Generous helpings

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Using food to show we care

Is a friend in need a friend to feed? From birthday cakes to scalloped potatoes for a funeral … it seems natural for women to offer food to show we care.

Blame it on Mom. Whether it’s a cookie for a scraped knee or soda crackers for a stomachache, mothers have always served special foods to soothe a hurt. According to Donna Gabaccia, Ph.D., director of the University of Minnesota’s Immigration Research Center and author of “We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans,” the associations between food, mother and comfort are rooted very early in life. “What are the things we do when a small baby cries? We check to see if [they’re] wet and we check to see if they’re hungry,” Gabaccia said. “Food is one of the ways that we begin comforting people before they learn to talk.”

So connected are comfort, food and mothering that 82 percent of the people polled by Miriam Meyers for her book, “A Bite Off Mama’s Plate,” recalled special foods or drink that their mothers gave when they were sick.

Help out with food

For generations women have been reaching out to friends and family with food- hot dishes, chicken soup, borscht, sweet potato pie. How about reaching out with food to people you don’t know-or people you see every day but didn’t know were hungry? Watch an eight-minute video to see who is hungry in your neighborhood at Second Harvest.

Did you know that:
• 56 percent of food-shelf visitors are families with children?
• 700 children under 18 are homeless in Minnesota?
• 15 percent of food-shelf clients are seniors?

Second Harvest Heartland is an organization with a mission to end hunger through community partnerships. Serving 59 counties in Minnesota and western Wisconsin, this year it will distribute 33 million pounds of grocery products to agencies and programs that administer food shelves, soup kitchens, shelters, senior centers and children’s after-school programs.

Organize your own food drive at your workplace, faith community, or in your neighborhood. A “how to” manual, posters and more are at Second Harvest.

To get food for your family, call 651-484-1064 or 888-339-3663 or use the online food shelf and soup kitchen finder.

But the link between caring and food goes beyond mothering: Women and cooking are so deeply connected that whether it’s a bowl of chicken soup or an entire church basement supper, society still presumes that the hand holding the spoon is female. “Gender … is heavily intertwined with food, since food preparation is so frequently assumed to be women’s primary domestic responsibility,” wrote Sherrie Inness in “Cooking Lessons: The Politics of Gender and Food.” But not all women accept that assumption.

A community of cooks

Lynette Lamb may have been a home economics major and once worked at a food magazine, but she’s the first to admit that she doesn’t do much cooking. “Rob did a lot of the dinner preparation,” said Lamb. Robert Gerloff is Lamb’s husband who ran an an architectural firm from their Minneapolis home while she worked as director of media relations at Carleton College in Northfield.

In July 2006, Gerloff, the 45-year-old father of Grace, now 11, and Julia, now 7, both adopted from China, suffered a devastating stroke that kept him in intensive care for weeks, followed by months of rehabilitation. Although Lamb now works closer to home as managing editor of Macalester College’s alumni magazine, she admitted that the demands of a full-time job and caring for her now permanently disabled husband meant that preparing home-cooked meals gave way to takeout and premade dishes. “Eating has to keep going on regardless of what else is going on in your life,” she said frankly.

Fortunately, the community that rallied round the Lamb/Gerloff family showed they cared by preparing home-cooked food. Two separate efforts emerged to help the family. The first was a food brigade organized by their close friends and colleagues who posted online messages at CaringBridge.org and a Yahoo! listserv that organized volunteers to prepare and deliver meals on a rotating basis. Among those who signed up were many members of the family’s church, Edina Community Lutheran Church (ECLC).

Lamb was touched by ECLC’s participation because she and Gerloff had joined only about two years before and didn’t know many of the congregants who volunteered. Similarly, another meal prep program was organized through Families with Children from China (FCC), a national organization that provides a local network of support for its members. Although the Lamb/Gerloff family belonged to FCC for over a decade and Lamb edited its newsletter for three years, they had never before met the woman who would mobilize a meal program on their behalf. Lamb was deeply appreciative of the efforts made by the barely acquainted members of her two communities: “It was especially moving and remarkable to me that people would come forward and help whom I did not know that well.”

Lamb didn’t know Cathy Perme, who organized the effort, at all. Perme knew Lamb only by name. “I probably couldn’t have picked her out of a crowd,” said Perme, who’s been an FCC member since adopting her 11-year-old daughter, Lucy. But when Perme learned of Gerloff’s stroke, she immediately wanted to help.

