For the past two decades, I have chopped, sautéed and soaked my way around cultural food preferences, food allergies, and food anxiety. I have negotiated with teens sometimes frustrated by my real-food standards.
Non-compliant food budgets have been wrangled into submission and I have relaxed at table, organic coffee in hand, delightedly crafting menu plans. Yet the time and energy poured out in my Whole Food Kitchen have been about far more than simply nourishing bodies.
It is here that I have learned about soul care; about grieving and playing and ‘doing family’, imperfectly perhaps but wholeheartedly nonetheless; and where I made the decision to love myself truly and completely. Every beautiful and broken bit.
Slowly I have learned to celebrate the differences of the interesting people who join me around my table sharing the thick lentil stew and cornbread, drippy with maple syrup, of my childhood or my husband’s spicy Pâte Togolaise.
My marriage rooted itself more deeply in this room as we argued and forgave and gently touched over steamy sinks of soapy dishes or pans of seasoned black-eyed beans and onions. I have danced, sobbed and belly laughed, loudly, in this imperfect kitchen with its well-worn cupboards and mismatched dishes.
Grateful for the solace of this simple, sunlit room, where joy resides.
When babies arrived I tucked away my oil paints and flute and over time grew bored with making cards and my kitchen became my playground. Pulling herbs from yard or garden to snip into salads or dry for teas, infusing homemade body butter and whipping up simple, non-toxic toothpaste unfolded as a creative outlet. Frugality and fun all intertwined.
And though, in my childhood, I had never enjoyed science, my humble kitchen exploded as laboratory as I slowly deepened my knowledge of nutrition and the human body and gave myself permission to experiment with ferments and mushrooms and homemade vanilla.
Often letting things go after a time in a perpetual effort to reduce and simplify.
Here, over cajoling bowls of salty, buttered, stovetop popcorn or warm blueberry muffins, sweet with fresh ground flour, I have taught my children to multiply fractions, conjugate French verbs and write stories. About Sonic the Hedgehog or Merfairies or Alien Barbies. I have massaged shoulders and encouraged and hugged tightly. And yelled and asked forgiveness.
Countless memory-making hours have been spent around my kitchen table reading aloud novels of crazy toads or tesseracts while enjoying icy cinnamon-berry smoothies or crispy thin-crust pizza, hot from the oven. The early years of homemade Kool-Aid playdough, rice bins and sticky fingers eventually gave way to loud music and learning to dance with different personality types and compromise over my occasionally too-tight food rules.
I learned that my relationship with my son was far more important than store-bought ranch dressing and that my kids, real people, have a right to personal food preferences.
Family game nights have drawn us together over the years. We have grumbled, complained heartily and strategized; I have sworn off Monopoly forever (more than once) and laughed until tears slipped from the corner of my eyes in this heart-centred room. All of us thankful for the mini cashew cheesecakes or gooey brownies topped with coconut milk ice cream that relieved tension and unified us once again.
We’ve gathered regularly for family meals, sometimes rushing to get out the door for soccer, sometimes lingering. Laughing, dreaming, planning, or questioning together.
Late night chats by the dim light of the dusty stove hood, long after everyone else has gone off to bed, allow me to peer deep into the hearts of my teenagers and connect in a way that feeds my mama’s heart better than dark organic chocolate ever could.
Both my parents were buried too young and oh, how I have grieved in my kitchen. Given thanks for the gift of relationship but also sobbed until I was so weary and empty that I had nothing left to pour out. There were those who came to listen over mugs of calming herbal tea. I returned to binge eating for a time, very purposefully, not because the granola bars tasted good to me but because they numbed me. For a couple of hours.
My children and husband saw me broken here. But they also witnessed me fight for wholeness. Ask for help. Learn to speak up for what I need. When my body didn’t work right anymore, awaiting surgery, they pitched in. Kneeling down to retrieve pots from cupboards I could no longer access, carrying loads, putting away groceries.
My husband stepped in and took over kitchen duties when I could no longer walk or stand without excruciating pain. And his simple meals of white rice and beans and spicy tomato sauces, limited in vegetables as they were, were the most delicious meals, crafted with love and commitment, that I have ever tasted. Before or since.
It was in this kitchen, after the birth of my third child, that I made a declaration to love my body. To banish dieting and disordered eating from my life. To learn to truly nourish myself: mind, body, and spirit. Through the process, long and arduous at times as my weight has shifted up then down and up again, I have fed myself with compassion. With real, whole food. With satiating fats and gorgeous, vibrant vegetables, sometimes local and in-season. Sometimes not.
I learned to listen to my body and added in animal proteins slowly, with some fear and trepidation, until eventually, after a diagnosis of autoimmune thyroiditis, I made the decision to begin eating meat for the sake of my health. Because I was worth it. Bone broths, roast chicken, and thick crockpot elk and root veggie stew have since become regular, nourishing visitors to my menu plans after two decades of vegetarianism.
Body shame still clamours for my attention but daily I choose who and how I want to be. Strong, authentic, connected, purposeful. Unshackled.
One day, new kitchen cabinets may replace the old and worn, and hardwood flooring may be installed. I may even purchase gorgeous pottery dishes from local artists once my ever-increasing grocery budget diminishes after my kids have all taken flight.
But spit and polish will not change the fact that this gathering place, imperfect as it is, beats and breathes as the healing, beckoning heart of our home. My slow and simple Whole Food Kitchen offers both safe harbour and training-ground for a beautiful life well-lived.
This essay was first published in Heather Bruggeman’s 2016 Whole Food Kitchen Workshop.