Recipe For Joy

“Look for the similarities, not the differences.”

Fifteen years ago someone gave me this counsel and it is perhaps the most important piece of advice I’ve ever received. Yes, even more important than don’t eat crackers in bed and don’t make out with someone immediately after eating Oreos.

When we look for the similarities between ourselves and others, we find common ground; we connect and help each other. When we seek only our differences, all we do is isolate: we make ourselves stagnant.

I’m always looking for similarities with other parents. This step-parenting thing is the hardest thing I’ve ever done; connecting with other people who also believe raising kids is a challenge– one that we can meet– helps me keep going. Especially if they also make me laugh. It’s one of the main reasons I blog.

Today I have the great pleasure of introducing you to Robin Davis, author of Recipe For Joy: A Stepmom’s Story of Finding Faith, Following Love, and Feeding a Family.

Robin is awesome. Former assistant editor at Bon Appetit, former restaurant critic and food writer for The San Francisco Chronicle, and current food editor at The Columbus Dispatch, she is also a smart and lovely lady who converted to Catholicism, has a strong and abiding faith, and is stepmom to three. In spite of her impressive credentials, she still agreed to be on my blog.

It seems that both Robin and I used to have the same list of Nevers. We were never going to get married, have children, move away from the west coast, or join an organized religion. Life, apparently, had other plans for each of us.

In Recipe For Joy Robin tells the story of feeling the pull of family drawing her back to Ohio after her father’s death. While there on sabbatical from the Chronicle she met a man named Ken at an alumni dinner, and learned he was a widower raising his three young children on his own. Despite Robin’s Nevers they  started dating. Which soon led to having to interact with his kids–something she had little experience with.

When Robin first started spending time with the children, she turned to the thing she felt most comfortable with: food.

This is a beautifully written, intensely honest book with moments that made me laugh out loud. The chapters correspond to parts of a meal, and a recipe concludes each chapter. Robin was gracious enough to give me an interview.

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JM: What’s your current favorite ingredient in your cooking?

Robin: Right now, it’s probably asparagus. I love it grilled, roasted, in quiche or pasta. But in another couple of weeks, it’s going to be locally-grown strawberries. I won’t be able to get enough of them for the short season they’re here.

JM: In the book, you speak of the first meal you had together with Ken and the kids (hamburgers). Did you ever cook a meal just for him while you were dating?
Robin: Yes, often! When I first moved to Columbus, I was technically on sabbatical from the San Francisco Chronicle. I worked part time as a buyer for a local gourmet cookware store and wrote freelance for a few publications. But I had lots of time to cook. For one of our first dates, I packed us a picnic lunch with shrimp cocktail, cold poached salmon, asparagus, flourless chocolate cake. We ate it outside at a local park. So romantic!

JM: I love that you bonded with the kids through the thing you were most comfortable with: food. I’m not nearly a fraction of the cook that you are and my kids mostly hate anything that doesn’t involve sugar. What do you recommend for picky eaters?

Robin: Start with where they are and try not to make food a battlefield. The meal I described above? That was great for Ken and I, but the kids wouldn’t touch it (still wouldn’t eat the poached salmon). When I met them, Ben was 10 and the twins were 8. I first had to figure out what they liked and then see if I could expand their palates little by little. But that was my way of getting to know them, almost like a game. I couldn’t take their reactions to the food personally, which was hard for me. What I ended up doing was making sure there was always one thing on the table that they liked, that was familiar to them, even if it was just grapes or plain pasta or rice. If they wanted, they could just eat that (after they tried whatever else was on the table). And if they were still hungry, they could get a cup of yogurt out of the fridge.

JM: had hot sauce in my eye  was moved to tears many times while reading this book, and one part that resonated very strongly with me was your phrase “It flattened me,” in regards to the basic day-to-day tasks that grow exponentially when you suddenly find yourself with a family. I thought I was the only one.

Several times in the book you refer to how stony your heart had become. Do you feel like you were shutting down in reaction to the stress of the situation, or do you feel like you were that way before and just didn’t recognize it?

