Categories
food

Finally Full

“You sure eat a lot of fast food.”

Those eight words killed my appetite – punctured my excitement about dashing into the gas station to grab a couple of sliders at the attached White Castle.

Certainly, I knew how he felt. In the many letters and messages we’d exchanged during our courtship, he’d made it clear.

Yet. Those eight words, a casual observation made by the man I had been dating and was beginning to love, shrank me, a 31-year-old woman, into someone jittery, defensive, diminished.

Those eight words sniffed prissily at my history.

***

In 1982, for my 15th birthday, my dad gave me a 12-pack of Mello Yello. It was a thoughtful gift, one that indicated he understood the teenager lurking in the basement. To be presented with my own, private 12-pack of pop – something I never had to share with my siblings, something I could hoard in my bedroom closet – was a kind of power.

Dad didn’t use words much, but our shared meals, as recorded in my diary – pages of artless divulgences stashed in the same closet as the Mello-Yello – constituted warm communication.

Sometimes, to cap off a lethargic day, we’d drive in silence to Bonanza, the low-end, Old West-themed chain “steakhouse” where we’d order a prime rib dinner, maybe top sirloin, not for a special occasion but because it was Wednesday, no one wanted to cook, and we had coupons.

After ladling Ranch dressing onto iceberg lettuce at the salad bar and peeling the aluminum foil from baked potatoes, we’d return to our booth and sit in vinyl communion, relishing the paucity of demands on our energy and the fullness of our plates.  

***

She spent her youth plucking, pitting, and canning, but my mother never liked to cook. As a woman born in 1935, graduating college in the 1950s, marrying in the early 1960s, her lack of interest in the kitchen smelled of “radical feminist statement.”

She certainly didn’t intend it that way: she just didn’t like to cook.

Dutifully, she would make chicken noodle soup, a Sunday roast, “poor man’s” beef stroganoff, chocolate chip cookies. She loved more adventurous foods, but none of us understood the appeal of her mushrooms and asparagus. “More for me!” she’d puff, fishing around the can, trying to spear another limp spear or soppy button.

For my mom, the day-in-day-out call of the kitchen always chafed. Planning a nightly meal became even more thorny when she escaped into full-time work.

***

A crumpled Baby Ruth wrapper in hand, I opened the cabinet below the kitchen sink and dropped it into the trash. Rustling faintly, the wrapper unfurled inside an empty Campbell’s can. So that was the tantalizing smell permeating the house: pork chops slow cooking in Cream of Mushroom soup.

In the ‘80s, although my dad tried to catch up with the times, mastering a few crock pot meals and the occasional batch of chili, willingly scrubbing the pots and pans, his contributions were voluntary. Failure to plan a meal did not tarnish him.

It was my mother who was on the hook for getting food into her kids’ mouths – even when those kids were old enough to pitch in and figure out food for themselves. Yet, like our parents, we couldn’t be bothered to conceive of a plan that would cover the family. My sister and I might share a box of mac ‘n cheese; my brother would fry himself a couple hamburger patties. But tending to the common interest? Flattening ourselves, we refused the challenge.

***

In the early years, our family would head to McDonald’s after church on Sunday – a righteous reward. In our best clothes, we perched on plastic seats, the paper around our hamburgers crackling as we unfolded it. Carefully, I would scrape the rehydrated onions off the patty and offer them to my dad. After tipping our trays into the swinging mouths of the garbage bins, we’d take a minute to embrace the flame-haired Ronald McDonald on a bench outside.

A decade later, a teen trying to separate herself, already disenchanted with the ritual and community of church, I bypassed the worship and went straight to the reward.

***

Desperate to be liked, always desperate to be liked, I spent hours with my face pressed to mirrors – pursuing pimples, applying eye shadow, sucking in my stomach, admiring the star embroidered onto the pocket of my HASH jeans, angling the curling iron. Fancying that effort could result in popularity, I hit the halls of the school hoping that the height of my bangs would distract from the tenderness of my heart.

Too many days, I lay face down on my waterbed, smudging mascara tears into the pillowcase.

Tests saved me. Essays redeemed me. And when the report card came home – evidence that someone liked me – my mom and I celebrated the results by eating out. A musician, my dad had evening rehearsals. My sister found her place in the world through babysitting most nights. My brother refused to join in, noting that we didn’t have enough money to be eating out.

Saluting my achievement worked for a couple of us. As I plowed my way through a mountain of nachos, my mom sighed about her job as a church secretary. Dabbing at crumbs, she alternated bites of turkey sandwich with tidbits of despair about the pastor’s cruelty. To counterbalance her misery, we ordered the cheesecake.

