Conclusions on Re-Presentations of the Family Meal
I imagined dinners where the people of our pasts could be celebrated in the present, where we might be able to feel their presence in the food we cooked, and where people might be able to work through some of the emotions involved in the loss of that person. On one hand, the dinners went according to plan: I had never thought so much about Grandma Ruth, my great-great-great-great-grandmother Margaretha, or my own maternal grandma before these dinners and the subsequent work I’ve done on them; Madhavi, my grandma Joan, Aunt Denise, and my own mother definitely experienced some of the grief that they remembered after losing their loved ones as well as the care and joy that they associated with the people who we chose to commemorate. On the other hand, these dinners unexpectedly made me consider various familial relationships represented during these dinners that involved elder women, children, food, and love.
Michael Strohl, Joan Harley, and Denise Rehrmann each chose to commemorate older women from their families. This common thread is significant in that it reflects the stereotypical domestic role of women as the nurturing cooks for the rest of the family. The meal that Michael chose was a typical Sunday meal that Grandma Ruth would cook for her extended family when they would gather at her house after church when Michael was growing up in Seattle. Similarly, Denise chose to cook the stuffed peppers because it was a meal that her mother regularly cooked for her family during their days in Arverne and Massapequa. They did not choose meals that either Ruth or Barbara necessarily enjoyed eating most: the meals were significant because of their significance within the family and the roles as grandmother and mother that Ruth and Barbara respectively performed. This explains why my grandma Joan chose to make the German Kielbasa: without memory of what her great-grandmother Margaretha enjoyed cooking or eating, my grandma chose something that signified her family’s ethnic heritage knowing that family was most likely extremely important to Margaretha as the family’s matriarch.
In hindsight, it is no surprise that none of the participants chose to commemorate their fathers or grandfathers as opposed to older female figures in their families. This is because of the project’s use of food as its vehicle for commemoration. As stated above, women are most closely associated with food within a family setting. When I suggested to potential participants that they could commemorate men like their fathers or uncles or friends, I was often times met with surprise and confusion. I got a similar reaction when I approached men to be the ones who organized the dinner. For example, Michael expected me to ask his wife Madhavi to participate. Likewise, my father and uncle were surprised when I asked them to participate (although scheduling conflicts prevented them from ultimately organizing a meal for my project). Men seemed to be excluded (by themselves and others) from this intersection of commemoration, food, and family.
These dinners did not just commemorate individuals, but it celebrated relationships forged through food. Ruth, Margaretha, and Barbara cared for and expressed love for by cooking food for Michael, Joan, and Denise respectively. The dishes I ate at these dinners were made with the same love and care that Michael, my grandma, and my aunt were used to growing up. These dinners celebrated cooking for others and the relationships built around food.
In that same light, the meals that Michael, Joan, and Denise cooked were expressions of their own love for the women they chose to celebrate. They reciprocated the care and attention that their mother, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers gave them as children by following their recipes with extreme detail. These meals provided an opportunity for the participants to invert the familial relationships that they experienced as children by cooking for and in celebration of the people who once had cooked for them.
Family meals were an integral part of the way that the participants understood this project and the memory of their loved ones: they were represented in the stories we told at the Strohl house, the recreation of my aunt’s childhood family meals and the crowd who enjoyed them, and the way that my grandma and her food acted as a pivot between to past generations dating back to Margaretha and future generations to come. Following the precedent set by our foremothers and the family meals that they once organized, we continued on this culinary form of kinship by gathering around a table and sharing a meal.