Robin: For me, it took someone (my sister) pointing out that I was crying all the time because, as strange as it sounds, I didn’t think anyone could see what a mess I’d become.

I was stony first out of self-preservation. I put up walls because I was afraid the children wouldn’t like me. And then when they did like me, I worked hard at not trying to be a replacement mother because no one could ever replace their mother. For a long time, I wouldn’t say, “I love you” to them because I never wanted them to feel obligated to say it back to me if they didn’t feel it. Of course, all that really did was put up a wall between us. If I have one regret, it’s that I didn’t love them openly and with abandon, with no fear of what their reaction would be. Instead, I hoped they would see how much I loved them because I cooked and cleaned for them. That’s a recipe for failure.

JM: I’ve seen many articles lately where people tell stepmoms “You knew what you were getting into. You signed up for this”. And yet, nobody knows what it’s going to be like ahead of time. Even bio parents don’t know what parenting is going to be like. Do you feel like you were constantly redefining your role as a stepmom?

Robin: A friend who has biological as well as stepchildren tells me she thinks being a stepmom is way harder than being a biological mom. Someone else always has the trump card in any situation, and it’s not you.

Like you, I had a clear idea of what I would be going in: A perfect, never jealous, stepmother always with the right answer to every situation. I remember telling myself that I would stand firm in who I was and how I would interact with them. But I grew, and the kids changed. And of course, I learned what worked and what didn’t. What worked best was just being me and not trying to be perfect.

JM: I appreciate that you wrote a book that can help people through a rough patch. I think it’s tremendous that you put into words how hard it can be, because it will help others not feel so far off the mark when they’re not in love with their situation, and reminds us that everything changes.

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*****

Anyone who enjoys exploring the connections that bind families together, who finds solace in the kitchen, or who has questions about faith should grab a copy of Recipe For Joy. But if you know a stepmom, particularly one who is having a hard time, you should get a copy for her. It is a tremendous gift to know you’re not alone.

Click this link to buy the book – get it for only $10 through May 19

Click this link for some of Robin’s other recipes.

*******

What’s your favorite food to make to connect with your family?

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7 thoughts on “Recipe For Joy

  1. Great interview. I never realized all the challenges a stepmom can face.

    As for food, my daughter is starting to help me cook (yay!), so we love to make stuff like lasagna or spaghetti, pure comfort foods.

    1. That’s fantastic that she’s helping out now! Man, you’re so close to turning over dinner duty one night a week! I love lasagna. It’s one of my favorites. The one kid that was interested in cooking stopping coming in the kitchen the more I was in there. *sigh*. Ah well.

  2. That has to be one of the hardest things to have to do . . . enter a “family” as an outsider and try to become the “mom,” while at the same time respecting the already existing bonds the children have with their mom and/or memories of their mom. I can’t even imagine the difficulties. It is a brave and strong woman even willing to take that leap of faith. However you bond with those children, whether by food, faith or painting, it is amazing to me that anyone is even willing to throw themselves into such a difficult situation. Happy Mother’s Day to all of the moms, either biological or circumstantial. It is a tough job no matter what, and we all deserve some recognition, especially those who signed on “knowing what they were getting into.” 😉

  3. Really nice interview, and thanks for alerting us to Robin’s book! I hadn’t heard about it. I became a “step” when my husband’s daughter was a little older–she was 11 or 12 when I met her and about 15 when we were married, and is now 26, so I suppose my experience wasn’t the day-to-day issues you both face with homework and meals and drama….but it’s interesting what you said about the “I love you” part. Honestly I have a tough time with this, maybe because we have built almost a “big sister” type of relationship, rather than a step-mom/step-child type of one, and I still have an issue with the term itself. She was older and her mom was very present, so I’m not anything remotely like a mom? But then I defer to “Tom’s daughter…” and that doesn’t seem right either. Thanks for the food for thought on both of those….

Comment. It gives me a reason not to clean my house.

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