By Dr. Victor S. Sierpina and Michelle Sierpina, Ph.D.
In his recent book, “Cooked,” food author Michael Pollan laments the passing of home cooking.
He notes that this has paralleled the rise in obesity rates as we paradoxically spend less time cooking, eating together, and grab more fast food to eat on the run and alone.
I marveled watching a man gobbling down some kind of cheesy pasta dish while standing up in a moving train at the Denver Airport. Is that really all food is, fuel? Can eating like that really be healthy?
Pollan notes that the fast food culture had undermined the institution of the shared meal.
“The shared meal is no small thing. It is a foundation of family life, the place where our children learn the art of conversation and acquire the habits of civilization: sharing, listening, taking turns, navigating differences, arguing without offending. “
We all have familiar family rituals of food around special events and holidays. As a kid, I enjoyed annual specially and lovingly prepared Polish dishes like mushroom borscht, pierogi (cabbage, blueberry, and potato), kielbasa and other meals enjoyed only at Easter and Christmas.
The social power and warm, reassuring comfort of the annual ritual meals were like a great clock, counting the years and the seasons. Each of you have your own family food traditions and likely want to preserve and pass these on to future generations.
The key is to make these traditional foods enjoyable, tasty, memorable. They may not always be the healthiest in the daily food category but enjoy them with gusto for these seasonal or family events. I wouldn’t think my arteries could survive a daily diet of kielbasa-dill-cream borscht over sliced hard boiled eggs and potatoes. But on occasion, it is glorious.
We have developed a few recipes for the family to enjoy that are becoming or have become our new tradition. A long-standing favorite is my now world famous Golden Eagle Caesar salad.
I learned this recipe when I took my parents out for their 40th anniversary at the now defunct Golden Eagle restaurant in Phoenix. I asked the chef for the recipe and he said he couldn’t give it to me.
However, he winked as he constructed it at the tableside. I meticulously jotted down the ingredients and process on a cocktail napkin. I have evolved it over the decades into a truly superb dressing beloved by our family and friends.
Michelle has developed a healthy whole wheat lasagna that uses ground turkey breast sausage. As we worked on our “Healthy Grilling” article for last week, she perfected four ways of making tasty turkey burger, one with black beans, another with Kalamata olives, one with avocado, and one with garlic and herbs. Cooked over the gas grill and smoking wood chips, they were all superb and a nice change of pace to our usual buffalo or lean beef burgers.
We think how we spend our cooking and meal times together helps bond us as families and civilizes us as people. Such family events are a perfect excuse to devote some extra time and effort in food preparation.
Enjoying wonderful and health promoting food is a side effect. As our grandkids like to say about Michelle’s meals, “They are the best because they are prepared with love.”
To quote Pollan again: “The cook stands squarely between nature and culture … both are transformed by the work … and so is the cook.”
Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB. Michelle Sierpina, Ph.D., is the founding director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UTMB Health.