By any objective standard, my mother-in-law loved food. Loved the tastes and textures and sights and smells. Loved to sample every dish on the table, pressing her lips together and moaning with approval. So it went at just about every meal my wife and children and I had with her for 23 years, including Thanksgiving at our home.
Which, I now admit, drove me nuts. Nettie always made such a big deal about eating. You see, I had exactly the right attitude toward food: mature, practical. Eating was eating and food, fuel, intended mainly for function and performance.
Then, in the fall of 1998, something surprising happened. Suddenly, for the first time, I felt an urge to feed Nettie. And so every Sunday I drove her to the restaurant of her choice for dinner.
As we all gathered around, I, too, made a big deal about the food. I inhaled, deeply and theatrically, the enticing fragrances that wafted forth. As we dug in, I even went moan for moan with her. That’s how our Thanksgiving went that year, too. Everything stayed exactly the same — except me and my attitude.
Only months later, though, just as I had gotten the hang of eating with Nettie, she died. Now, seven years later, I finally realize why I changed my view of eating with her. It must have dawned on me that her childhood had everything to do with how she ate as an adult. Nettie grew up poor in Brooklyn during the great Depression, her father, a garbage man, with two brothers and a sister. I was able to imagine her life as a girl, her mother bringing macaroni to the table and Nettie asking herself the question she would ask in later years. Will this be enough? For me? For us all?
I’d never made the connection. No wonder: I’d grown up in an upper-middle-class suburb in northern New Jersey. I’d always had enough to eat, and known more could be had just for the asking. Because I never saw food as an issue, I could never understand why anyone else would.
The 1930s left Nettie with a famine sensibility. That’s why she hoarded food in her cabinets, piled her plate so high at buffets and had to sample every dish. That’s why she always saved scraps for later, even a smear of cream cheese. Better get my fill today, in case we run short tomorrow, she must have thought at every meal, and never more so than at Thanksgiving.
As it happens, so many of us have lately shifted toward a food-as-fuel credo. We follow findings from the latest studies about nutrition like stockbrokers watching the Dow. We fret about how many carbs to consume and whether to allow ourselves seconds. We’re turning into amateur dieticians, second-guessing our every finicky bite — worse, into Puritans, sugar and fat the new sins. We risk seeing food mainly as a hazard to our health, the primal pleasure of eating slowly devolving into a social stigma.
Thank goodness my mother-in-law taught me how to eat. So this Thanksgiving let’s give “eating right” the day off. Let’s feast as if it’s going out of style. Let’s stuff our faces in Nettie’s honor. After all, we came to this country to be free. Maybe it’s time once again we ate freely.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.