I love cooking. There is nothing better to me than being in the kitchen with my wife while we are putting a family meal together. The kids come in and help out with little tasks here or there, too, especially when dessert is involved. And the dogs also love to get a little piece of the action. Cooking and having a family meal together is a ritual that’s sacred for me. I miss it so much when I’m in DC, and look forward to it when I return home.
When I hear of so many families not bothering with family dinner, it saddens me. It’s important on so many levels. It’s a chance for everyone to share their day and to slow down and savor the food and the company. It’s also a chance for children to experience food preparation as something other than what happens behind the counter or in a back room.
This was a natural part of growing up for me. I was raised garden-to-table: from my Italian grandparents’ garden just a couple of blocks from my childhood home to the table they set in their kitchen. I’d spend a lot of time down there with them during the summer, because it was a short bike ride away, and no one loves you like your grandparents. Every spring my grandfather planted tomatoes, lettuce, hot peppers, sweet peppers, zucchini, beans, and cucumbers. In the fall, he’d plant a massive amount of garlic, and we used it in or on just about everything we cooked.
There was a friendly competition between family gardens, and the family garden was always one of the chief topics of conversation. Everyone rooted for the others to have a really good garden—just not as good as theirs. One year my grandfather Rizzi and his brother-in-law, my great-uncle Phil, were looking at his garden. Along comes my grandmother’s dad, who slowly walked over to look at the garden and stand with them. My grandfather, who had a wonderful sense of humor, winked at my uncle and said to him, “Phil, they told me that each of these pepper plants would grow a bushel full of peppers this big.” He put his pointing fingers about a foot apart. His father-in-law perked up and said in his thick Italian accent, “Johnny, who tell you that bullashit?” They all had a good laugh.
Watching my grandmother cook was always so much fun. We would walk out to the garden and pick veggies right off the plant. After a while, I started to know exactly what we were going to eat by what she picked. If she picked squash, we were having what she called cagoots: eggs, garlic, and cut-up squash cooked in a huge pan. Wow, was that good. Tomatoes meant we were probably having pasta, and she would slice the tomatoes, drizzle them with olive oil, pepper, and just a little bit of oregano. If we picked lots of peppers that meant chicken and peppers cooked up with a ton of garlic and fresh bread from the local baker, who also happened to be my cousin.
My grandfather was also quite a culinary master—and his specialty was hot peps, a local delicacy that I haven’t been able to find anywhere else in the country. Every year he would go to a local woman and buy a couple bushels of hot peppers. He followed a detailed and delicate process of cutting the peppers, taking the seeds out, letting them dry overnight, and filling mason jars full of them with oil, salt, and garlic. He would make enough to last the entire year. We put them on just about everything we ate or just slathered them on bread. It seems like everyone back home has his or her own recipe for hot peps. Some people use vinegar or medium-hot peppers, some use less or more, and some even add a little bit of tomato sauce. One time I was cooking cagoots on a local morning TV show in Youngstown, and I mentioned how much I loved hot peps. People started to drop off jars of their homemade hot peps at my house and office. It was crazy how many I ended up with. I ate them all.
My cousins and uncles made wine. Some of it was very good and some was so vinegary that we put it on salads. They made their own dried sausage and sometimes beer. Everyone shared. They shared their garden, their wine, their food, and, like my constituents did for me, their hot peps. Food and cooking were the glue that held families and neighborhoods together. No one explicitly taught me about this; it was just what I saw growing up. For generations, family recipes, knowledge about how to cook, and family traditions and rituals were passed down. But now because of the speed of life and our absorption in the digitized virtual realm, we’ve lost the joy of cooking and the benefits that come with doing things together as a family or a group of friends.
For our health and for our well-being, I would love to see cooking make a big comeback, not because I’m nostalgic about my own childhood—although I do love remembering those special moments with my grandparents. I want to bring it back because cooking food that we grow has been a part of our cultures for 60,000 years. Cooking and eating together is a tradition deep in our bones.
How do we get it back? We teach our children—and fortunately there are already some very exciting programs going on to do just this in many areas of the country.
Tim Ryan is a Congressman for Ohio's 13th District and an relentless advocate for working families. Now serving his sixth term in office, Congressman Ryan is an avid supporter of improving America's physical and mental health through mindfulness practices. He is the author of A Mindful Nation: How A Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance and Recapture The American Spirit, which is available here.
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