(This is a much longer post than usual. But I was thinking about writing about food and spirituality and remembered this piece. So I thought I would post it here.)
To Love is to Feed
When my sister and I stayed at my grandmother’s place as children, she would let us collect the eggs from her chickens. It’s possible that checking for eggs originally started as a chore, as something we were meant to do. For me, at least, it soon turned into a privilege. We were only meant to check once a day, but I would go out there every hour or so. ‘Please, Baba,’ I would beg, ‘Please can I check for eggs again.’ My grandmother would say something in Ukrainian that I didn’t understand, but she would always let me go.
Sometimes my sister came with me. Sometimes I went alone. Out the back-door, into the garden filled with flowers and fruit; beautiful flowers, potted flowers, colourful flowers, strange looking flowers, flowers that scared me because they were always surrounded by bees. I never learned all their names. Even if I asked my grandmother to name each one, I would have forgotten the first one by the time she reached the last.
Past the two cherry trees that, when the cherries were ripe, provided as much fun as five children could have in the days before Nintendo. My three cousins, my sister and I would spend hours eating cherries, climbing for cherries, spitting pips at each other until it looked as if our clothes had measles. Cherry time was a special time, a seasonal time, almost a festival time.
These days, we mark our calendars with yearly events like Red Nose Day or Jeans for Genes or holidays that have been around a long time, but only recently become commercialised. Easter, Valentines, Christmas. We turn a page in our calendar and get ready by spending hours in shopping malls. We sigh with relief when they’re over, because we have finished with the buying, finished with the giving and finished with the stress for another year. Holidays and festivals are nothing new, but they seem to have shifted to something different than what they once were. They used to be about marking the seasons, celebrating harvests and enjoying fruit that is here now, at this moment, but will be gone in a month or two. When we were children, part of the appeal of cherry season, was that it did not last all year. It was like Christmas. We enjoyed it while we could.
After passing the cherry trees, I walked by the abundant garden; as generous as my grandmother. Its edges overflowed with too much food to stay, too much food to eat, too much food to cook and often too much food to give away. I heard many an argument between my grandmother and my mother, over the subject of zucchinis. My grandmother would always be telling my parents they had to take some zucchinis. My mother would explain that we had zucchini plants and already more than enough for our use. My grandmother would start giving the zucchinis to my fathers. My mother would take them off my father and hand them back to my grandmother. My grandmother would say that even though we had zucchinis, we probably needed more. My grandmother always thought that people should have more. When the zucchinis were in season, not only did we eat them with every meal, but we had zucchini slice for afternoon tea and zucchini pancakes for breakfast.
The old cliché says ‘as happy as a child in a candy store’. Children in candy stores have no idea what true happiness is. For nothing beats the happiness of a child in a vegetable garden, where the tomatoes are eaten straight from the vine, the peas are eaten straight from the pod, the strawberries come with dirt attached and you can pick vegetables and take them to your grandmother, who will cook them into something you will eat that night.
Next I would walk along the path and pass the shed, where you pulled lights on with a cord, not a switch, and that always smelled of potatoes, onions, dirt, manure and tools. It sounds uninviting, but I thought of it was a welcoming place. This was where my grandmother kept the jars for her pickles and canning. This was where she cooked potato pancakes, though I never quite figured out why. It was often dusty and messy and unsorted. But it felt real, like a place that never pretended to be anything other than what it was. I have never been to the Ukraine. As a child I used to picture it as a big place, filled with red and black squares, colourful easter eggs, religious icons and women in scarves. And underneath the overpowering smell of cabbage and onion cooking, I would always imagine the faint scent of that shed.
Finally I was at the chickens. If no eggs were there, I felt deflated, despite the fact that I had probably checked for them less than hour beforehand. If there was one, I was as happy as pampushky swimming in sugar. I wanted to run back to my grandmother and show her my find. But an egg was precious. It had value. So I would walk, carefully and deliberately back to the house, watching that eggs the whole way. When I reached my grandmother, she would gently take it from my hands, give me a kiss and tell me, in Ukrainian, that she loved me.
My father said that the reason my grandmother kept chickens was because she did not like to waste food. Chickens could be given many of the leftovers, so that there was not so much waste. I wanted to ask my father why she cooked such big meals if she did not like wasting leftovers. But I didn’t ask. My father was not the kind of person who answered stupid questions.
