It was a night of nights: There was the famous sommelier, there was the gracious owner, there was talk of who the baby might be, there was, after all, the food. The four of us ordered nearly everything on the menu. We urged perfect forkfuls of our dishes on each other, each bite a revelation. "Here, you must try this seafood sausage—stop what you are doing, have the steak and potatoes with a dab of the creamed spinach—no, no, taste this halibut in its asparagus corral" (yes, that's right, corral; though we longed for an asparagus chorale, a short musical number performed by a local, seasonal vegetable).
My daughter is made of the squash blossom that we shared. She is steak, halibut, the cheese cart, and every dessert they offered; she is a fine meal in Tribeca on a May night; she is Michael's soaring faith in the future, his extravagance, generosity, wit, and she is also this: strawberry soup.
In wine it is called terroir: the peculiarities of the soil, the water, the very angle of the sun, the land that makes a wine distinctly itself. "I am now terroir," it suddenly occurred to me, "I am someone's terroir." Pregnancy transpires, somewhat insultingly, without effort (unlike conception, which, for me, required almost heroic effort). The only input I had was what I was eating. The phrase "you are what you eat" leapt to mind, then quickly morphed into "Kid, you are what I eat."
The simplest rubric for eating while pregnant focuses naturally on healthy, fortifying foods, but those guidelines, in their rectitude, have become punitive, shaming, and somewhat alarming, steeped in the language of fear. Pregnant women are now told to beware of deli meat. But I suspect that if a turkey sandwich were going to take down mankind, we'd have disappeared long ago. I wanted my child to be healthy, and more: I also wanted to eat with a mind toward who I wanted her to be. If I was, indeed, creating another being, what should be on the ingredient list? Which foods? What qualities? I set about dreaming up a recipe for my kid.
Any child of mine, I decided, should be made of the #2 turkey club sandwich at the Sugar Bowl in Scottsdale, Arizona, my hometown. My father ate lunch at the counter for 20 years every Thursday at 1 P.M., so predictably that they put in his order for the #2 before he sat down. The turkey club, I figure, is our legacy. I put that on the ingredient list.
I thought of the people I wanted her to emulate and decided to eat things that reminded me of them. They, too, were creating my daughter. The recipe drew inspiration from memories (grapefruit from the trees in my childhood backyard, the bread drawer with a sliding metal lid in my great-aunts' house that smelled, deliciously, eternally, of Oreos) and the hope of summoning those who have passed (a sardine sandwich with Kraft coleslaw dressing that my grandfather apparently loved). I even listed ingredients I hate: my friend Carol's peanut butter Christmas cookies, for instance, because they are what she gives (to the great pleasure of everyone else), and I wanted this child to know what it is to be grateful for a gift not because it is perfect but because it is given. I aimed for sensibility (the cheese from a shop in Little Italy that will not permit you to leave unsatisfied, or in under an hour) and the plainly delicious (my husband's spaghetti sauce). She will not have the pleasure of knowing my mother, so I made myself a bowl of banana medallions in orange juice, which she served as dessert when I was a little girl. Then I set about eating.
It was no simple task for me to get pregnant. When I flinched, certain I would give myself cancer if I tried fertility treatments, my friend Lyle was the one who said to me, "By the time you give yourself cancer, they will have cured it. Ya gotta live now." And so, you can see why my daughter had to be part Lyle. I begged him to make dinner for me, his specialty, an Old Bay shrimp boil. A plate of steamed asparagus. No utensils. He bought lychees on the branch in Chinatown for dessert. I have watched him care for his dying father, I have watched him fall in love, I have watched him work. I wanted my girl to have his fortitude, compassion, verve, the elegance of his mind. She is a meal eaten by hand, she is fluency, she is lychees, she is Lyle.
And she is Kenny, with whom I must have eaten a hundred meals, including an Italian lunch in December. He is, in a man, permission. A hedonist. A grandmother. A diva. After lunch we popped into one lovely store after another, with Kenny plucking things off the shelves, Here's a book you have to read; here, a toy for the baby. She is pumpkin ravioli and squid salad from that December lunch, and, I hope, his kindness, his largesse, good taste, zest for life, candor. She is also his finest cherry pie. (Kenny comes from pie people.)
And like wine, she is time. The weather during the months on the vine—how much rain falls, how cold and hot the season—determines what a bottle of wine will ever be. She, too, is made of our personal weather, the events that transpired during her months with me: cupcakes from Lyle's wedding, steak salad from Ian's graduation party, the fruit plate at my husband's grandfather's memorial. She is the burger I shared with David the day a test revealed she might have Down's syndrome, she is a glass of Champagne at a movie premiere. She is the big winter holidays and my favorite rituals, the ones we make up on our own: the wonton soup and orange soda I have at the cheap Chinese joint while planning our Thanksgiving menu, or the coffee we drink across from the high school band playing "Gonna Fly Now" the day the New York City Marathon makes its way through our neighborhood.
Regret found its way into the recipe, as it does. She is the things I wish I hadn't done and many others I failed to do. I'm sorry to report that she is strawberry Pop-Tarts. I never did get to Di Palo to order ricotta and olive oil and talk recipes with everyone at the counter; nor did I actually eat one of Carol's peanut butter balls. When my brother visited, we giddily ate the food of his childhood, Devil Dogs, for breakfast. But my kid is also made from the tension that now clouds our relationship, our strained conversation at dinner over cauliflower and bagna cauda, because sometimes we gather at a table with people whose lives we can't fathom as surely as they can't fathom ours, but we keep trying. She is heartache and abiding love. She is Devil Dogs.
She is so very many ingredients: candy-striped beets, a hot dog from Shea Stadium, a curried chicken sandwich, black grape raita, chocolate milk, prenatal vitamins, doughnuts, lots of doughnuts, licorice Scottie dogs, peaches and apricots from the farmers' market eaten standing over the sink, bowls of fresh watermelon, pineapple chunks, Earl Grey tea. And so many people: Ana, James, Kathy, Meera, Jack, Megan. My daughter is Coca-Cola, which, to my own surprise, I started drinking again after Cormac McCarthy wrote about the last can on Earth in The Road, claiming it as one of life's simplest, greatest pleasures.
Although I could not know it then, the recipe was complete late on a January night, her due date. That meal was shared with my best friends, David and Ian, at a restaurant called Momofuku. Together we slurped salty ramen, then went next door to a café and shared something I can only describe as a Twinkie coffin, a little box of sponge cake, cream, and strawberries. Five hours later, David and Ian were asleep and I was in a car on the West Side Highway, slipping past the Cunard ship afloat in the Hudson, on my way to the hospital. The next day my girl arrived during a brief moment of snow. We named her Bird.
But that is another story and there are too many to tell here, too many ingredients to list. I wrote them down, everything I ate, with whom, why. It seems to me now to have been a way of orienting myself in the face of enormity. I was scared. I needed all the help I could get. Still do. Only now do I see this was a project born of longing for my mom and my fear of being unqualified to raise a child well. It was the only way I could manage to focus or remain hopeful when I was not. It helped me create her, but perhaps it helped me, an unlikely, uncomfortable mother, create myself. I discovered a way of organizing a lifelong conversation, a way of telling her what I value and hope for her.
After all, with food comes story. I can tell her the stories over the many meals I will share with her over the coming years. These are the things you are made of: friends, memory, and pork ramen from the East Village. But this, too, is true: She is everything I ate and still she is a mystery, that unnameable, unknowable ingredient none of us contributed, whatever it is that makes her her. That is a story she will have to tell us.