99 Problems

Published on January 2nd, 2014 | by Wendy C. Ortiz

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Wendy C. Ortiz on FOOD ANGST

Breakfast sandwich with egg, sausage and cheese. Hash brown nuggets. Diet Coke.

I’m the mother who side-eyes your kid’s snacks and, against my better judgment, compares what I’ve brought for my own kid to what you’ve brought for yours.

It’s not because I want to make myself feel good or better. It’s because when I have to figure out what to feed my kid, I’m often clueless, scrambling, lost in a cupboard of ingredients I don’t know what to do with. And the futile exercise of comparing usually lands me in the not-good-enough corner.

Tommy’s burger loaded with chili, French fries loaded with the same.

My upbringing involved canned soup or soup in packets, entrees made from boxes with powders you stirred in. When I had vegetables they always came in the form of iceberg lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers. Some versions of Mexican food could be had: quesadillas, some slapdash chile Colorado my mother was proud of but that often made me feel physically ill.  Meat was a staple at dinnertime, where it was placed next to the already mentioned sliced tomatoes and cucumbers. There were, at times, snack trays my mother would bring in to my bedroom on a platter when friends were over—an array of cut-up fruits, maybe some cheese.

I have a memory of going to a friend’s house and watching as she used a knife (something I had been made to be afraid of) to expertly peel, core and cut an apple. Then she ate it. A novel idea, cutting my own apple. As a snack!

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Oreo cookie shake. Curly fries.

Leaving aside all issues of disordered eating, which ran rampant among the women in my family, it’s safe to say I still suffer from a certain kind of food angst when it comes to feeding my kid. If it’s not angst, it’s mild paranoia that I’m not feeding my kid “right.” Or, hoping I’m not setting a precedent by feeding her certain foods. I’ve seen the way candy or chocolate makes her sugar-crazed, her manipulation muscles working every which way to garner her another. And another. And another. On the flipside, I have friends who grew up without candy who now go crazy for it when it’s present, like it’s still forbidden fruit.

But we’re talking and not talking about literal fruit here.

My mother’s full-time job took her from a northeastern part of the San Fernando Valley to downtown Los Angeles five days a week. She needed to keep things simple. For whatever reason—she was sapped of energy and patience, or had no faith in her abilities—she did not teach me to cook. Breakfast at my grandmother’s house was usually Bisquick pancakes or Wheaties cereal with milk. She cooked chicken and rice daily—for her dog, and for us. Pineapple upside-down cake, doughnuts, pan dulce, thick slices of cake—we were aloft in sweet stuff at her house. Once microwave ovens became less expensive we had one and I learned to use it. As a young adult I forbade any housemates or lovers from bringing one into our house and went for about eleven years without one. It was also during this time that I was an unhappy vegetarian, salivating anytime I smelled meat cooking, and experimenting with macrobiotics, Ayurvedic diets, and juicing. All of which maybe serves me well in this new role of having to feed my toddler.

Fried chicken, biscuit with butter, whipped potatoes and gravy in a Styrofoam cup.

I envy those parents who grew up not thinking twice about what their families served them growing up. Going to other kids’ houses, you learned the culture and customs of your friends’ families. In one house I knew we would all sit down together, totally uncommon in my own home. There would be creamed spinach, which I tasted and liked. A microwave was not part of the food story. Fast food was a complete novelty in some of these families, or did not exist at all.

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In the first six months of our daughter’s life, feeding her was easy. Pull out a boob, feed her. I myself ate pretty well, knowing she was getting her nutrients from me. Our track record of eating good, or at least better, had started when we were trying to get pregnant.

Once she could eat solid foods, I found myself cooking carrots or zucchini, pureeing them into a mash, and scooping spoonfuls into ice cube trays, all the while consulting books that assured me this was best. The fourteen-year-old who still lives in my head was like, Whoa! What’s this? Supermom, before she laughed hysterically and went back to her corner where she could smoke her joint and watch me from afar. I can only imagine that some part of my young adult years – when I attempted to cook for the ubiquitous potluck or group of fellow activists, or combine the right foods to get enough protein – was informing this behavior, because it was not a behavior I grew up with.

My own house now is an amalgamation of the food stories that have followed my partner and me. There is bulgogi in the freezer and always some manner of rice in the cupboard. We rely on some frozen items and the microwave that, on occasion, we still reserve some judgment and fear about. My partner is a natural cook, having grown up with a single mom who often worked swing shifts. She can open the cupboard and refrigerator and pull together an amazing meal, without recipes. I myself require a clear, precise recipe, utilizing no fancy accoutrements or appliances, all the ingredients at hand, already prepped and in bowls. I go over and over a recipe to make sure I’m getting it right, little beads of anxiety sweat amid the sweat of working in a kitchen with the oven on, the stovetop lit and saucepans bubbling over. For months, though, I did not even try to cook. I was inert with the fear of doing it wrong, of feeling not enough as a mother, even, because I was missing the cooking gene.

Jalapeño poppers, chicken strips, waffle fries.

I’m at a point in my life when I can say I haven’t had many of my formerly favorite fast foods in years—even decades. Still, I reserve one fast food place for late-night ecstatic eating. That happens about six times a year and I unapologetically love it.

Our daughter has not been through a drive-through fast food restaurant yet. She’s had treats—her first birthday and every birthday since, she can be counted on to stick her entire face into the carrot cake put in front of her. She might know the taste of Mexican food from the family-owned restaurant we can walk to, but she will not know the taste of food from the place where a clown with unnaturally red hair lives. Is this me being overly controlling? I know a number of mothers and have to say, they’d probably each answer in their own way. And their answers would tell me something, even something small, about the role food and cooking played in their own upbringing.

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In the meantime, I’m expanding my thinking about food, noting what my daughter loves (kiwi, cranberries, chicken soup, yogurt) and finding recipes for snacks and meals that don’t overwhelm me—physically, and even emotionally—with their preparation. My daughter’s other mother cooks and narrates what’s she’s doing with our daughter in the tower stool next to her so she can see everything. I will also check out what you brought for your kid to eat and take mental notes. I might even try the same snacks out with my own kid, because this is an ongoing project. I might never be the mom who busts out the fanciest snacks in the cutest BPA-free container, but I’m on my way to encouraging my kid to have a different relationship with food than I did, and do to this day.

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About the Author

Wendy C. Ortiz

Wendy C. Ortiz is a writer and marriage and family therapist intern. She is a columnist for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, PANK, The Coachella Review, and many other journals both online and print. She is co-founder, curator and host of the Rhapsodomancy Reading Series (www.rhapsodomancy.org), recently named a finalist for Best Reading Series in the L.A. Weekly’s 2013 Best of L.A. Readers Choice Awards. Her first book, Hollywood Notebook, is forthcoming from Writ Large Press (2014). Wendy can be found at www.wendyortiz.com.



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