My grandmother had to cook big meals. She had to give people food, and lots of it. It was part of who she was. To live, to love, was to feed.
Each mealtime involved a variety of dishes, filling up the entire dining room table and usually spilling out into the kitchen. Often we thought we had finished the meal, only to find there was another five or so dishes to go. Cabbage rolls, varenyky, stuffed peppers, salted herrings. Preceding it all was always soup, whether it was winter or summer. Often the soup was chicken noodle, but not always. My favourite soup was Borscht. The soup I could not stand was pea. My mother and aunt used to tell me that it was Incredible Hulk soup. That may have impressed my boy cousins, but it failed to work for me. Then there were the times when soup was a big bowl of mystery that seemed more like a dare than an entrée. Soup filled with unidentifiable animal parts and other strange things that did not look edible. Another byproduct of her reluctance to waste food, I suppose.
As well as the obligatory soup, all meals came with the constant refrain of ‘eat, eat’, or in Ukrainian ‘yisti, yisti’. I only ever learned a tiny bit of Ukrainian. Most of it is forgotten now. The word for ‘eat’, however, will be with me always. Even my children know it. If we refused to try a specific dish, she told us to eat. If we had space left on our plate, she told us to eat. If there was food left on the table, she told us to eat. If we did not have a fork on its way from our plate to our mouth, she told us to eat. If we had eaten more than we had eaten in the previous week, she told us to eat. Yisti, Yisti, Yisti, Yisti.
The biggest meals were at Christmas Eve and Easter. Each one was started with food that we had to eat, whether we liked it or not. Easter was not a problem at all. The beginning dish, the one we had to eat, was eggs from the basket of food that had been blessed by the priest. I never thought to ask if any of the eggs I collected were ever blessed. It seems likely. After the eggs, we had a bread called Paska with real butter that had cloves inserted into it in the shape of a cross. There was also cold meats, cheese and lots of other delicious foods. Everybody liked Easter, even my mother.
Christmas Eve did not have the same universal appeal. First of all, we started our meal with a dish made of poppy seeds called kutia. A couple of my cousins did not like this at all. As they had to eat at least some, they would put the smallest amount possible on their plate. Following this, there was a vegetarian meal, including many dishes that were not that popular with us kids. Even though I love most of my grandmother’s meals now, there were times when I would have dearly loved to trade them in for some KFC – or Kentucky, as we called it then. Another tradition we followed at Christmas Eve was to set a plate aside for the people who had died, with pictures of them next to it. A little of each dish was placed on that plate. Sometimes I half expected my grandmother to tell those deceased relatives to ‘yiste, yiste’.
My mother, who is not Ukrainian, did not like a lot of the food that my grandmother cooked. Not only that, but she couldn’t eat cabbage, which does not work well at a Ukrainian table. My grandmother would look upset when my mother had hardly anything on her plate. My mother would get annoyed when my grandmother kept telling her to eat. Neither of them understood where the other person was coming from.
I too have had an argument with my grandmother over food. Her house is not that far from mine. When the children were young, she often walked past and every time she did she would knock the table and give them something to eat. A bowl of donuts, twisted pastries or sometimes chocolates or biscuits. I did not want my children eating such unhealthy food all the time, so I asked her not to bring them so much. So then, instead of knocking on the door, she took to standing on the footpath and calling until they looked through the window. When they saw her, she would beckon them to come outside, where she would give them food away from my eyes.
As soon as I discovered what she was doing, I told her to stop it. I got angry. She got angry. In the end, she refused to speak to me. It’s the only time in my life when my grandmother has ignored me. Eventually I ended up apologising, even though I knew I was in the right. Just like with my mother, it was a case where neither one of us understood the other.
Another reason why I did not want my grandmother giving my boys food all the time was because I did not want them to see her only as a source of treats. I wanted them to love her for herself, not what she would give them. I thought that food and love should be kept completely separate. It never occurred to me that maybe my grandmother did not see things the same way.
For most of my life, I had simply accepted that my grandmother liked to feed people. I never thought to ask why she did this. I never wondered if she had good reasons for it. If anything, I thought it was more a fault than anything else. Sure, it was good to feed people. But so much? And so often? And with such unhealthy food?
