Menu: Pasta Bolognese
Local ingredients: ground pork, ground beef, onion, and carrot
I have a tendency to predetermine how life will unfold before it actually happens. Last Sunday I planned to take Abra swimming with two friends and their daughters at a local pool, followed by Pasta Bolognese at home, which I deemed the cherry on top of what I already knew would be a lovely day. If I remembered anything from the chlorine-soaked swims of my youth it was that swimming made you really hungry, and the hearty sauce, comprised of beefy porcini mushrooms, salty pancetta, ground meats, and bright tomatoes, seemed like the ideal choice. While I don’t “cater” to Abra’s nascent palate I work hard to choose meals that I think we might all enjoy, and pasta dishes, in general, have proven to be toddler-friendly food. Moist, finely-ground meat, soft vegetables, and pasta are easy for little hands (and tooth-less mouths) to handle; that it was warming and could be largely prepared in advance were bonuses. It also seemed like a healthier option than the candy bar that my mother always let me choose from the vending machine at the public pool, which I devoured in the car on the way home.
Instead, our family spent the entire week sick. We plowed through dinners in a congested haze. My energy for cooking flagged, which didn’t really matter, because nobody was that hungry. We were all feeling better by the time Sunday rolled around, but not well enough to go swimming. I considered scrapping the dinner altogether, which felt like too much work at the end of a hard week, until I read Mindful Eating as Food for Thought in The New York Times. “If it’s impossible to eat mindfully every day,” the article said, “consider planning one special repast a week. Click off the TV. Sit at the table with loved ones.”
Mindful eating involves taking the time to truly enjoy the experience and pleasure of eating, one of the central goals of Operation: Back to the Table. To say this has been a challenge in recent months is an understatement. Since Abra was born I have never eaten so quickly in my life, and I often spend much of a meal hopping up and down from my chair to fetch something I forgot in my haste to get dinner on the table. As a result I frequently reach the end of a meal and can’t remember what I’ve just eaten moments before. If there is one thing I hope to instill in Abra it’s a genuine appreciation for food, and I realized I was doing a terrible job modeling this behavior.
The article provided some handy tips on creating a space in which mindful eating could take place, which essentially revolve around bringing your meal into focus. I stocked up on an arsenal of candles in order to “create a serene environment,” placing them in lovely ivory candlesticks that a friend brought back from Africa many years ago that are seldom used. While my sauce slowly simmered I took the time to sweep the floor and clear away the pile of debris that had accumulated on the kitchen table during the week, a chaotic centerpiece that we usually just eat around. I threw the placemats that I hadn’t washed in weeks in the washing machine and arranged fresh linens on the table. I took the time to set the table in advance, rather than dashing mid-meal for an extra fork. By taking a few minutes to anticipate our needs my goal was to make it through the entire dinner without having to rise from my seat.
After spooning the fragrant sauce over a steaming nest of spaghetti and dusting the bowl with a shower of fresh Parmesan cheese, Maikael and I raise our glasses, look each other squarely in the eyes and clink glasses, making a toast “to Sunday dinners.” I take a deep breath before dipping the tines of my fork into the dish, remembering the last time I ate Pasta Bolognese. I had dreamed of visiting Italy before having a baby and, four and a half months pregnant, I could scarcely believe that I was eating ragu alla bolognese in a small trattoria in Bologna! It was our last trip as a family of two and we soaked in every day of this twilight time of our pre-baby life, enjoying the long, leisurely meals that the Italians are known for.
We eat in silence for a few glorious minutes while I swim in happy memories.
Then Abra, who has been sifting lamely through the tangle of noodles with her fingers, asks to be let down from the table.
This is not unusual toddler eating behavior, but I immediately feel irritated and silently wish to be transported back to the Italian table. As I do my best to focus on and enjoy the meal in front of me Abra issues a whiny monologue punctuated with fork-throwing, reaching its eventual crescendo 15 minutes later. While I wish this meal was unfolding otherwise, I suddenly realize that part of mindful eating – and living – is concerning yourself with whatever is placed before you. Life rarely presents us the ideal circumstances, and the only thing we can do is to work with what we have and to keep trying. As a wise friend once told me, life is as much about practice as poetry. Someday my best intentions might collide with reality, but until then I will keep placing the candles on the table. I will keep serving home-cooked meals. I will keep showing up and trust that, just as “mindful eating involves mindless eating,” we have to have a little disorder to appreciate tranquility.
Elizabeth Grant Thomas writes regularly for Edible Santa Fe and at her site elizabethgrantthomas.com. She can be found here every other Tuesday as she chronicles her family’s journey “back to the table.”
Hyperlink for Mindful Eating as Food for Thought: