As a contestant on MasterChef Series 5, I found myself in a life changing elimination; not because I was eliminated but because I came to truly understand the importance of food and its meaning!
As we stood anxious and wide-eyed in front of the judges we were asked to cook the dish that best told the story of who we were, our life, our childhood, our connection to family. We were all instantly transported to a very special place and the mood of the entire MasterChef kitchen dramatically changed.
We recounted one by one the dish we would cook and why it meant so much to us. As we did, everyone embarked on a very intimate journey into our personal world. As these stories were told, tears started to flow down the faces of everyone in the room, from contestants to cameramen, even producers. Right at that moment I came to understand the incredibly profound role food plays in our connection with, not only those around us, but who we are in the world and where we come from.
For me, the dish I was going to cook was a no brainer. My Mother is Thai and every Saturday she would spend all day in the kitchen cooking. The smell of her Malaysian chicken curry would permeate the walls, waft down the street and wrap around me like a blanket when I would come running in from playing with my friends. That attack on the senses cemented in me my sense of belonging. Obviously, I didn’t know this at the time but on a subconscious level it must have affected me greatly as I have since used this tool as a way of providing the many children coming through my door, that same sense of belonging.
If I was to say to any one of you right now, what was the dish that summed up you and your life, you would all be taken on a similar journey. It’s rarely about the taste of the dish. It’s the smell, where you were and who you were with at the time. There is an intense symbolism to this historical connection.
As a foster mother to 31 foster children, many of the children who have come in to my care have not had great experiences with food, often because there was simply a lack of it. I learnt very early on that a way to make a child feel safe was to provide them with an abundance of good food. Actually, it’s more than that. It’s about the kitchen being the heart of the home. It’s the smells constantly reaching out to you, the laughter of preparing food together and that special feeling that comes with knowing someone has cooked you your favourite meal. It’s playing on the street with your friends and knowing that the smells filling the air come from your home, the place where you belong. I honestly believe that I have healed and continue to heal children/teens through food.
I had these gorgeous brothers, aged two and three years old come into my care about 15 years ago. After the second night I found food hidden under the three-year-old’s bed. I had been told these boys had been severely neglected. Food had been sparse and food deprivation was used as a punishment. He was so ashamed and terrified of the repercussions for being caught. I gently held his hand and took him downstairs where we found a box and filled it with snacks. We put the box under his bed and I told him to let me know if it ran out so we could fill it again. I’ll never forget the look of relief on his face and he threw his arms around me and hugged me so tight. After a few days he no longer needed the hidden box. This is one of a thousand stories I could tell where security was offered and found in food.
As my children headed into their teens, I nearly fell under the common misconception that, as they became more independent, the less nurturing they needed. This couldn’t be further from the truth. As dialogue with your teens becomes less, and, at times, obsolete, there is one foolproof form of communication – food! As a mother you have three important times during any given day to let a child/teen know that they are loved. I know that when a child/teen opens their lunch box full of home-made favorites, they are reminded that they are loved. This method is not age dependent and possibly has even greater impact the older they get.
The best way to get your teenager out of bed is by getting up that little bit earlier and baking cookies or muffins together. Even the smell of toast in the morning adds an alluring comfort in the home. If ever one of my kids is not well or simply struggling, the first thing I do is make their favourite dinner. They may not have discussed their issue with me but this gesture tells them that I am aware that something is wrong and I am there. Communication through food is boundless and should never be underestimated.
I am often asked by parents of teens how they can stay better connected with their child. My answer is always the same: food. Cook together, share meals together as a family. Make their favorites when they least deserve it because I guarantee that’s when they need it the most. Put the screens away at dinner time and really take the time to engage, every night, regardless. Pull out the chocolate ice-cream at midnight and share it with your heartbroken 15-year-old daughter as she indulges you in her recent misfortune. She will love you forever and that moment, believe it or not, will connect you forever. It’s so simple that we overlook it.
Occasionally I catch up with children who have been in my care over the years, and for whatever reason moved on. Almost, without doubt, the first thing they say to me is how much they miss the food and are quick to remind me of their favorite. Needless to say they don’t have to as you never forget.
Food has become the foundation of connection for me to all those I love. I have tried and tested this theory and to this day I am astounded at what I continue to learn from my commitment to this mantra. As parents we can offer our child or any child the greatest gift; a sense of belonging through their cherished memories of food throughout their childhood.
All my children arrive from various parts of the country in two days as they have all recently left home. As you can imagine they have all put in their orders for their favorites and I know that my next week will be spent cooking, sharing food and laughing. Our connection through food never fades and it certainly keeps them coming back.