Monday, July 25, 2005

Serve It Forth

Too few of us, perhaps, feel that the breaking of bread, the sharing of salt, the common dipping into one bowl, mean more than satisfaction of a need. We make such primal things as casual as tunes heard over a radio, forgetting the mystery and strength in both. From "Meals for Me" in Serve it Forth, by M.F.K. Fisher, p.43; 1937

A couple of years ago, we had a guest speaker at a Mothers & More meeting whom I think was a nutritionist. She gave a presentation on “Women’s Healthy Lifestyles”, which reminded us that we all need to eat more fruits and vegetables and exercise more. Not much of a newsflash there, but it’s always good to remember when you’re about to have doughnuts and coffee for breakfast, then sit your kids in front of the tv and yourself in front of the computer.

The other thing I remember about this now nameless woman’s talk was her insistence that it is bad to eat your children’s leftovers for your own meal, especially if you are a stay-at-home mother. I think the idea was that eating leftover kid food showed you didn’t care about food for yourself. You deserve a real meal, one like M.F.K. Fisher would eat, prepared with wholesome ingredients that can be savored and appreciated, even if eaten alone or with offspring that are only interested in blowing bubbles in their milk.

I pondered this while I ate the other half of my three year old’s lunch banana. I didn’t want to just dump it in the compost container with the coffee grounds and strawberry tops, after all. No need to waste perfectly good food. This was a refrain that I often heard as a child, as my father made a sandwich out of the last piece of fuzzy green bread in the plastic bag, meticulously shaved white spots off cheese, and ate almost liquid bananas. He also discouraged us from having "eyes bigger than your stomach” and taking too big a portion, which was any amount that would leave leftovers on our plates.

I often eat my kid’s leftover food, as a quick supplement to whatever else I’m eating. The rest of today’s lunch was a (dinner leftover) pork chop with peanut sauce, iced coffee, and some pretzels. I’m not sure if M.F.K. Fisher would have approved, but it was a strangely satisfying combination.

A lot of dieticians out there on the Internet would definitely not approve. Apparently, cleaning up your children’s leftovers is one of those unthinking habits that add extra flab to mothers’ thighs, making it impossible for us to shed those post pregnancy pounds. I suppose this is true if you eat a big meal and then feel compelled to clean all of your kid’s plates afterwards -- or if you finish their yogurt & hot dogs before you have your adult meal later in the evening. My kid’s leftovers are heavy on the fruits and vegetables, though, and I don’t feel the need to eat every scrap they leave behind. We do have a dog, and a composter with a thriving population of invertebrates; both are more than ready to devour food remains. Occasionally, I finish pieces of cake from which only the frosting has been consumed, but I think that dealing with a birthday party for ten or so two-to-four year olds probably cancels out the extra calories.

In a lot of traditional cultures, the elders eat first and the children eat afterwards (sometimes it is the women & children). This can be a sign of respect for the aged, which is laudable and arguably lacking in our culture, but it can also be hard on the kids. One of the things I remember most from Dancing Skeletons, Katherine A. Dettwyler’s amazing book on children & nutrition in West Africa, was how shocked her informants were when she picked her meat out of her bowl of stew and made sure her daughter got enough first. A lot of the children she saw were malnourished, because the elders got most of the meat, leaving the starchy stew leftovers for the kids. Extended breastfeeding helped counteract this deficit a bit, but when another child came along, weaning meant hard times ahead.

As Jesus said to the Syrophoenician woman, “Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it unto the dogs.” But after she answered that “yet the dogs under the table eat of the children's crumbs” (Mark 7:26-29), a demon was cast out of her daughter. So let that be a lesson to you, however you interpret it.

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