Revelations can come from the unlikeliest sources. Mine came when I was watching Masterchef. Julie was explaining to the judges her reasons for cooking. She said that, through her food, she wanted people to feel nurtured and loved. It seemed apparent that, to Julie, feeding people was a way of loving them. Suddenly I began to understand my grandmother a little better.
My grandmother did not grow a lot of vegetables and give most of them away just because she liked gardening. She did not provide us with huge meals, which she would tell us to eat and eat and eat some more, just because she liked cooking. And she certainly did not buy my boys treats just because she wanted to annoy me. She did these things because it was her way of loving us.
Food is not just food to my grandmother. It is precious. It has value. Even when it’s not done in a church by a priest, it is blessed. To feed someone is not to keep them from starvation. To feed someone is to give them something precious. It is a loving thing to do. Food and love are not separate for my grandmother, as they are for me. Instead, they are connected.
Once when my grandmother was visiting, I made the offhand comment that one of my favourite foods was her potato pancakes. Later that day, she came around with a dinner plate piled so high with potato pancakes that its height was larger than its width. It was the last time I ever had my grandmother’s potato pancakes. It was the last time I will ever have them.
I never thought I would ever say this, but I wish I had eaten more at my grandmother’s table, paid more heed to her constant refrain or ‘yisti, yisti’, For I did not realise that Paska, cabbage rolls, stuffed peppers, potato pancakes and varenyky would not be around forever. I can now have Kentucky any time I want to, not that I want to very often. It’s not so easy to go to the food court and eat some cabbage rolls. If I had just one of those old dishes, I would be as happy as -- well, as happy as a child in a vegetable garden.
My grandmother is still alive. But she is old and she is frail. She is preparing herself for death. She no longer has any chickens. My children will never know the joy of collecting eggs. There is nothing much left in her garden. The cherry trees were chopped down years ago. Although she still has the family over for Christmas and Easter, those dinners are much smaller than they once were. The Christmas Eve dinner has completely disappeared. She is no longer capable of such hard work. Even the meals she eats herself are provided by Meals on Wheels.
She still brings treats for my boys though; a chocolate bar, a tin of biscuits, a packet of chips, a bag of lollies. Something she has bought from Coles. I no longer argue with her. For a woman who loves through feeding, it is all she has left. I won’t take that little away from her.
Earlier this year, I attended a multicultural food festival. I looked everywhere for Ukrainian food, for something that my grandmother used to make. I could find nothing. I can’t even remember what I ended up eating now. I know I was not impressed. Perhaps it was for the best. My sister tells me that when she visited the Ukraine, the cabbage rolls were not nearly as good as our grandmothers. It surprised me, but it shouldn’t have. Even if the cabbage rolls were made in the exact same way as my grandmother, they would be missing an essential ingredient. I know it’s a cliché, but they would be missing love.
I have tried to make my own Ukrainian food. I have made varenyky that fell apart, and cabbage rolls that never came together in the first place. I had better luck with potato pancakes. They tasted quite nice, but they weren’t like my grandmothers’. I think they were missing the required amount of fat. Nobody cooks like my grandmother anymore. The health professionals tell us not to. Strange, though, that my grandmother ate like that all her life. She may be frail and elderly, but she’s over 90 and still alive.
Last week, I bought my sons and myself some scones from Baker’s Delight. There was a chocolate scone, a chocolate coconut scone and a banana choc-chip scone and we all had a different one each. I gave some of my chocolate coconut scone to each of my boys so that they could try it. Then my youngest son tried to give me some of his banana choc-chip scone. A banana choc-chip scone did not sound too tempting to me, so I told him I did not want it. ‘Take it’, he said. ‘Eat it.’ I told him again that I did not want it. He told me again to eat it. Eventually I relented and took the scone he offered. As soon as it was in my mouth, he said, ‘I’m just like Grandma, aren’t I?’
I had never thought of it before, but he is just like my grandmother. He loves to share food. If I buy him a chocolate bar, there’s a good chance he’ll give me at least some of it back. Whenever he has a packet of chips, he is always handing them out to people. If he has a piece of cake, some of it will end up on someone else’s plate. When he buys a treat with his pocket money, he’ll buy something for his brother to eat as well. He loves to give food to people. Perhaps, like my grandmother, food and love are connected for him.
I hope so. Even though I may no longer eat the food my grandmother used to cook, there is a chance that I may see her legacy in the way my son loves through feeding. And who knows? Maybe one day he may even learn to make cabbage rolls.