ingredients for her cooking. As a kid, I remember not liking the fact that she made everything herself-I was the kid who WANTED a box cake on my birthday, not the carefully and deliciously made, but slightly lopsided homemade chocolate cake (recipe from my great-aunt Robbie). I was the awkward 12-year-old who had the honking thermos of homemade winter vegetable soup in my lunch bag. Did I appreciate this back then? No way! I wanted to have a PB and J on Wonderbread like most of my friends did. I remember vividly one particular birthday party in junior high where my Mum made homemade shredded beef tacos (recipe from our dear friend, Mel Flesher). I was mortified! I wanted to have Round Table Pizza delivered to the party. And then Betty Crocker’s best for dessert.
Now, I chuckle to myself because I could NOT be more grateful for her firm resolve on cooking from scratch. I do the same for my kids. And as much as they complain and moan about it, I am sure they will appreciate it one day. On that note, I do remember, on the first day of college away from home, buying about five boxes of Coco Puffs and savoring every darn bite! Then I went back to Weetabix, ha ha.
These days, I think of my dear Mum when I make her trademark dishes-Italian sausage pasta with red peppers and fennel (with a dollop of ricotta cheese on top!), strawberry-rhubard pie with homemade orange-zest crust, Indian chicken curry (learned from her Indian friends in Uganda years ago), Southern-fried chicken, homemade ice cream cake (with homemade crust!), and on and on and on. My mother ROCKS comfort food to the core. One wiff and I am brought back to her cosy kitchen during my happy childhood.
Ironically, today, it’s Sacha who does the creative cooking. I do the quick-preparation, every-day meals and like my Mum, I make a mean casserole. My dear husband is now the one who on weekends, cooks with thought, originality, and care. His top five are his awesome homemade Belgian waffles (secret recipe from his BonMama), incredibly edible hummus with a ton of garlic, steak au poivre (with cognac to give it a kick), homemade twice-fried BELGIAN fries (taught by his Dad), and tomato soup with basil and crème fraîche. He happily also cooks with the girls and they LOVE being chefs in the kitchen with him. They all have their “helping hats” for cooking and it’s hilarious to see the line of little chairs all in a row so that they can see their mixing bowls!
For us, mealtime is one of the best parts of the day. It’s often chaotic and earsplitting, but it’s good fun. We talk about our day (often at the same time!) and everyone has something to share. I am reminded at every meal with my family how lucky I am to have them. Dinner time is the perfect occasion to be reminded of this.
In the end, I still haven’t let my kids try CocoPuffs. They can try them when they are 18! And in the meantime, I still occasionally sneak in a bowl. Or two.