Tradition for the nontraditional

Like others, Perme wanted to help with food, but when she read the posted messages requesting volunteers for dinner rotations she had a concern: Like Lynette Lamb, she didn’t do much cooking. “I really wanted to do something, but … I don’t cook and I’m a bad cook when I do!” Perme said. So she decided to do for the Lamb/Gerloffs what she does for her own family-she ‘dished,’ as in Let’s Dish, a meal preparation store where separate ingredients are set out and assembled by customers into complete dinners.

It’s not exactly traditional cooking but then again, what exactly is traditional? An entire library of authors and scholars pretty much agree that the kitchen has been (and to some, still is) seen as a woman’s place. But women such as Perme and Lamb reject that contention. For Perme, turning to Let’s Dish was a way to participate in the ritual of offering comfort through food despite a lack of culinary skills. “I called [the person coordinating the rotating meal preparation] and they had no clue [about Let’s Dish and other meal preparation businesses]. You could tell they all cooked!” she remembered with a laugh.

Not surprisingly, 16 of the 20 people gathered at Let’s Dish last September were women and many of them probably agreed with Lamb, who said that she doesn’t follow expected gender roles at home. So why would they participate in such a conventionally female activity, even for a good cause? Precisely because it was for a good cause. “The fact that it is a special occasion seems like falling back on earlier [ideas of men’s and women’s work],” explained Jeffrey Pilcher, Ph.D., a professor of history at the University of Minnesota and author of “Food in Global History.” “At certain times, people fall back into expectations that they might challenge at other moments.” In other words, the desire to offer comfort may be strong enough to suspend personal beliefs about gender roles.

Want to read more?

Cooking Lessons: The Politics of Gender and Food by Sherrie A. Inness

A Bite Off Mama’s Plate: Mothers’ and Daughters’ Connections Through Food by Miriam Meyers

Around the Table: Women on Food, Cooking, Nourishment, Love … and the Mothers Who Dished It Up for Them by Lela Nargi

Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives through the Cookbooks They Wrote by Janet Theophano

www.caringbridge.org Online service that allows users to create a website through which information and well-wishes can be shared about an ill loved one.

The practical side
When the dishing was done, more than a dozen meals were ready for the Lamb/Gerloffs. When Lamb was invited to say a few words about Gerloff during the event she got emotional about the givers. “I really got choked up,” she recalled. “I’m typically not that quick to tears but it really was very moving to me that people would take time out of their busy schedules.”

Lamb pointed out that their generosity extended beyond their personal time-Let’s Dish is a business, after all. Perme, a regular at the store, negotiated with the manager to bring in a certain number of paying customers in exchange for some free meals. The exchange worked well for everyone involved but it begs a somewhat uncomfortable question: Would the money have been better spent in a fund for the family?

Not necessarily, according to Pilcher, who explained that offers of money may have sensitive associations of dependency and commercialization whereas food “is [a] more family-like relationship that a lot of people may be more comfortable with.”

Gabaccia agreed. “Money symbolizes the public world [of] commerce [and] competition. … Gifts of money are … emotionally different from gifts of our own time and labor. The preference … would be to give a gift that seems more heartfelt, that carries a stronger emotional message.”

The message, an edible shout-out of caring, was more than a gesture. “[It] was nothing but a relief to have people helping me with [meals]!” Lamb admitted with a laugh. The food not only nourished her family but also eased some of her burdens. “There’s a lot of work that [is expected of women] in society and by taking over the role of cooking, they leave [her] free to do other emotional work,” Pilcher commented.

‘Surrounded by love’
And in a time of incredible stress, the family needed the sense of stability that the food brought them. Dining together is a treasured family ritual, Lamb said. “We always sit down and eat dinner together, no matter what,” she said. “I do find that to be an important time as a family, a bonding time.”

In the end, it boils down to bonds-of family, friends and community. Comforting with food may have its beginnings in maternal instinct but it goes beyond the stereotypes of gender. And while there are many ways to express concern-a card, a bouquet, a telephone call-food is the common denominator whose message is universally understood and appreciated.

“[W]hen it came from the heart, from somebody who took their time to prepare it for you or even to buy it for you, it really gave some extra meaning to some of those meals we had that first year,” Lamb said. “We really felt surrounded by love, even when it was just the four of us.”

Tracey Paska lives in Shorewood and is studying food, history and anthropology at the University of Minnesota. She’s currently nursing a nonexistent sniffle in the hopes that her Grandmother Kough will send a therapeutic batch of homemade caramels.