“Never eat what your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”
It’s a pretty ubiquitous caveat today. Somehow that one sentence is supposed to conjure up a homey, heart-tendering scene of all of our grandmothers, and the wisdom she brought to the kitchen. If it doesn’t for you, don’t worry. You’re not alone.
Because in America, we still have a very outdated vision of what that looks like.
It insinuates that everyone’s grandmother was right off the boat from the Old World, still growing and cooking from scratch, rough hands that knew her knives well and the feel of a plump, ripe fruit, absorbing the life force from the dirt she weeded in, pots boiling over stoves all day long that exhaled the ghosts of the animals, fruits, vegetables, seeds, and grains with the steam, the strong scent of fresh baked bread and cultural herbs and spices hanging in the air and wafting with her every move, hair done in a loose bun, she allowing us to take a bite of the ingredients as they passed through to the plate, a warm smile and smeared apron smock.
Culturally today in America, a grandmother is often elevated to be seen as the pinnacle of family life (the “mother” of all matronly figures) – and from whom we’ve been handed down the wisdom of all the womanly arts, cooking included.
But the trouble with my grandmother(s), as is with many of my generation whose grandmothers started having babies in the 1950s and beyond, is that our world and its food preparation techniques changed drastically. Those changes have since become the norm and still persist today. And unless you had at least one parent who grew up on a farm in the ’60s like I did, the grandmother imprint probably did not come with dinner time for most in my generation.
After the second world war as women were ushered out of the factories and back into the kitchens, convenience foods became all the rage. Marketing was relentless until women began to feel that they were not doing what was best for their families by spending so much time in the kitchen cooking apart from everyone else. Why work harder, work smarter? Women were goaded to “up their game” in their household chores. Become the ‘super mom’.
With cans, frozen foods, and gadgets galore coming onto the scene postwar (fridges and freezers, electric can openers, and don’t forget the microwave!), it was nearly impossible to not fall into the trap of leaning on convenience, prepackaged and frozen foods.
With that disconnect, their children saw and learned less about the art of cooking. Then another generation grew up in the 60s and 70s, drifting farther and farther away from the produce aisle. They marched into the frozen section with fast and easy foods for surviving in the growing working world that both men and women soon found themselves in.
Today, fewer and fewer children are exposed to foods in their raw form, never mind how to prepare them. Many elementary aged children cannot identify a raw fruit or vegetable. Most young adults leave high school and enter college life on their own without even basic home skills, cooking most of all.
I think the adage of “don’t eat what your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food” shows, though, a cultural ideal we really cherish and still seek. While it’s an outdated one, the romantic image of the matronly grandmother with so much knowledge about food and feeding the heart and soul is one I think that we are wired as humans to cultivate.
For example, I was always very proud of my female lineage. My grandmother was an only daughter, my mother an only child, as was I. We were close. The relationships in a female line 0r community was always meant to be one of passing down learning and adopting the wisdom of the generations before. But this is a quickly waning practice, if not completely extinct for many families today. And like many modern women, the women in my family had lost touch with that birthright, or feminine inheritance.
That disconnect doesn’t stop at the dinner table, either.
From home birth midwifery to darning socks, breastfeeding or healing wounds, women of past generations would pour their knowledge into the vessels of the next generation, who would soak it up like sponges from the moment they were born. Because it was a way of life.
Modern conveniences today, though, have done away for the need to repair socks or knit sweaters, grow or cook food, make healing salves or ointments – to even feeding our own children. So much of this knowledge has fallen away, and the modern woman looks to doctors and experts to explain the best of what science has to advise. Women have lost the empowerment of learning the secrets of womanhood and healthy living from those she knows and trusts, seeing with her own eyes the only proof she needs of the benefits of long-held traditions and techniques.
That is why I am passionate about soaking up ancient wisdoms and natural health. I do it for me. I do it for the generations before me who did not have the resources to learn more. I do it for my sisters today who may not be as far along on this path as I am. I do it for future generations, who may be able to once again hold dear to their heart true romantic memories of a revered, wise, and knowledgeable grandmother who passed down her well-worn experience with love and grace.
Above it all, I do it for my own grandmother who left this world too soon because she did not learn those dear secrets.