***

My mother marched to the television and twisted the knob until the screen went dark. “It’s after 9 p.m., it’s a school night, and I don’t think that’s a good show for kids to be watching.”

Lazily, my brother unfolded his height from the plaid couch and skirted our mom’s form, still clad in the belted trench coat she wore to work. Leaning around her, he snapped the television back to life, explaining, “We watch this show every week. It’s called Charlie’s Angels. So what if they’re wearing bikinis. Don’t worry about it.”

Two, three, four, five nights a week, my parents weren’t home. Sometimes they’d swing by the house between work and the choir and handbell rehearsals that were their avocation. Providing music for several churches in town, they would often attend more than one rehearsal in a single evening. My father conducted, and my mother sang. When it came to bells, my mom would conduct, and my dad would ring. Creating music for communities of faith united them.

At the same time, we kids would be home, rattling around the kitchen looking for food, often hopping in the car to grab a single, no pickles, no tomato.

I thought I liked the independence.

***

My first car was a Pontiac, a boat of a thing that felt 40-feet long as it swayed across the asphalt. From the day I earned my license – passing the test even though the man scoring it stormed out of the passenger seat after my sixth attempt to parallel park, huffing “I can tell you’re never going to fit into that space!” – I packed the car with friends who, like me, were in search of an invisible something; we called it “fun.” Cruising The Point, hanging out the windows, whipping U-turns, grabbing Whoppers, trying to buy beer, our collective mobility assured us We Had Lives. And if we had lives, We Mattered.

I careened through my teen years, a lack of structure my sole purpose. Attending school, watching soap operas, winging around with friends, trying to fill the belly – the days were a spin of “Go here, go there, go back, go home, go get, find food.”

Direction came only when I turned a slow left towards the pick-up window after yelling at a stranger through an intercom.

***

Home alone on a Sunday morning, planted two feet from the television screen, sitting on the steamer trunk my grandmother had once taken to Europe, I watched State Fair. During the commercials, I raced to the vanity mirror in the bedroom and pulled my nightgown tightly around my hips, measuring my girth, assuring myself the reflection qualified as “hourglass.” Mostly, I was waiting for my mom to get home from the morning’s services. I was hungry.

Much of my parents’ identities was tied up in church. For years, we all attended the Presbyterian church together. Later, our family switched to a Lutheran congregation. A few years after that, my dad moved, seemingly on his own, to a different Lutheran church. Eventually, my mom followed. Collecting churches, they expanded the places where they made music, my mom driving one direction in her car, my dad the other way in his. Occasionally, they’d rendezvous in front of an altar.

By the time I hit fourteen, I knew: when I was sitting in a pew, leafing through the hymnal, sketching out a game of tic-tac-toe on the offering envelope, I floated in a grey limbo, feeding my spirit with something that felt artificial.

Preferring late nights and late mornings, I asserted myself. Outside of holidays, I didn’t want to go to church. This sent a tremor through my parents. Then, shrugging, they focused more hours on ringing and singing.

***

Uneasily, saliva pooling in my mouth, I stood at the Taco Bell counter next to my dad. If I ordered too much, he might comment on my weight. Hoping it made me smaller, I ordered one crunchy taco and a glass of water.

Perched on a hard, plastic seat, I bit through the shell, my teeth sliding easily through the sloppy fillings. The waxy cheese offered no resistance; the meat plopped onto the paper lining my tray. Deliberately, I pinched it, grasping at every possible bite.

Wadding the empty paper into a ball, I admitted, “That was so good. I could eat more of those.”

Dad’s eyebrows lifted; he was pleased by my appreciation of the food he’d provided. Expansively, he offered, “Well, then, let’s get you another one.”

The food waiting for us under warming lamps lubricated our squeaks, spared us from thinking, sidestepped the trick of a family meal. Unquestionably, going out to eat was a marker of celebration, ease, excitement, socializing, connection.

At the same time, without question, all that was going on inside our bodies – compromised nutrition, stuffing the holes with fries, never having a coordinated plan, lacking energy to make the effort, finding ways to never look each other in the eyes – reflected a festering dysfunction.

I thought we were okay. We were not okay.

***

“Bleeeech!” I spit the sour milk into the sink. I’d covered the Cheerios until they floated, priding myself on eating something before a hot fudge sundae at lunchtime, only to discover as spoon hit mouth that the milk had gone off.

