I’ve blogged before about my attempt to focus on food more as “fuel” than “fun”. That’s a challenge for a foodie.
Especially one who really doesn’t consider cooking a strength.
I will always eat healthfully. And whenever possible, make my family do the same. I’ve even mastered a muffin that’s a combination of quinoa, rice flour, flax seed, chia seeds, apples, bananas, honey – sometimes even a teaspoon of kelp! I promise, it’s edible.
But baking has never been a challenge for me. Cooking dinner has. Hard to do when you are delivering the news at 5, 6 and 10pm! Just doing the grocery shopping and getting up at the crack of dawn to pack school lunches was a challenge.
So, learning to cook a proper dinner was one of my big ‘to-dos’ when we moved to New Zealand: learn to cook – properly – for my family. Leaving wiggle room to allow for Indian take-away, obviously.
One of my new-found friends shared my goal with her daughter, who apparently responded with total confusion. She asked, with a worried frown, “How has she managed to raise a family, if she doesn’t know how to cook?”.
Fair question. One that needs a little cultural context.
I just returned from a visit to the US, where I went shopping at Costco. For my American friends, who are familiar with the concept, bear with me for a minute, as I explain the jaw-dropping range of gourmet-style pre-prepared meals you can buy. Everything from fresh chicken and pasta salad to frozen but fabulous crab cakes, with plenty of ethnic diversity. You really don’t ever have to cook again, with a place like that in the neighbourhood. If you don’t mind a few preservatives, or usually “nuking” your meals, as some call cooking them in the microwave oven.
Costco and stores like it, as well as gourmet groceries, fill a need in American society today: to provide the second-best thing to homemade food for busy families. The problem is, many American families would now be lost without them.
Before I left the US (and my broadcasting career), I did a story on a family who hired a Happiness Expert, named Christine Carter, to rescue them. So stretched with school and work and their kids’ wildly demanding sports schedules, they ate nothing but microwaved meals. And rarely ever together.
Her RX? Simple: plan a family meal at least once a week. She started by getting them to clear the dining room table that had been lost for years under piles of paperwork. The parents were in the habit of feeding the kids as they sat on barstools. They just stood and snacked. With Christine’s guidance, the family worked together to carve out windows of opportunity on the calendar so they could plan, shop, cook and finally, commune – together at the family table.
Sounds far-fetched? Maybe this family was an extreme example?
Well, consider this: a Kiwi friend of mine is now living in the States – just for a year. She wrote to me, describing how overwhelmed she felt. The kids can’t take public transport to their respective sports, so she has to drive them all over the city, then dash home in time for them to do their hours of required homework. She struggles to find time to stop at the store and buy the ingredients, let alone cook a family dinner – something she took for granted living here.
She is counting the days until they come home. Where the pressure isn’t so palpable that it eats away at childhood and prevents families from simply spending time with one another.
In New Zealand, many of my friends still do “the baking for the week” on Sunday afternoons. I’d only heard of that on black and white television programs.
Hopefully this explains how and why I fed my family for more than a decade on a few simple recipes and a Costco membership.
But it didn’t make me happy. I wanted to do better.
When I moved, I made learning to cook a priority. I started by pulling recipes from local magazines and then gathering a few from my new friends. I learned to use local specialties, with a twist – like couscous lamb burgers! But I still shied away from anything that required more than 3 or 4 instructions.
That’s when some Kiwi ‘Mums’ shared their secret – a service that changed my life: “My Food Bag“. Each week, fresh, locally sourced groceries arrive at my door, complete with recipes for the ingredients! No planning, no stressing – just cooking! (And sometimes lots of chopping…)
Now, I have no choice but to make what they provide. I also don’t take the blame if my kids don’t like the recipe. It was provided, not chosen. Sometimes they’ll even help me make the fun stuff. They have, by the way, discovered that they like more than they realize. And I no longer flinch at the number of steps required. We’ve broadened our minds as well as our palates.
I’ve made things I never would have dared to try on my own: duck, dumplings, and Vietnamese rice wraps among them. I consider it my culinary crash-course – learning what spices work with which foods, and how to trim meat and all these things that take years to learn, preferably as you grow up watching your mother cook in the kitchen.
My mother worked. We lived on crock-pot meals most of the time.
I now have a library of preferred meals and feel confident enough to close the book and try my own ideas. When they turn out tasting great, it’s funny how rewarding it feels – like it’s a big accomplishment.
Wasn’t getting women out of the kitchen considered a real advancement less than a hundred years ago?
After World War II, as my Dad tells me, Madison Avenue started to market tv dinners and all kinds of canned foods as fast and convenient. It was a way to repurpose production lines that no longer needed to provide C-rations for troops, or so he says. Whatever the initial motivation, the marketing worked. Freeing housewives from the drudgery of daily meal preparation offered what the invention of the washing machine once did – more time and opportunity to use our creative energy in other areas.
This ready-made trend didn’t take root just in the United States. It swept the world. But we paid a price for convenience.
Today we see the backlash: slow-food movements and events popping up all over the world, and kitchen gardens back in vogue. Even France fell victim. There, they’ve now introduced a symbol that restaurants display to prove that they home-cook meals and don’t just microwave pre-produced selections. Stunning.
Yet, some societies never really strayed too far from convention. On a recent family trip to Vietnam, we saw fresh produce turned into works of art. The wildly popular ‘street’ food’ that we’d heard so much about was made with freshly harvested ingredients. Even what’s flogged to tourists at the famous Floating Villages is a mix of the expected processed and packaged – alongside fresh produce.
