Lessons From Mom’s Kitchen

Happy Mother’s Day to the Mom’s out there! I have quite a few friends who are celebrating their first Mother’s Day, which, I can only image is super special.

When I watch these girlfriends with their new babies, I can’t help but wonder what I will be like as a Mom.

Will I do the right thing?

Will I lead my children to be independent adults?

Will I maintain who I am in motherhood?

Will I keep working?

Will I use cloth diapers?

Will I ditch the Windex and switch completely to all natural cleaning supplies?

And, what’s the deal with vaccinating?

Or, how about gluten? Will I give them gluten?

Or breast milk long enough?

… And, what is long enough without being weird?

Oye.

Being a mom is tough. And, confusing.

And, I am not a Mom yet! Heck. Being a mom is just barely a blip on my five year plan radar.

Growing up, I was surrounded by great mom’s who have set the bar high for motherhood without even knowing it. My aunts, friend’s moms and my own mother were (and still are) all wonderful mothers and great role models. And, they made it look easy.

I can hear my own mother laughing.

She is probably thinking something along the lines of, “It wasn’t easy… but, it’s only as hard as you make it…” Referring to the (exhaustive) list on concerns I rattled off earlier.

It’s those little words of wisdom that make moms great and my mom was full of them.

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She wasn’t a huge fan of a lecture. In fact, I think half the time I took advice from her, she didn’t mean for it come off that way. It was just something she would say in passing through her nurturing, keeping it real, you will know when you figure it out style of mothering.

I have carried much of my mom’s advice into my adult years and it has shaped me to become the woman I am today. She would say something little, be it about relationships, friendships, failures or life, that would just stick with you.

What is interesting is that many of her bits of wisdom are related to the kitchen. She was and still is a great cook. She is actually more like an artist than a cook. The kitchen is her studio. Her creativity is unlimited. She can really make a meal come to life.

But, what is really interesting is that these “words of wisdom” weren’t actually words. These few great life lessons are things I have interoperated from her actions in the kitchen.

And, the saying is true: Actions do speak louder than words.

Put Your Best Foot Forward

Yes, my mom is very good at keeping it real.

But, that doesn’t mean she just lets it all hang out. She just knows her limits.

When entertaining my mom has an arsenal of favorite crowd pleasing dishes. These are menu items that she knows she could have mostly prepared earlier in the day and that, I think by now, she has memorized.

She knows a dinner party was not the time to try something new. However, if she does want to give something new a whirl, she will do a test run before the party.

This means she could spend time with her guests. She has always wanted people to feel comfortable in her home. No one feels comfortable when the hostess is stressed and working hard (Or worse, struggling) to get dinner on the table.

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Try New Things

Sure. There are times to stick with what you are good at and there are other times that you should stretch yourself.

My mom had that arsenal of great dishes, but she also loved to bust out a cook book and try something totally new and different. She taught us that if you can read a recipe, you can cook just about anything. I would say that 85% of my meals growing up were made from scratch.

But, she didn’t stop with just new recipes.

She was a maven of the natural food stores before they hit the main steam. I remember my sister was once on a tropical, rain forest, monkey-loving kick. (Don’t be embarrassed, Kerry. We all were seven once…) So, my mom purchased coconuts so we could see what they looked like on the inside and try the milk.

My mom made an effort and pushed herself and us. She saw value in broadening our palates.

Today, my siblings and I are far from picky eaters. We will try any kind of food, because we know from growing up that it might just become one of our favorites.

Think Outside of the Box

Literally.

Growing up we rarely ate processed food. I remember longing for my mom to buy Dunk-A-Roo’s and lunchables so I could be like everyone else at the lunch table.

I also remember hearing, on multiple occasions, my friends say “Your house has weird food” as they looked into the pantry trying to find a snack.

And, by typical standards, yeah. We did.

Instead, of the Pringles or Cheetos they were looking for, we had homemade Chex Mix. Or, blue corn chips with salsa she had canned. Or, hummus that she made.

… talk about freaking your friends out. “Umm… why are these chips dark?”