When I was 15, my nose for rot was still developing. I’d given the carton a cursory sniff before tipping it into a full-on pour. It wasn’t until the cereal was fully saturated that I realized I was shoveling spoilage into my face.

It would take decades before I could perceive decay with any accuracy; decades before I could realize, with a quick whiff, that the milk in the fridge had expired; decades before I stopped trusting my well-being to artificial preservation; decades before chemical-laden food prepared by indifferent minimum-wage workers stopped being the safe choice.

***

Upstairs, the walls of my sister’s room were painted a sunny yellow; her curtains danced with flowers. The bright décor was deceptive. A more accurate reflection of our collective teenage mood was the basement, where my brother and I lounged in dark wood paneling, tucking our dirty dishes under the plaid couch, occasionally breaking dried clumps of sauce out of the industrial orange carpet.

It was good that my siblings’ bedrooms occupied separate floors, good that we rarely all sat down to a dinner, good to have distance between them. They didn’t much like each other.

Often, my mom ached for distance, too.

In the midst of the unhappiness, I locked the bathroom door and peeled lengths of toilet paper off the roll, mopping at my face. When I was done, I’d hold my hands under the faucet and splash cold water over my blotchy skin, mesmerized by the bubbles sliding down the drain.

***

Just before 5 p.m., my dormmates and I would line up outside the locked doors to the cafeteria. Uneasy with each other, strangers still, we’d stick to talk of movies, professors, friends back home. When, at last, the cafeteria doors swung open, our pack would move en masse into the huge, light-filled room, the group splintering as each of us hunted down the answer to a specific hunger.

At eighteen, echoing my mother’s yearnings, I left Montana and headed to Minnesota for college. I got away from it all. I got away from the crap. I was mean and spiteful and bitter, full of tears and a desire to be nicer. To everyone.

A boy named Tim always filled multiple glasses with milk and slathered a raft of peanut butter onto his plate. My roommate could be counted on to reach for the spaghetti while a girl from Wisconsin with an asymmetrical haircut reliably went for blueberry yogurt mixed with Grape Nuts. Most nights, Jeff from Michigan would finish most meals by dunking a tea bag into a mug of hot water. Accustomed to the challenge of figuring out my meals, I appreciated both the predictability and the choice – even though many of the entrees baffled me, stumping my beef-geared tastes. Eventually, I became a devotee of the salad bar, often topping off my meal with a bowl or two of Captain Crunch.

After a few minutes of individual wandering, seeking the security of other bodies, we’d converge at one of the long tables. No one had to spend time cooking chili cheese casserole for the group. None of us had to plan the menu. Unencumbered, we sparked with each other for hours, taking breaks to scoop cones of chocolate peanut butter ice cream, to toast a bagel, to refill a bowl with Lucky Charms, to watch Tim drink three more glasses of milk.

Leaving home offered me a novel experience: a nightly family meal.

***

“We’ll split a bread bowl salad,” my dad told the waitress at Perkins. A whole salad for each of them would have been too much. Plus, one was cheaper than two. When the bowl arrived, my mom scooted closer; her arms could only reach so far.

Alone in the house, the nest empty, my parents attended rehearsals, cast about for dinner, moved to a bigger place. My dad watched Jeopardy in his recliner; my mom crowed about the new bathroom that belonged to her, only her. One time, she put my father through a test without telling him: she refused to speak to him unless he initiated the conversation. They didn’t talk for three months. I doubt he noticed.

***

Traveling through Eastern Europe with my sister, flying to Iceland to camp with a friend, I lived for his letters. He’d written them before I left the country, handed over a well-kissed bundle of them, told me to open one each day while I was gone. Every evening, after riding a bus into Romania, marveling at the hard-boiled egg in my Polish borscht, swimming in a warm pool in Akureyri, I capped off the day’s novelty by slitting an envelope and easing his familiar voice out of the folds.

Infatuated, he contemplated the shape of our future. What would our days look like when we were together all the time? How could he be there for me? What would we eat? How would we celebrate life’s joys?

The morning after I returned from my trip, he proposed. A few months later, I married the man who wounded me when he noted that I ate too much fast food. Our years together propelled me into a slow-motion trust fall away from the shaky habits of my youth, urged a blind release into a solid landing. In falling, I discovered asparagus doesn’t come from a can, mushrooms can be transcendent, a wok heaped with bok choy is sizzling beauty.