The Vietnamese also practice what I’d call extreme gardening: every green patch that can be seized for cultivation, is. Even in the cities, where the pace of life today is as fast as anywhere else in the western world, people snap up fresh greens from sellers on sidewalks with baskets hanging from a single stick balanced across their shoulders. Buyers zoom up on their motorbikes, and zip off with bundles of green leaves and shoots sticking out from the back of their seats. Heading home to cook them, albeit often with prepackaged noodles.
Apparently there is a way to balance our busy modern lives with traditional rituals that nourish us. For some us, it requires taking a step backward to re-learn (or learn for the first time) the skills and knowledge required.
So, yes, this health-conscious foodie has finally learned to cook after moving to New Zealand. While there are plenty of fast food restaurants and frozen meat pies and patties at supermarket freezer sections, it seems the Kiwi culture hasn’t gone too far down the pre-prepared path. So there aren’t as many steps backward needed.
As I’ve said before, you really could call this the land of milk and honey – as those are two of the more famous Kiwi exports and kitchen staples.
It’s also a land where families really do still sit down to enjoy home-cooked meals, instead of waiting for the ding on the microwave to shuffle their stools closer to the kitchen counter.
It’s been only a matter of weeks since I was lucky enough to see a big juicy dream of mine come true. And unlike much fleeting felicity in life, I have been able to savor the experience for the intervening weeks. (I’m still on a bit of a high, truth be told…)
One thing, though, I felt compelled to do: write down my moment by moment emotions on the day itself…to help me preserve the “memory mosaic”, with all its rich colors and hues.
So I thought, why not share it with you?
On the day of TEDxHomeBushRdWomen event, I was scheduled to speak last. That meant I sat on pins and needles for hours and clearly couldn’t allow myself to get carried away by all the inspiration that day – for fear I’d forget my own words! (More than a little difficult with all the wit and wisdom being shared onstage.)
Over the past few months we’d met and mingled, marvelled at each other’s expertise and inspiring stories…and then, finally relaxed into a comfortable rapport. We’d collaborated on crafting our messages and listened with satisfaction as various versions of each person’s presentation evolved. But on the day itself, there were still plenty of surprises: new words, new twists and fresh energy – combined with audience feedback – it all left me transfixed. So much for trying to stay un-carried away!
And it wasn’t just the speakers.
As I found myself gazing at the block letters, “TEDx”, directly in front of me, something became instantly clear. The letters didn’t just spell out the name of the event, they articulated a dream I hardly dared to admit to myself. A dream I was about to see come true. Those four red letters symbolized so much, they made me as emotional as the day I got married! To my surprise (and certainly beyond my control) came tears, joy, excitement – one emotion welling up right after the other. I didn’t know if would burst out crying or in dissolve in nervous laughter! But I held it together. And, also just as the day of my wedding, I remembered to savor what was happening. I took a “heart picture”, as my grandmother used to call it, to help me remember the moment forever.
Finally, after four hours, it was my turn to step onto the stage.
Not just onto the stage, but onto the little round red TED Talk rug. The place where it would all come together or all fall apart.
It came together. That little spot of carpet became my source of strength…where I finally found my voice. The voice that’s tried to be heard since I was a young girl and wrote fanciful fairy stories; then as a philosophy student, striving to extract new meaning out of ancient texts; and later in life, edited to fit the clipped script of a new anchor. After more than four decades of hopeful expression, my voice finally emerged on my TEDx talk day, once again reinvented – but finally sounding real.
Then, in what seemed like just moments, it was over.
Posing for pictures with everyone afterward, I realised I had a “wedding headache”. You know the kind that spreads across the back of your head – that comes from wide smiles that last longer than usual? The TEDxHomeBushRdWomen crew was in celebration mode, as we moved onto the “reception” (a dinner at a local pub). There, we had a chance to exhale and deconstruct the day, weeks and months of meticulous planning and practicing and promoting required to pull this all together.
A coup, a triumph: the first TEDx Women event in New Zealand. Ever.
As always, just a few of us had the chance to shine in the spotlight that day onstage, while the many who made the dream real remained in the shadows, unsung but much appreciated. That night, we could properly acknowledge them. We thanked them, hugged them and toasted their talents: from the firecracker organizer (a dream-maker extraordinaire) to the cadre of committed volunteers, astute advisers, sponsors (better described as “believers”), down to the goodie bag fillers – whose job was for more important than they may even have realized.
Chocolate and coffee? Guaranteed to make any event better.
When the night finally ended and the party disbanded, once again I was surprised. I felt a little bereft. For a few brief months we’d created a “tribe” – women woven together by a common purpose, focus and strength. Not just sharing our beliefs but taking a shared risk: Would all this hard work make an impact? Would TEDXHomeBushRdWomen be successful?
And really, it wasn’t over. To counter the letdown that comes at the end of a wedding day, there is something called “the honeymoon”. Ours is seeing our “Ideas Worth Spreading” start to wend their way around the world online. That said, we aren’t content just to sit back and watch. We know this “basking in the afterglow” won’t sustain us for long. No, we’re already looking forward to our anniversary.
All of us involved with TEDxHomeBushRdWomen hope we’ve earned the chance to put Wellington, New Zealand on the map once again. It will require even more commitment, planning and dreaming.
Believe me, it all began even before our very own TED Talk stage went dark…
Part of that process? Finding out exactly what impact we might have had. Watch – and let us know if and how any our words may have impacted your lives.
Unlike newlyweds, we aren’t all absorbed with ourselves. We want to see your dreams come true. And if they do, we’d love to hear about it…