The Meals that Shape Us
A lot of memories from my childhood are tied up with times around the dinner table. What was served—and what was not—tells a lot about a family. Food physically sustains us, but meals shape us.
My parents filled traditional culinary roles. My father’s cooking was limited to what could fit on a grill, while my mother was tasked with answering the what’s for dinner conundrum on a nightly basis. Her cooking changed through the years, influenced heavily on family economics, then shifting more on what was considered healthy eating at the time.
When my older brothers were little, there was less money to go around, so meals were economical. Trying to keep up with the appetites of three growing boys was a nearly impossible feat. Milk was made from powder and food was stretched by the dime. Stews and sloppy joes were often on the menu.
My memories of childhood meals include some of these meat-and-potato staples, but also more sophisticated options. One of my favorite side dishes my mother made was a rice pilaf that tasted of pure butter and Parmesan cheese. Our family finances were a bit different by the time I, the blessed accident, came along. There was still a budget firmly in place (my mother often grumbled about it), but meals were “fancier.” Most people might think missing out on canteen-style dinners would be a blessing, but I loved a good mystery noodle dish. The creamier, the better.
My mom had the added challenge of accommodating a son with a life-threatening illness. Around the same time I was born, my oldest brother, Tom, was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes. All sugary foods, really the only things we actually wanted to eat, were now kept under lock and key in a cupboard out of reach. I have memories of scaling the counter to try and jimmy the lock open.
Going to friends' houses brought an escape from culinary restrictions. My brother Andy remembers going door-to-door in search of Hostess Twinkies. I remember sleepovers where I polished off three bowls of cereal because I had never had Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Diabetes had made sugar a big thing to us Walsh kids.
Even something as simple as a tuna noodle casserole was life changing. I spent much of 1989 at Liz’s house, one of my childhood best friends who lived 3 doors down. Liz’s father was a sports trainer for the Chicago Bulls but in my eyes, her mother was the real star. She was warm and welcoming and cooked hearty stick-to-your-ribs type of foods. One night, I stayed for dinner probably because I simply wouldn't leave. Mr. Vermeil had invited some of his very tall and very famous clients over, but I was too consumed by the casserole in front of me and how quickly I could get it into my mouth. I ate next to Scottie Pippen that night, but I have stronger memories of the delicious noodley goodness.
Sometime in the 90s, my mom became more focused on restraint than abundance. Fruit and vegetables became the ruling class, as was dieting. My mom had met some Jenny Craig lady and I deeply regretted it. My father and I could take what we wanted, but my mom weighed her portions of food on a tiny scale. My shaky teenage self-esteem took note and I left for college with my own extreme measures of restraint and control. I’d barely scrape my all-you-can-eat meal plan only to binge late night with girlfriends on bagels and marshmallow fluff. I was definitely still a work in progress.
Thankfully, much of this changed when I met my husband. He is a foodie and quite simply, loves to cook and eat. If I wanted to stay happily married, I needed to get on board. Now we have 2 kids, and I wonder about what memories they will have of times around the dinner table. My cooking is dependent on following a recipe, while my husband is a true chef. His weeknight meals whipped together are as good as some 4-star restaurant plates. But, our kids won’t touch 99% of it. They love the basic food groups: chicken nuggets, hummus, chips, and cheese in stick form. Vegetables are consumed only to get to the dessert, which, luckily for them, is not locked away and out of reach. McDonalds is Michelin-rated in their eyes.
Time will only tell what Kerr culinary memories will develop. I’m hoping their palate will expand, but for now, I’m off to pick up a few Happy Meals.
Nora Kerr is the owner of Memoir for Me, specializing in memory and story books filled with the life stories that matter.