I know that her meaning behind this might have been for us to avoid added sugars, unneeded calories or artificial ingredients but it really taught me to not settle for the easy route. I enjoy using my skills, knowledge and creativity to the extreme.

Find Balance

My mom knew that nutrition was important. That is why she made meals from scratch and put an emphasis on fruits and vegetables versus chips no matter how much we complained.

But, she also knew that life is all about balance and you have got to live.

On occasion she would make phenomenal desserts or meals, like risotto, that were more caloric, but were worth experiencing and often were served at times that were worth celebrating.

I remember her once saying, “You can eat a cookie. Just don’t eat ten.”

As an adult, I love this lesson and because of it I have adapted an 80/20 lifestyle when it comes to food. I try to make the right choices 80% of the time.

I try to have fruit and vegetables at every meal. I do my best to make much of what we eat from scratch.

But, when there are cupcakes at a friend’s bridal shower, I am going to eat one. And, if I want to make ice cream, I make ice cream and I enjoy it. I don’t worry about it blowing “my diet.”

I savor each bite because it’s special and something that decadent deserves it.

And, so do I.

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Grow Wings, but Remember Your Roots

The summer I was thirteen I had the incredibly amazing opportunity to go to Australia and stay with a family there. Before I left, I had a sleep over with a few close friends. My mom stocked up on vegemite, essentially Australia’s Peanut Butter. It’s rough, but the Aussie’s love it. She also made Pavlova, a traditional Australian dessert that is similar to a meringue with fruit.

She could have run up to the grocery store and picked up a cake that had “Bon Voyage” scripted on it. But instead, she did the research and wanted not just me, but my friends, to experience a piece of Australia’s culture.

When I got to Australia’s customs the attendant asked me in a thick Australian accent, “Miss, do you have lots of sweets and lollie’s in your bag?”

Umm? Lollie’s?

She pulled a gallon zip lock baggie of candy from my checked baggage.

Skittles, Jolly Ranchers, and sandwich crackers with peanut butter filled the bag. As kid whose mom rarely bought this kind of stuff I wasn’t sure what to think.

But, I won’t lie… it made me pretty excited.

On the bag there was a note from my mom. “To share a piece of America with a new friend… because you can’t bring Apple Pie.”

I love broadening my horizons but I know you always have to remember where you came from.

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Around the Table Is the Best Place to Be

When Adam and I first started dating there were dates where we just talked and talked about our favorite things, what are families are like, where we grew up and so on.

While these conversations were exciting, we really didn’t have that much in common.

At least on the surface.

He liked to hunt, fish, and farm. He grew up in a small town surrounded by a corn field.

I liked shopping, shoes, and wine. I lived like a princess in a suburban bubble.

Even our parents seemed pretty different.

Adam’s Dad built a small business up from the ground and his Mom was a tough love nurse. They met in grade school and married in their late teens.

My dad was a right brained, successful marketer and my mom had stayed at home since I was born. They met at Business School and married approaching thirty.

But, then we got to the core. The values they imparted on us. That’s when the similarities started rolling in.

One major part of our childhood that both Adam and I valued was that our families ate dinner together at a table almost every night.

Both of our mother’s, who were driving kids to and from practice most week nights, made an effort to eat dinner as a family around the kitchen table.

TV’s were off.

… Phone’s and Ipad’s weren’t an issue.

It didn’t matter if it wasn’t until eight o’clock.

Or, that you had a paper due the next day.

You sat and spoke to one another. Listened about the other person’s day. Talked about current events. Learned it’s okay to have an opinion, but you need to respect someone else’s. Helped each other get through something challenging. Laughed. Said thanks.

This is something that Adam and I do everyday and know we will do when we have our own children.

And, if it’s the only lesson I am able to take from my mom and impart on my future children I will know I had done something right thanks to the huge impact it has had on me and my relationships with everyone I love.

Thank you, Nancy.

Thank you, Mom.

For teaching us both the most important lesson of all:

When you have family, friends and love with your whole heart, you have everything.

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Becoming a Farm Girl: Part Three

Note: This is the final post in a three part series to celebrate National Agriculture Day that will show my (non-traditional) journey to Agriculture. My hope with this story is to shed light on the many different faces of a “farmer” and how those who are not born into family farms can still learn, celebrate, find careers and purpose in this important industry.

