The Food Exchange

It all started when I got tired of cooking dinner every night. Don't get me wrong; I love to cook. By ability and inclination, I'm the family chef. But every night? During the crazy hours? You know, when children the city over get that look in their eyes and the pulling and tugging begins: What can I do? I'm hungry. I'm bored. What's for dinner? And once at the table: Yuck, I don't like that.

I could weep. Couldn't you?

Or is it not like this in your family? Am I doing something fundamentally wrong? All I know is, this isn't what I envisioned when I thought of having children. I envisioned holding hands around the dinner table, each child lovingly contributing a gem of innocent wisdom, piles of wholesome food dug into with gusto.

Who was doing the dishes in that dream? Who was trekking to Rainbow? Where'd those piles of wholesome food come from? Could I ever have imagined the night when one child would proudly present the other with a fresh booger? Would you want to hold that child's hand?

Laundry to wash, meals to cook, floors to be swept, and the souls of my children to be nurtured. How can it be possible to do it all, all by ourselves, all the time? My frustration grew. Sitting glumly on my porch, I surveyed the terrain of my block. Each of those twenty-four houses contains at least one dishwasher, washing machine, dryer, television, stove, and refrigerator. Each garage, with the exception of the admirably carless Tom and Kate, contains at least one car and one lawn mower. After a dinner which my children may or may not have eaten with or without enjoyment, I pictured all those appliances working away simultaneously. Churning clothes, drying those clothes, heating separate dinners, freezing individual pans of ice, noisily mowing separate lawns.

I imagined a man or a woman inside each of those houses, doing the kitchen dance at dinnertime. Imagined the children in those houses tugging at legs and arms, their faces contorted with need.

From that depressing vantage point I broadened my outlook to include our country as a whole. Why are we so fragmented? Why are we so nuclearized? Why is so much in my life shared by no one but my own family of five? Couldn't we, as a block, invest in a couple of snowblowers, or one post-hole digger, or a single tractor-trailer for all of us to share? Couldn't I get together with Jim next door and just share a single lawn mower fergodsakes?

The mind ranges ever further. Take it out of the context of one lone block. What about the Y? Those churning legs, those windmilling arms. Why can't all that expended energy be put to use generating power to run those Stairmasters and treadmills and Ultra-bikes?

But changing the world begins with a single step, or something like that.

So we started a food exchange with our friends Bob and Jane. Here's how it works: about once a week I arrive home to find a brown paper grocery bag sitting on my front porch. I heft it inside to the kitchen and take a peek. Tupperware containers, sometimes a zipped baggy, sometimes a paper plate covered with tinfoil. A yellow sticky note with a few words jotted in pen: pasta with tomatoes and artichoke hearts, or spaghetti casserole--kid friendly! A smiley face.

About once a week, I, in turn, double the amount of food I'm preparing for the night and package up half of it. Then I drop it off at their house. And they do the same.

They live in Morningside. We live in Uptown. They have two kids, we have three. We've been friends a long time--going-out-to-movie friends, going-out-to-restaurant friends, playing-tennis friends, how-to-get-a-baby-to-sleep-through-the-night friends. We have seen each other through pregnancies and early childhood, through career upheavals and family woes. Bob and Jane and their children were at the airport late at night to greet us when I arrived home from China with a new daughter in tow.

But of all the give and take of ordinary, close friendship, something about the food exchange is special and different. Seeing that brown paper bag on the front porch makes me feel cared for. Maybe because I'm a parent, used to tending children's needs, used to making dinner for others, folding clothes for others, singing nursery songs in the middle of the night . . . you know what I'm talking about. Something about the sight of those neat Tupperware containers, those muffins that have been packed up for our children's breakfast, the baguette encased in its paper sleeve so that we will have bread to go with the lentil soup that has been ladled into a jar for us, fills my heart with peace and wellbeing. Someone is taking care of us, someone besides just . . . us.

I sit on my porch, dinner preparations on this one night of the week complete, thanks to Bob and Jane and the Food Exchange. On my block, the growl of five separate lawn mowers fills the air. Washing machines and dryers hum in individual basements. Separate family cars sit dormant in garages, and twenty-four dinners are being prepared.

I can't change our fragmented existence all at once. But one day a week, there's a brown paper bag filled with delicious food made by my wonderful cook friends. For tonight at least, we will be nourished by food that didn't come from our own tiny nuclear family. Blessed by their unseen hands, we will eat the food our friends made for us.

Alison McGhee is a Minneapolis fiction writer whose recently published novel, Rainlight, just won the GLCA National Fiction Prize for Best Published First Novel. She and her husband have three children. This is her first contribution to Minnesota Parent.

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