Friday, June 24, 2011

Dinner as a Metaphor?

I miss Costco! TJ is restocking the cabinets back at home in Virginia and made the first big-ticket run without me. Weirdly, the idea of pushing the flatbed, loading the 20-lb bag of flour, the palette of toilet paper, and the paint-can of garbanzo beans, kindles warm memories of home. You see, when we first came to Phnom Penh, I needed to explore the local shopping venues. After the first experience guiding four kids through a labyrinthine covered marketplace, overwhelmed with smells of fish and bodies, haggling over each item, and toting it all out on my shoulders, we made an about-face and headed to Lucky’s, the Chinese-owned, air-conditioned supermarket down the road. And when I learned that the two places are selling nearly the same inventory at similar prices, well, it just seemed like I could do without the pointless weekly torture ritual. Of course, there are limitations on what you can afford in a store that’s almost all imported, and some serious limitations in our kitchen with skinny urban refrigerator, no microwave or oven. But we’ve become used to those limits; we’re happy to eat kidney beans and rice a few days a week if we eat out the other times.
Atey has gone to several interviews for her next job and returns to us with a worried expression. ‘They are asking can I cook Western food,’ she reported from the last encounter, a U.S. Embassy family. Apparently, the woman got really bent out of shape and asked Atey why she wasn’t more motivated about learning from their cookbooks. Atey doesn’t really jump to sell herself or bend the truth on her skill-set, as I hoped she would. She seems to just crumple up and look at her feet in these situations. And I feel badly, in part because I haven’t really prepared Atey to deal with my Western professional peer group—sticklers for household hygiene, neurotic über-moms, and lily-livered food-pokers. When we designated dinner-making as one of her responsibilities a few months back, she shrugged and accepted, and has doled out a Monday-through-Thursday casserole of chicken, beans and rice, with very little variation. And with enough else to do with the kids between 6 and 9pm, I haven’t made cuisine a priority. I guess you could say Atey and I have a meeting of the minds on this one.  
But returning to the States will also mean returning to the land of foodies, where I’m sort of the odd-man-out, even in my own family. They think I’m exaggerating when I say I mostly don’t taste food anymore. Maybe that comes from four kids. Or maybe the accumulated years of managing dinners by myself with them. I have trouble talking-up Atey’s cooking to some of these folks, because I just can’t imagine getting that excited about Tuesday dinner at 6:15. And yet these folks are everywhere in the US, rubbing their fingers through the arugula, sniffing strawberries and squeezing plastic-wrapped packages of marbled steak. How did eating become such an obsession?
I should probably stop there at risk of offending my entire extended family. The pragmatist in me says that the meal isn’t worth the time it takes to cook (and clean up after) it. Not in a country where I could buy a simple meal anywhere on the block for about 75 cents. Not with books to read, and violins to practice, and a hundred more interesting things to do, and only about 3 hours a day to do it in.
Maybe I had this awakening on child #2. Coming through the door at 6pm is like stepping from a moderate-paced treadmill (your whole day) onto a speeding treadmill (your evening). When the kids were in preschool and daycare, we’d all cross the threshold together, famished, weary and hyper all at the same time. That’s when frozen bricks of chicken breast look like way more trouble than they’re worth. And then, as now, getting the food onto the plates is only the beginning of the challenge. Most of it never seems to reach their mouths, and dinner isn’t dinner if at least 2 kids don’t have to run to the toilet the minute after it’s served. In case there was any glory in the presentation of a well-cooked meal, it is totally deflated by the call to wipe a child’s behind just as you’re lifting the first forkful. When it comes to mealtime, I’m running a barnyard, and cooking to me has all the glamour of animal husbandry.
Unlike so many of my yuppy, socially-conscious brethren, I am not fascinated by the purchase, preparation, and metabolism of food. (And sorry, Atey, because I get the feeling it’s limiting your job prospects).
No, when I finally do re-emerge from the bathroom, relieved children in tow, I fork the food down as fast as I can while still breathing. And when it comes to food-issues, I should stick to the same principles with my peer group, or they will be jabbing their forks into me. A few weeks ago, working on an agricultural finance study, two ag-experts explained to me the devastating effect of EU regulations prohibiting growth hormones, various pesticides and fertilizers from entering the EU-bound food supply. While French and German mums are worrying about harmless levels of fertilizer in their little ones’ mashed peas, producers across Africa are pigeon-holed in some pre-industrial farming methods, low land productivity, and high vulnerability to climatic changes. Sorry Africa, Europeans only want organic. In case you thought legislating organic food was a win-win, here’s a Foreign Policy article to chew on. (Don't want to subscribe? Here's a good synopsis.)
And after my exhausting food shopping experiences here, Bagehot’s recent blog in the Economist on Supermarket Bashing offered a good laugh. It also peaked my longing for Costco. You see, there’s no harm in grocery shopping on foot at your local farmer’s market, if you don’t mind the prices and can feed your family on the contents of a wicker basket. But the English are apparently taking the nostalgia a step further, and pushing municipal legislation making it harder for supermarket chains to enter their towns in the first place. Worth a read, especially if you are one who prefers to shop once a week or less, and has more than one mouth to feed.
Unfortunately, this sepia-tinted version of reality seems to be creeping all over the mommy-and-me-yoga-practicing world. At the surface, it seems to be guided by indisputable aspirations: wellness, simplicity, community. There is always a hearkening back to some Norman Rockwell yester-year that we will re-establish on today’s strip malls and suburban sprawl. (Well, the closest remnant of yester-year that I can put a finger on is my granddad’s house in New Jersey. The best adjective for that place is spartan; two chairs and a lamp from 1965, tiny formica kitchen, one bologna and cheese sandwich (not too much mayo!) on white bread every day at noon. And I bet if you surveyed the nearest assisted living community, you’d get a similar picture of meals from back-in-the-day.) But my peer group is trying to invoke and old-fashioned simplicity not through—well, simplicity—but through elaborate (and pricy) consumer rituals, day-long food shopping processes, and homes filled with things intended to provide some spiritual self-portrait.
I guess we’re saying that dinner is a metaphor.