Becoming a Farm Girl: Part One
Becoming a Farm Girl: Part Two

Adam and I had a blast together at the fraternity dance and continued to see each other.

It didn’t take me long to see that he was completely different from all of the other guys I had ever dated.

And, it wasn’t just because he drove a big, diesel truck you could hear coming down the road causing all the girls in my sorority to yell “Bye Claire!” before he would pick me up for a date.

He was a good friend. He made me a priority. He was motivated and intelligent. He was a leader on campus.

And, he had a job lined up after graduation… in Indianapolis.

At another one Adam's fraternity's formals as we approached graduation.

At another one Adam’s fraternity’s formals as we approached graduation.

The more I learned about him, the more I loved and I began to redefine my job search. By Valentine’s Day, I had a job offer of my own in Indianapolis.

Flash forward three years, Adam had returned to his small hometown to work with his dad at their family agriculture construction business and, after our May 2011 wedding, I joined him.

May 21, 2011.

May 21, 2011.

A hospitality job was hard to come by in the small town, so when a local school reached out because they were looking for a food and nutrition director, I took the job.

It was a great school, but it was by no means my “dream” job. I often felt confined by the rules and regulations in the world of school lunch and my culinary creativity was pretty stifled within the medium of chicken nuggets.

I spent a lot of time trying to make my day to day more stimulating.

After getting to know some of the students, I wanted to do more to make students feel engaged and excited about lunch. I began to look around at the many school lunch websites and blogs to see what other directors across the nation were doing to enhance their school lunch programs. One program that really caught my eye was Farm to School.

Farm to School is a program that connects school lunch programs to local farmers and provides education opportunities, such as school gardens and field trips. Programs were strong in states like California and Texas.

I loved the idea. After all that I had learned about farming and where food comes from in my college years and summer internship, I thought it was a great thing to teach kids, especially those who grew up like me. I wanted to teach them there is no stereotypical “farmer” and they can grow food too, be it in their own backyard or as a potential career down the road.

In late 2012 I reached out to the leaders to see what the program was doing in the state of Indiana. I learned that the program was in its early stages of getting off the ground. I asked if I could get involved and was met with an eager “yes.”

I was actually the first food service director involved in the Indiana group full of local growers, Extension officers, leaders in the Nutrition Services of the Department of Education and more. Because of this, I was asked to speak on a panel at the 2013 Horticulture Congress in Indianapolis to introduce local growers to the program and gauge interest.

I even made the cover of AgriNews... which really excited Adam!

I even made the cover of AgriNews… which really excited Adam!

The impact this day had on me was amazing. I think it may be the first time in my life that I truly felt inspired.

The panel went great, but what was so exhilarating to me was meeting all the people who grew food and were creating unique products with their food. Their products were fabulous. They had neat stories and passion.

Ironically, the congress was held the same week Adam and I had moved into our new home, set on a large piece of land. When I got home that evening, I told Adam about my great day. I told him that I wanted to learn to grow our own food and that we had to plant a garden.

It didn’t take much convincing: Adam, recalling his childhood dreams of being a farmer, was on board.

In order to get our first garden into the ground last summer we hit the library, talked to some family and friends, and watched a lot of YouTube videos. The amount of information we found was pretty amazing.

But, as the garden grew, we wanted to learn more. We wanted to do more in taking charge of growing food, not just for ourselves, but maybe even for others.

I built relationships with extension office leaders and learned about some free work shops they were hosting to educate the community. In the fall of 2013, I went to a hands-on workshop about composting and an info session about community gardens.

Also, thanks to some of those relationships and my eagerness, I was able to attend a weeklong produce safety training hosted by the USDA. There I learned so much. We received information about how produce is inspected, what certifications, insurance, and handling practices are needed at a farm in order to supply food for sale, how to create urban and community gardens and more.

During the training I also went to an actual farm that is a resource for inner city schools in Baltimore. It introduces students to gardens, food that they might not see at home, raising goats and chickens and teaches them culinary skills. Two young men I met and spoke with were preparing to be the first in their families to graduate high school and hoping to serve in the military… as chefs!

