I decided when I was about my daughter’s age, that food rules all. It’s the great connector of people. Through our experiences, hearing the stories of those since passed, creating magic in the kitchen, and sharing that around the table is how we are able to learn, grow, heal, and connect as a species.
My great aunt was the matriarch of my family. She instilled within me the importance of food, traditions, and family togetherness, and lived across town from us for a while. She put on fabulous holiday dinners. I remember the table was adorned with her famous chicken and dumplings with perfectly reduced and seasoned gravy, silky-smooth mashed potatoes, and whole clove garlic stuffed brisket that fell apart under the weight of the carving knife and fork. It was then, with her, in that house, that I realized how powerful food is for me. Food became the vortex for all other realms of life and has been a medium for relating to the outside world. It not only spoke to my soul, as a person living with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), it’s helped me connect.
My daughter loves pesto. It’s one of her very favorite things.
She is functionally non-verbal due to apraxia of speech, plus she is slightly hard of hearing. American Sign Language (ASL) is her first language. Navigating the language barriers is tough for us. Leaves me in need of ways to connect with her, beyond the bounds of words. When we make pesto, I see the excitement in her eyes, as I imagine mine was at her age, all while I watch every missed arugula leaf as it falls to the floor, every grain of salt as it hits the counter, every drop of olive oil on the outside of the food processor bowl. I think our auntie would be proud.
The process starts with mise en place (French for “everything in its place”). First, the ingredients are set out, then the measuring implements, then the food processor and rubber spatula, then the container for the fridge. My daughter has added one last step: a spoon for eating. Everything must be in its place before we begin or my attention shifts. She knows where in the kitchen the ingredients are, the measuring tools, and food processor. She knows the order of ingredients. She knows, down to the rumble and hum of the food processor what needs to happen next. Once the pesto is done, and the lid is off, she’s all in. The only thing left to do is enjoy. Reminds me of when the brisket came out of the oven, set on the stove, and my auntie handed me a piece of bread to dredge through the juices: one of my very favorite things.
The first dish my daughter and I made together, and ate together on the kitchen floor (because the sheer rapturous joy and perfection of flavors and textures brought us to our knees) was whole roasted chicken, vegan creamed spinach, and sticky rice. The chicken was stuffed with oregano we’d harvested from the garden, and fresh garlic and lemon we’d gotten from the farmers market. It was fall-off-the-bone tender. The spinach carried the coconut milk well, succumbed to the spike of garlic and apple cider vinegar. She doesn’t like bread, so rice is a regular replacement, the stickier the better. I’d told her about the brisket and the bread. Sitting on the floor with my daughter, savoring this meal with the same abandon I did as a kid with my great auntie in her kitchen… it was everything and required no translation, no words, no guessing: no language barrier at all.
My ASD creates a struggle to connect, which is a different kind of language barrier. Cooking, as a form of personal expression, is something I enjoy, something I do well, something I can teach my daughter to do and to love. It brings me hope, as we grow older, something as simple as roasted chicken can tell a story about me she might not otherwise know. We work on day-to-day communication, translating spoken words, images, and thoughts into sign language so she can communicate effectively with others. I don’t need language in order to sit on the floor with her, fingers ripping into the roasted chicken, dragging it through the meat juices with a bit of spinach and rice, to see the more than the blissful look on her face or know that once the pesto is done, her inability to stand still, ready to tackle any barrier between herself and what might keep her from that pesto, shows me she understands. Thankfully, for us, food it is its own powerful medium for connection.