There are some things that my mom made when I was a child that I still remember with a poignant, nostalgic hunger: cinnamon buns at Christmas with white frosting and red maraschino cherries on the top (memorable because my mother, a responsible mother of the 70s and 80s, shunned red food colouring); tea biscuits with winter suppers, to be devoured afterwards with margarine and homemade jam; hot milk sponge cakes on lazy Sunday afternoons; pancakes on Saturday mornings while we watched HOURS of cartoons.
It’s funny what we take away from our childhood, this brief, haunting space of time. I have had – and, I will say with no real modesty, made – any number of delicious things in my adult life, but none of them possess the same enchanted glow as a bowl of orange jello brought to me in a silver bowl when I was in the hospital at 8. I can’t even remember what my birthday cake tasted like this year, beyond it being delicious, but I could tell you in detail about my childhood birthday cakes, delicate and chocolate and sandwiched together with strawberry preserves.
I read in a cookbook ages before I had kids that it was important to keep in mind what "taste memories" we are building for our children, which I mentally squirreled away, thinking at the time that it sounded like quite sensible advice. Now, though, I’m not so certain – I don’t think we get to pick what "taste memories" our children take away from childhood, since my kids have no memories at ALL of me ever making things that I am quite proud of and make WAY too often (brownies, anyone?) but speak yearningly of doughnuts that their grandfather bought them two winters ago.
And then there are the things that I make without even thinking about, like the tray of polenta squares (totally simple and from the cookbook that came with my son’s lunchbox) that I pulled out of the oven last night, and which my husband had never even SEEN before, since they’re normally packed in school lunches and eaten before he gets home. Yet I make them nearly every week and they’re received with a surprisingly rapturous glee by my kids, this food that I rarely even think about and that he’d never even seen.
Most people go into parenthood wanting to give their children a good childhood, to give their children happiness, sweet-tasting and mild. The problem with children, though, is that they’re actual people and live in the actual world and we don’t actually get to control other people or the world – well, I don’t, although that feels unfair. And we also don’t get to say what memories they’ll keep from their childhood, which is sort of depressing, just like my stupid polenta squares.
A lot of people take stock of their health in January, and make plans to eat healthier in this still-new year. It’s certainly not a bad idea – my personal resolutions are to eat more fruit, to have more vegetables with supper and to cut back on how many processed foods we eat, but I have other food resolutions beyond those. I want to make more soul-feeding foods, more foods that will stay (possibly) in their memories long after childhood is over, long after this goes from being their home and just becomes the house they grew up in, long after childhood is over and this all has just become memory, vivid and bittersweet and gone.