I still have a lot to learn, but these experiences are tools that could potentially help Adam and I create a new business venture down the road. Maybe we will help contribute to a CSA, a Farm to School program, or have a stand at a Farmer’s Market. I have since moved on from K-12 food service and in my new role I work closely with chefs. Maybe we create a company that supplies fresh, local produce directly to chefs. But, then again, maybe I go back to that younger demographic and help them learn how to grow their own food. Who knows!?

And speaking of Adam, he is also learning a lot and making moves to help feed others. He made a connection with a longtime farmer who is now serving as his mentor. Last fall, Adam asked if he could donate his time helping with the harvest. He was looking to learn more about the challenges and realities his clients face. He continued to ask questions and learn as much as he could about working a field of corn.

A Shot Adam took farming last fall.

A Shot Adam took farming last fall.

Thanks to his persistence and excitement, he will be going 50-50 with this farmer on forty acres of land this year. He is beyond excited to get into the field to continue to learn, to play a small part feeding the world, and to fulfill his childhood dream of being a farmer when he grew up.

Adam even asked the farmer, “Why are you letting me farm with you?”

His response “I’ve never met someone who shows so much passion and excitement for farming. It’s hard to find someone willing to work for free just to be involved.”

I know that we wouldn’t have had these opportunities and knowledge if we had not spoken up.

I am a firm believer that what you get out of life, be it opportunities or information, that you can’t work your butt off for, is what you have the guts to ask for.

I would not know what I know about growing food or how others grow food if I had not asked questions and asked to get involved.

I am the girl asking questions at the market. I want to know.

In order to create a successful garden, I reached out to old pros and asked questions.

Adam did the same.

It’s really hard to get into actual farming if you are not born into it.

He was interested. He wanted to learn. So, he asked.

If you want to know about how the produce you see at your farmers market is grown, ask the farmer.

If the farmer at the edge of town raises cattle and you want to know how he treats his cows or who he sells the beef to, ask. You might be surprised. A lot of family farmers sell to corporations like Tyson.

(However, another fun question to ask is if you can buy directly from him. There is nothing better than making a relationship where you can support someone in your local community and get fresh meat for your family.)

A farmer will likely be more than happy to answer any question and help give you a better understanding of their world. They are proud of what they do and they want to clear up any misconceptions that, unfortunately, strike the agriculture industry every day.

If you want to know how to start a garden, do what I did. Reach out to your extension offices, ask questions at the local nursery, or you could even ask me.

I am by no means an expert, but I do have a year of experience under my belt and if I don’t know the answer, at this point, I probably know someone who does.

And, like the farmers, I am proud of what I have learned and accomplished. Not to mention, nothing makes me happier to know that someone is inspired by this blog and wants to start a garden.

… Isn’t it funny?

If you had told me ten years ago that this would be my life and this is what makes me feel like I have a purpose, I wouldn’t have believed you.

Chickens? Dirt? Muck Boots? Puhleease.

I might have even laughed.

But, I have picked up a bit of wisdom since sixteen. And, yes, I still have a lot to learn about life, but one thing I know to be sure is that life takes us all down many different roads.

And if there is anything on those roads that makes you truly fulfilled and alive, you should listen to it.

As a young adult, I honestly have struggled trying to determine what to be when I grow up. I didn’t know what really drove me or what I was passionate about.

Until now.

I love the evenings when I am in the garden with Adam enjoying the sunset and a glass of wine while the hens are roaming nearby.

I can’t help but smile when I have a fabulous conversation with a farmer at the market about the food they grew.

I feel like I have a purpose when a friend texts me saying she wants to grow cilantro, but doesn’t know where to begin.

My heart is so happy when I see Adam thrilled about making his childhood farming dreams come true.

And, never in my life do I feel more completely “Claire” than when I am in my kitchen preparing an amazing meal with fresh ingredients straight from my backyard.

Fresh ingredients that I planted, tended to, and picked with my own hands.

… So, maybe I am a Farm Girl after all.

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