***

After the birth of our first baby, we left her for a night with my parents. Having smiled at her and tickled her feet, Dad left. Later, without having told us she was already booked, Mom headed to a rehearsal, leaving the toddler with my brother. The next day, not interested in smashing a banana or spreading a handful of cereal onto her high chair tray, my mom and brother took her to McDonald’s, where they were amazed at the enthusiasm the diaper-clad towhead brought to dragging French fries through ketchup. It was amazing: our girl had never eaten processed sugar or deep-fried food before that familial initiation.

***

On the day my father opened the front door, not knowing he was being served, unaware his marriage was ending as it neared the 40-year mark, his eyes filled with an expansive view of the Pryor Mountains, 90 miles away. All he’d ever wanted, outside of a cheap sirloin at Bonanza, was the comfort of a yawning vista.

In the five months between their divorce and my father’s death, Dad spent a short period at an independent living home, a place where men were rare and valued. Surrounded by attentive women, no longer slipping around the edges of unexpressed anger, never having to plan ahead, he looked forward to mealtimes.

For my mom, craving demonstrated affection, the divorce freed her to seek out a new dynamic. Dating around, she moved in with a diabetic who loved Nut Goodies; later, she based a relationship with an unpleasant man on their mutual love of Diet Pepsi, no ice, slice of lemon.

Altogether, she stopped attending church. She was ready to buy her own cookies.

Eventually, Mom remarried. Her new husband, first unwilling and then unable to make himself a sandwich, sits in his chair, baptized by the glow of the television. Together, they watch Jeopardy. Eating out for them is not only a marker of celebration, ease, excitement, socializing, connection. It’s also that no one wants to be in charge of food; again, the responsibility falls to my mother. Fast food is the thing they do together, the reason for him to shower and get dressed. As his memory fades, there are two restaurants he still likes; her messages to us are peppered with the words “In-N-Out” and “Subway.” In this new marriage, life is completely different, yet nothing’s changed.

***

Disoriented by how foreign Turkey felt, our young family clung together. At seven and ten, the kids were still young enough to uproot for the wild hair of a sabbatical year abroad. So there we were: in Cappadocia, pacing our days with the Call to Prayer, wondering how headscarves related to politics. A trip to the hardware store required not only a dictionary but also a deep inhale. Even minor transactions were exhausting.

Then, one evening, at a party of expatriates teeming with wine and shouted introductions, I latched onto a Turkish woman named Eren, a woman who ran her own hotel in the next town, a woman willing to answer my myriad questions about the culture and history of the dusty region we’d decided to call home.

Several days later, Eren sent a car to our 400-year-old stone home. With typical Turkish hospitality, she had offered to give our family a cooking lesson at her hotel. Unused to the idea that a man would be a kitchen devotee, Eren spoke mostly to me, but it was my husband who tracked her instructions closely. I took notes. He asked questions, watched her hands. At the end of three hours, we sat down at a table outside to share the lesson’s yield: dolmas, leeks with carrots, bulgur, kofte, a dip of roasted eggplant.

The meal that afternoon lasted an hour, but the information stuck. Years later, six thousand miles from that hotel kitchen, I come home from a muddy trail run and find him smiling with anticipation as he rotates an eggplant over an open flame.  

***

“The closest thing I have to ‘faith’ is the way I feel about yeast.” An agnostic, my husband explores belief in the invisible each Sunday as he punches dough on the counter. His wedding ring rests on the windowsill, a witness, while his capable hands turn and thump the softness, the movements a conjuring. A calibration of heat, time, temperature, his loaves are hope made tangible.

On the radiator, covered by a towel, the dough rises. The kitchen is a mess, a visual cacophony of sticky bowls and wooden spoons. He wipes the counter, but when the moisture dries, chalky streaks smirk. His back-up crew, I wipe the green laminate again, this time with a paper towel; mournfully, I note that even the sides of the counters are coated with floury dust, that a third rubdown is in order. Worriedly, I remark that a drop-in visitor would flinch at the sty that is our kitchen.

“Mess is part of living life. All this flour everywhere means we’re doing it right,” the baker reminds me.

Later that night, when the house is dark and quiet, I stand in the kitchen, slicing a piece – then another – slathering butter, biting into the remnant warmth, feeling the crumbs dissolve on my tongue.

***

Slowly, the boy’s hand reaches towards the tv tray next to his bed. He is searching for relief, for painkillers, gum, something to swallow that will make him feel better.

Our thirteen-year-old just had his tonsils out. Limp, muffled-voiced, he winces with every swallow. Within a day of surgery, he refuses popsicles. They taste “too fake.” Although his stomach is hungry, little sounds appealing.

