Now reading Leaning in Toward the Last Supper

Leaning in Toward the Last Supper

Reflections on sixteen years of cooking for my son.

My son is sixteen now. The other day I tried to recall the last time he nursed and I can’t. Once he started walking—finally—at fourteen months, he moved quickly to running, everywhere, all the time. There was no time to hang around tied to a tit when there was a whole world out there to explore.

There was the time, nine months earlier, when I coaxed him to try cereal, most of which he was pushing out of his mouth with his tongue. A visiting friend, a parent of two, asked: “What are you doing?” And I said: “Introducing solids.” And he shot back: “He’s not interested.” The dad was correct. What did I know?

There was the time he spat beets from his mouth and sprayed them all over the kitchen cabinet in our San Francisco apartment. I suspect some of that bright pink purée is still stuck there, ossified, for all time.

There were the years of carrying sources of nourishment in little containers. Who knew when hunger might hit? It proved a surefire way to ward off blood sugar-related meltdowns. I’m still the mom who’s always carrying: fruit, nuts, bars, bagels, trail mix.

There were the visits home to Australia coinciding with his phase as a serial food flinger. When they saw us coming, his aunts would put newspaper under the high chair and hope for the best. My sister tried to feed him steak once and he ran screaming from the table.

There was a more recent trip back to the motherland, four months ago, when he was the designated plate cleaner. He’s happy to do his bit in the war against food waste by eating everything in sight, as many sixteen-year-old boys do.

Back in my adopted home in Berkeley, I find myself fielding his texts at dinner time. I’m making a mushroom risotto on a Saturday night, expecting him to show up and devour a dish he loves. He texts me that he and a friend are making dinner before a party. They’re wilting spinach and zesting a lemon and toasting walnuts for a pasta. It’s all there in the text: the specific techniques, the ingredients. This makes me smile. The risotto will keep until Sunday.

And then I think about the last supper, the one that’s coming, after he goes off to college. It’s still a couple of years away, but I can feel the shift already. He’s still delighted to come home to a Mum-cooked meal. When he sees supper set out or gets a whiff of what’s on the stove, he’ll emit an appreciative groan. But the dinner-table dynamic has changed during these high school years. There’s less time for lingering and chatting about the day’s events. Food is becoming more about fueling up for sport, study, or social life. Age-appropriate. What might take half an hour or more to prepare, he gobbles up in ten minutes, tops.

It’s into the home stretch now—another transitional time that a mother can accept with grace and good humor, or ignore, or fight at her peril. What sometimes feels like a relentless task—this constant, daily cooking for a child—will soon be over. Then what?

I’m bracing myself for that first night, when there is no hungry son to feed. It’s unsettling, because family meals matter to me. After my divorce, my angry boy would sometimes say, “Two people don’t make a family.” He was hurting. That first night in our new place a thoughtful gal pal delivered Cheese Board pizza. It hit the spot at our unfamiliar, smaller, dining room table. A family ritual had begun.

As a single parent who shares, I’ve had years of practice with the temporarily empty nest. There’s the transition night when the kid is at his dad’s and I’m free to eat whatever takes my fancy. Anchovies and broccoli rabe. Scrambled eggs. A glass of wine with cheese and crackers. A glass of wine, period. Nothing at all.

When the boy returns, we get back into our regular rhythms. He’s a granola or porridge person for breakfast. On lazy weekends and late-Monday-start school days, it’s waffles or pancakes. He’s not much of a sandwich man, but willingly takes dinner leftovers for lunch. Rice and beans. Tofu stir-fry. Big salads loaded with cheese, nuts, and seasonal produce. Other kids, he tells me, think his lunches are odd. Then they eat some and say it tastes so good.

He’s always been particular about the foods he eats. I was the same, although I grew up with five siblings, so I had much less input about dinner (read: none). My Mum, a terrific cook, would want a night off from the stove. Sometimes we’d have Australian Chinese takeaway, a genre all its own. Or McDonald’s. On the burger nights, I’d boil an egg. I decided in my late teens to become a vegetarian. I’ve skipped red meat for most of the past thirty years, though I guess technically I’m a pescetarian, who lapses in her line of work every once in a while.

My son is a devout vegetarian by choice: He’s never eaten meat. He’s now in a strident teenage phase. He’s horrified if I tell him I tasted lamb’s tongue for a story, even though he’s delighted that his Mum writes about food, and enjoys the sweet and savory treats that frequently find their way onto our table, and into his belly, as a result of that gig.

I have regrets about my own limitations in the kitchen and what I haven’t given him growing up. I’m not a baker. My kid won’t miss his Mum’s cakes and cookies when he goes off to college, though we do laugh about my attempts (he dubbed one “lumps of goodness”). Given my line of work, there’s some shame in having not yet taught him how to cook. He should have better knife skills. He doesn’t know how to make stock. I’m not even certain he can peel the boiled eggs he likes (seven minutes, no gray). I’ve let him off the hook in the cooking department. I’ve tried, and failed, at different points to introduce a night a week when he cooks for us both. Maybe this summer.

There’s an inherent tension as you nudge a child towards independence, with the expectation that he learn to fend for himself in the kitchen and elsewhere, especially when food is an essential way many parents express love. Guilty as charged.

After a recent evening visit to the ER—a big gash over his eye, courtesy of a baseball—I knew when we got home long past dinnertime that he’d want noodles, with just a faint dusting of Parmigiano-Reggiano, and a swig of good extra-virgin olive oil or a chunk of creamy butter. Comfort food after crisis.

His world and his palate are expanding. On a recent trip to Maui, he was thrilled to taste freshly picked pineapples, coconuts, and taro. He enjoyed street food, hole-in-the-wall joints, fancy-pants restaurants. When we returned from the trip and I asked him what he wanted for dinner he said: “Home food.” I knew exactly what he meant.

This summer, he’ll head to Madrid for a month. The child who never wanted to go to sleepaway camp—because, why, and what would you eat?—is now eager to fly halfway around the world to live with a family he’s never met, for an adventure on a continent he’s never been to, to practice a language he’d like to master. I see a lot of flan in his near future.

I did something similar, on a much smaller scale, at the same age. A gaggle of schoolgirls from Sydney on a weeklong French-class excursion to the Pacific island nation New Caledonia. I wasn’t even taking French, but they needed to boost the numbers. We landed in Nouméa, promptly met the “locals,”—including a cadre of twentysomethings of French descent—and were educated in the language of pain au chocolat, red wine, eating late, and sex. Scandalous by today’s sheltered school-trip-abroad standards. It was my first exposure to anything vaguely European, and it was delicious.

My teen will be away for his seventeenth birthday. I’ll make him whatever he wants on his last night at home and whatever he’s craving on his first night back. Since he’s a California boy at heart, produce will figure prominently. But maybe he’ll come home with a new recipe repertoire and ask for something he’s discovered in his travels.

My Mum died just days ago—I found out as I was writing this piece. Not totally unexpected, but also a complete shock. I’ve been struggling to complete the most routine tasks ever since. I don’t remember the last time she cooked for me, or even exactly the last time we ate a meal together. But I do remember preparing a plate of food for her and my father to share in the hospital last Christmas. I’d made curried eggs, an homage to my Mum, who always made them on the holidays. Hers were so creamy, with just the right amount of spice. Mine weren’t nearly as good but she ate them hungrily, nonetheless.

That’s the thing about last suppers. You don’t always know when you’re having one.