Years ago, two-time Pillsbury Bake-Off finalist Janet Barton told me she became a good cook because it brought her kids home around the dinner table.
"Especially as my children became teenagers, I wanted them to have a decent meal, and I wanted them home," said Barton, of Sandy. "Cooking brings them home for dinner and brings your family together. I just think it's important that a mother or father, or someone, be home and put a good meal on the table so everyone can sit down together."
I heard the same thing when I interviewed Kelsey Nixon, Brigham Young University grad who now hosts her own show, "Kelsey's Essentials," on the Cooking Channel.
On her show, she not only shares cooking skills, but memories of her North Ogden family's mealtime traditions.
She talked about the "magic" that happens at the table when the whole family sits down to eat together.
"We believe in the power of food, how it can build stronger families and communities," Nixon told me last year. "I grew up in a home where family mealtime was very important, and it affected me so much. My mother worked full-time, and yet she came home and prepared a home-cooked meal nearly every day. Instead of looking at it as drudgery, she considered it a hobby and almost therapeutic after a day of work. Her attitude and approach to cooking is what made me fall in love with cooking in the first place."
I, too, have grown to believe in the "power of food," as Nixon puts it.
In past articles, I've mentioned the book, "The Surprising Power of Family Meals: How Eating Together Makes You Smarter, Stronger, Healthier, and Happier," by Miriam Weinstein. According to Weinstein's research, regularly eating an ordinary, every-day supper with your family is strongly linked to emotional stability and lower incidence of teenage drug and alcohol use. It correlates with kindergarteners being better prepared to learn to read. It discourages both obesity and eating disorders. It supports a connection to your extended family, your ethnic heritage and your community of faith.
Family mealtime can't happen unless someone cooks dinner.
Food is so much more than just fuel for our bodies.
Since God first commanded man not to eat the forbidden fruit, food has also been an expression of faith and religious beliefs. Some examples are the dietary laws of Jews, Hindus and Muslims, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Word of Wisdom. In the New Testament, Jesus Christ used food as a teaching tool — fig and olive trees, loaves and fishes, water and wine, wheat and tares.
Culinary education is valuable for self-reliance, and it is crucial in helping the poor. The old "teach a man to fish" saying holds true for cooking. If you offer someone a meal, you've fed them for a day. Teach a person to cook, and they can find ways to feed themselves all their lives. Teach them about nutrition, and they can keep themselves and their families healthy as well.
Food plays a major role in financial responsibility. Monthly house and car payments or utilities are pretty set, but there's a lot of wiggle room in a food budget. How you grocery shop, and whether you choose to cook at home or eat out can make or break a family financially.
Food also offers values in the media when so much of today's TV programming is drowning in violence and sleaze. The old TV cooking shows pioneered by Julia Child have morphed into popular culinary education programs on the Food Network, as well as reality series such as "Chopped!" and "Iron Chef." Utah has been a part of this trend, with Kelsey Nixon on the Cooking Channel, Salt Lake City chef Viet Pham competing on "Extreme Chef" and "Iron Chef," and three different Utah bakery owners winning episodes of the Food Network's "Cupcake Wars." Several local contestants have also done well on NBC's "The Biggest Loser" which combats obesity through nutrition and exercise.
Food has political implications, with city governments trying to legislate the size of soda pop cups, trans fats, nutrition information and even the toys in Happy Meals. The organic movement, community-supported agriculture, and the rise of local artisan products all speak to the influence of food in the community.
Food is a barometer of the economy, as food prices go up or down, and as food banks strive to feed the hungry.
Food is friendship — as the terms "breaking bread together" or "dinner and a movie" imply.
As most readers have probably realized, the Deseret News is making some changes in its Features pages, and this is my last column for the Deseret News.
Food is fascinating. Over the years I've been fortunate to cover such a wide variety of food topics in the Deseret News Food section, and I've appreciated he opportunity to share what I've learned with you, the readers.
Valerie Phillips is the former Deseret News food editor and the author of "Soup's On!" She blogs at www.chewandchat.blogspot.com.
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