I was eating a jar of kimchi when I read the spate of nervous analysts anticipating a US Treasury default on August 2nd. Apparently, if Congress won’t raise the debt ceiling or come to some kind of budget agreement, then the Treasury can either stop paying veterans, freeze social security, or stop making interest payments on its debt. And that would be really embarrassing, after all the fun we had opining on the gluttonous Greeks. (Although a new acronym could show our solidarity with the mommy-states: USPIGS). Seems we may be caught in a generational melee of over-indebted and under-skilled young folks pitted against entitlement-hungry, footloose baby-boomers, who are in turn supporting octogenarians with longevity-genes. Whew! We might need some bologna-on-white-bread days to make it through this one.
So why do I think dinner is a metaphor? A whole generation of women belittled the business of dinner-making before I was even born. And now it seems like half of my cohort is spending a good number of hours squeezing tomatoes and enquiring into the origins of their chicken breast. I don’t begrudge them their morals—it’s a free world! But since having kids and living here, I can see that all this contemplation of mealtime and fulfillment through food is as meaningless to the poor world as the French cookbook thrust under Atey’s nose at her last interview. Are we so busy (navel) gazing at our heirloom tomatoes to miss the shift in American competitiveness? I’m guessing that most of the poor world is eating like Cambodia: eating is a function more than an art form, and most people are getting by on some unvaried combination of starch-and-bean. In this part of the world, there is no doubt that “wellness” relates to productivity.
Next week will find me back in Costco, pushing the giant cart around the cold warehouse aisles. Hopefully Atey will be settling into a good job with a nice, respectful family. For her sake, I hope that she can learn to grill a salmon or sauté an onion. For my family, I will learn to keep my mouth shut on food-related issues, or at least eat without talking. I also hope that Costco extends its operating hours, cause wouldn’t I love to get that out of the way first thing in the morning.


  1. I think you are right about the poor countries, and food. When their choices are beans, rice and maybe a fish the choice on what type or where it comes from doesn't exsist. But in a country like America where there are endless choices, organic or not, loaded with pesticides and made of corn syrup etc.. We Americans tend to choose the most un healthy of food items. This leads to obesity, skyrocketing rates of heart disease etc.. It's sort of funny that the countries that have these options have way more industrialized health concerns than say Cambodia. So, I challenge you that if you have a choice to feed your family non packaged, locally grown food, which ultimately is what you have been feeding then in Cambodia, wouldn't you?

  2. Thanks MamaM. It does seem like the largest people in Cambodia are the foreigners, although not necessarily because the Khmer diet is superior. For instance, American kids seem to get a lot more protein, so my kids look a good deal taller and stronger than some other kids their same age on the playgrounds here. And I don't mean to imply that because I'm time-constrained and budget-constrained I de-prioritize healthy food for my kids. In fact, I think it's too bad that Americans look at the Dollar Menu as an approach to saving money on food. A can of kidney beans is 45 cents, and a head of kale is 75 cents. But from many nights of being on my own to slap a dinner together in 5 minutes or less, I am happy to rinse off some bagged spinach and grab a handful of walnuts and raisins and slice a hunk of cheese. Add glass of milk and voila--meal is ready. As for the local/organic versus non-local, I see a lot of value in trade and selection throughout the year, and I am less convinced that kids suffer nutritional harm from FDA-approved fertilizers on a carrot than they do from a diet that is generally too high in refined starch and high fructose corn syrup, too much snacking, and generally too much food.

  3. I’m so tired of this organic, locally grown food dogma otherwise known as the pastime time for upper middle-class, neurotic parents with far too much time on their hands. The obesity and health equation is more complicated than whether your kid eats an organic tomato versus a pesticide-laden time bomb otherwise known as a non-organic tomato in the parlance of the organic hoards. The question likely comes down to whether your child eats a tomato at all and whether he gets off the couch to get the tomato. The world is a complicated place. Billions of people require food. Modern farming practices will feed them. I’m on my way to COSTCO for a gallon corn syrup.