Thursday, November 1, 2012

Building a Family in the Kitchen

Most often familial bonds are formed naturally, from birth.  The connection between child and parent is innate.  Some such families will define their relationships through sports, others through faith, at the dinner table and most through a combination of many family activities, experiences and shared life.  But they all have the advantage of time and nature.

My situation, like so many modern families, is different.  I am a stepdad to my partner’s two incredible children.  Forming bonds with them is exciting, challenging, and a daily, deliberate effort.  While a birthparent can rest assured with the presence of unconditional love due to unquestioned biology, for me it is not quite as simple. 

A few years ago I walked into an amazing relationship and immediately found myself a parent to two kids, a dog owner, and caretaker for a home…in a new part of the country with a new job.  To make it all work I needed to carve out my niche and figure out exactly what my role could be.  Together with my wife we decided we needed to start with the simplest, most basic of my passions to share.  We would begin with sharing food; I knew the kitchen and the dining table would be my place to form the bonds, express the love, and form this new family.  

Food would be the foundation on which I would do my part to build us.

In these pages I will be sharing much of our life in the kitchen and at the table.  But first let me share a little of what we have done over the years to get us to this point…

Sunday dinners – My wife’s family has a long standing tradition of ‘Sunday Family Dinner’ and they have always included anyone and everyone who was available.  We’ve had Sunday dinners with just the four of us, but more often than not there have been 8 to 10 at the table.  And in a way these are not elaborate affairs.  We try a new recipe, throw some things together or plan a particular celebration – but it is always casual, marked by a lot of time talking and listening to music in the kitchen, at the table and then cleaning, most often to The Big Chill soundtrack.

Friday Night Pizza Night – This too was in place before I arrived.  Every Friday night on which we have no other plans the four of us make pizzas and watch a kid’s movie.  The kids demand it now.  Sometimes my wife and I sit with the kids, sometimes we make a fancy pizza or something completely different and eat while the kids watch.  The bottom line is that it is a tradition for the four of us.  We don’t invite friends, we don’t veer from the menu.  We’ve watched Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Wizard of Oz, James and the Giant Peach, Howl’s Moving Castle, Labrynth, The Neverending Story, The Muppet Movie and many less memorable flicks.  And we have many movies we can’t wait to see as the kids get older.  

Nation nights – Nation nights are our way to travel without leaving home.  The four of us gather decorations, music and food from one country and make-over the dining room so we can “travel” for dinner.  We’ve been to Italy, France and Mexico.  We teach the kids a few key words in the native language, eat food from the region, watch a travel video and then try to find a kid’s movie that fits – Pinocchio for Italy, for example.   We look forward to Japan, Germany, Brazil, Belgium, China, Thailand, Morocco and the rest.   

My 40th birthday – For my 40th birthday my wife surprised me by having me make dinner for family and friends.  To me, this really was a gift.  I am happiest running around the kitchen creating wonderful food for people.  Fourteen people came to dinner, and I made my favorite comfort food, Pasta alla Carbonara.  Telling you all about the dish is for another essay.  What is important from this night is important for all great celebratory cooking events.  Just before the dish was done we gathered everyone to the table so they could be seated and ready; carbonara must be served and enjoyed hot.  Then my wife and I walked in individual bowls of the pasta for everyone and one giant steaming bowl for secondi.  The presentation kicked off the meal…of course.  The lesson is what followed.  There were the mmmms and ahhhhhs but most of all there was an hour or so of lovely conversation, laughter and fun at the table.  The food was a backdrop.  Not an after thought by any means, but the event was about family, connection, love…the food provided the canvas.  I knew it was a successful dinner not because of compliments about the food, but the joyous noise at the table.  
Pasta – My stepson’s favorite food is pasta.  On his birthdays he has pasta for all three meals.  And I certainly love pasta and could eat a pasta dish virtually every day.  I suggested to the kids that making our own pasta could be fun.  We gave it a try one afternoon.  It didn’t actually turn out, but we got all messy with dough, learned about moisture and kneading, and various shapes of pasta.  The point really wasn’t the finished product – it was the process.  The kids and I laughed and played, and to this day they want to do it again and see if we can get it right.

Heart Shaped Meatballs – For Valentines’ Day every year we have spaghetti and meatballs.  This began as we were looking for something red to have for the day.  A red sauce with pasta seemed obvious.  Then one of us suggested making meatballs shaped like hearts.  The kids and I did our best, but we really ended up with heart-shaped mini meatloafs.  But we had a blast doing it and now we do it every year.

The bottom line for me is that forming the parental bonds with my two stepchildren takes a conscious, careful, deliberate effort.  Without forcing it, I am trying to form some of the most important bonds that can exist between people.  Food has become my vehicle.  So we eat dinner together every evening and share the events of the day.  We talk about school, friends or whatever is on our minds.  And we always talk about food.  The kids know I love food.  They make suggestions for what we should eat.  They love asking questions.  They love requesting something they’ve never had.  They now jump in and help cook from time to time.  And it has been through the sharing of food that we have begun to form those bonds that make us a new, modern family.     
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