Welcome to this, the third and final installment of “The Great Cookbook Breakdown.” As you may recall, this column was to be devoted to my favorite category of cookbooks, “Cookbooks for LARPers.”
For those of you who don’t know, LARPing is Live Action Role Playing. It’s not quite acting because there is no script, and it’s not quite improv because there is a story and character framework that you, the LARPer, choose to operate in.
I said I was going to write about Cookbooks for LARPers but I am not now—this is where the Great Cookbook Breakdown breaks down—because I had an experience—a LARPIng experience, in fact—that put the whole thing in perspective, and by “the whole thing” I mean the entire mess I have been writing about in these columns, about cooking for, and eating with, children.
My experience was at the American Girl Doll Cafe. Let us pause for a moment to look at that name, the name with one adjective modifying three nouns in a row: American Girl Doll Cafe. This name is kind of amazing, because although the first three words do refer to a particular brand of doll known as the American Girl Doll, this phrase also contains in it the idea that girl, doll, and cafe—three separate nouns—can operate as one, and although we are 50 years out from The Feminine Mystique, I think many contemporary American moms, if you asked them, would say that they have experienced being viewed as every part of this conglomerate noun. That is, they have experienced, despite being full-grown women, being viewed as girls and/or things, and they have also experienced being viewed—by their children, at least—as a place that serves food. This perception of an American woman as three nouns she is not is something that happens as a result of people—men, women, and children—imagining. This is why imagining, which is often derided as mere play, is a subject we should take seriously.
Now, the question arises: why did I go to this place?
This brings me to why I think Cookbooks for LARPers is the greatest category of cookbook. It is because when we cook from wonderful books like The Unofficial Narnia Cookbook by Dinah Bucholz, we understand from the get-go what we are doing, we understand the fiction we are sharing, it is stated explicitly: we are cooking as if we were in Narnia, we are eating as if we were in Narnia; we are connected via our vision and our love of Narnia. We are visiting that magical land in the back of the wardrobe via cooking, eating, and imagining. It is a type of play.
This is a very different approach from the one in which a cookbook author creates a meme that lands everywhere from my kids’ school to their doctor’s office, and this meme contains the idea that I, the dinner-making parent, must create and enforce a time of loving connection over an evening meal or my children are going to hell.
Whole books—masterworks—have been written about how people in families do and do not lovingly connect. I have read some of these books—all fake doctors begin as English majors—and here is what I have have learned: human connection is weird. It may not look like “people connecting.” It may involve silence. It may involve no eye contact. To say that it is something we need to hurry up and do over dinner—or else—seems to me to confuse what it means to connect with what it means to comply. That compliance is the bedrock of this meme is underscored by the fact that one of the primary rules of family dinner, as outlined by its author, is that no one may leave the table until after dessert.
I went to the American Girl Doll cafe with my girl because I thought we would enjoy dining in a restaurant that would support us in our mutual pretending that her doll was alive. We walked into the restaurant with her doll, Isabelle. The three of us were seated—Isabelle got her own, specially sized seat— at a pretty table at the center of which was a little box filled with conversation-starting questions. I asked Isabelle: “What is one word to describe you?” She answered, “A cocoa puff.”
I recently learned this from a book: when Elizabeth Cady Stanton was involved in the beginning of the suffragist movement, she was initially against having a woman act as president for a convention. With their “feeble voices and timid manners,” she argued, women would not know how to preside. Stanton did regret this stance and later apologized to one of the convention organizers, but I write this now to draw attention to the idea that even among the earliest and bravest supporters of the women’s movement, there was difficulty in imagining, at first, what a woman could be and do.
When I am sitting in a riotously pink dining room with my daughter pretending with her that her doll is answering questions, I am sharing in the fantasy that her doll is a sentient being dining in a cafe with other dolls who are also sentient. In some ways I think this is not so very far from what Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton did when they imagined that, within a male-dominated world, women could indeed address crowds of men in public, and women could indeed vote. They imagined it, and they connected with other people who agreed to imagine it with them.
When I am eating dinner with my kids, I think it is actually counterproductive to imagine that we are in a loving and connected family, regardless of whether or not we are. I think that this imagining primarily benefits only one part of the family: the parents and their self-image.
I think it is more helpful to see my family as a group of people of varying ages who are living together—and sometimes finding it difficult to do so—in a world where the younger people are under tremendous pressure to do things for the benefit of older people, only the younger people are being told that they are doing these things for themselves.
Here is the good word from your fake doctor on this issue: I don’t think family dinner matters. I think eating food so that we can live matters and I think the integrity of individual people matters.
And if I were to sit here and imagine the future, I would say that the era in which adults routinely require their children’s compliance at the expense of their integrity is coming to an end. The era of adults citing their children’s participation in this arrangement as evidence of both the adults’ and the children’s success is coming to an end.
Is this a scary prospect? Yes. But so was a woman presiding over a crowd of men, in the beginning. (This is a fear that we will hopefully be able to revisit, and conquer, in our 2016 Presidential election). What would happen if we did the truly loving thing of allowing our children to reject our broken systems, reinvent the world, and preside? Would we rejoice at our own wisdom? Or would we still be too worried that the children would embarrass us, or make a mess?
In his brilliant book, Playing and Reality, the great child psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott wrote about how the assumption that if you bring up your children well, there will be less trouble, is false:
“If you do all you can to promote personal growth in your offspring, you will need to deal with startling results. If your children find themselves at all they will not be contented to find anything but the whole of themselves, and that will include the aggression and destructive elements in themselves as well as the elements that can be labeled loving. There will be this long tussle which you will need to survive.”
I don’t see this idea being spouted as many places as I’d like. But I have hope. My hope is that our children are going to create a new framework for themselves to operate in, and they’ll do this by imagining bigger, and better, than we ever dared tell them they could.