Except maybe homemade mac ‘n cheese, and if there’s some leftover pho broth in the freezer, he could sip a mug of that. Also, as long as I’m running downstairs, maybe he could tolerate a glass of the hibiscus Agua de Jamaica that Dad brews.

While the boy recovers, our girl is on a high school trip in Europe. In the days before her departure, she stacked clothes in her room, poured shampoo into tiny bottles, practiced using her ATM card. Feeling nostalgic in the fashion of a teenager leaving home for ten days, she requested a special pre-trip treat: Dad’s cinnamon rolls.

It’s beyond the sixteen-year-old’s scope, but sticky rolls are an integral part of her father’s history, something he made for himself when he lived alone, for roommates when he shared spaces, for friends when they helped him move, for his new girlfriend when she drove five hours north to visit. Setting out heaping platters is an extravagant statement of affection from an otherwise quiet man.

***

My stomach growls, and I heft ceramic plates out of the cupboard. A mountain of dirty dishes rests next to the sink. Next to the stove, a chopping knife lies atop a cutting board, still littered with stems. The mess can wait.

With the grace of passing years, I have arrived at an essential realization: happiness is authentic when someone’s hands have touched it, pressed a knife blade into the sinew, peeled back the surface, diced, tossed, grated the whole, exposing the hidden facets, baring the delicate subtleties.

Minutes later, I lift the fork to mouth, wrapping my lips around a complex bite. I am eating my husband’s questions about that week’s menu. I am eating the shopping list he made. I am eating his hours at the grocery store. I am eating the chopping he did before work, the frying he did after. I am eating the heat of the oven, our day’s debriefing, the intimate conversation we had while he stirred wooden spoon in skillet. I am eating my husband’s cells, sloughed off from his skin as he worked over our food.

With each rich, thought-filled bite, I am eating clean, healthy love.

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Categories
writing

Finally Full

Two years ago, after weeks — nae, months! — of work, I finished writing an essay, and I thought to myself, “This is my favorite thing I’ve ever written.”

So I started submitting it to various publications, hoping someone, somewhere, would like it, too. Would want to publish it. Would feel like my piece was a good fit for them.

Early on, the essay made it to the final round at a dream publication, but it ultimately didn’t make the cut.

For a while, I stopped submitting it anywhere. Then, I remembered how much I loved it and started sending it out again.

Last fall, after fifteen rejections, I got an email one night after teaching an evening class. There was this place. A literary journal. And they loved my essay about food that integrates bits of diary entries and snippets of letters. They wanted to publish it.

Guess what today is? Publication day.

It is with great excitement, then, that I shout, “Hey, guys, if you have a few minutes, maybe click over and read this thing! It’s been waiting for an audience for YEARS!”

Plus, maybe you need a feel-good moment. And while this essay might be about food, it’s actually a love story.

The full issue of Palaver can be read here, as a flipbook. My piece starts on page 89. 

Alternately, a .pdf of just my essay can be read here

———————————————

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Categories
travels

Po’ Boy

Chin merging into neck, the guy sharing our table is persistently friendly, hail-fellow-well-met-ing his way through the world. In what feels like a bold wardrobe choice for a white suburban middle-ager, he’s wearing orange — but then again so were clusters of people around us during the long wait to get into the Parkway Tavern, home of Louisiana’s best po’boys.

I understand the business of hustling towards and milling in a queue for a good sandwich, but the masses of orange confuse me. Has Pantone declared Goldfish Orange the Color of the Year for 2018, and I missed the announcement? It is January 1st, after all, and maybe a deep bow to Pantone’s proclamations is New Orleans’ tradition when the calendar changes.

But then — aha! — I remember: there’s a sportsing happening in The Big Easy on this first day of the new year, and one of the wide-shouldered teams brands its skills with orange. So all these hungry sandwich-seekers are fanpeople, lining their stomachs with gravy and fried pickles before the chest painting.

It’s fortunate my brain catches up, for the friendly man sharing our table unthinkingly trusts that everyone is dialed into his channel. As we all wait for our food, he floats a few chatty queries, notable for being more ice- than ground-breaking, before nodding at the man sitting across the table and divulging overly casually, “This is my dad. He played for Clemson. I travel with him to all the games.”

I don’t know what a Clemson is, but the sentence structure clues: a Clemson must be a school. Or a team. Or a delicious orange fruit. Even more, the broadcast of his father’s past indicates we should be impressed. Across the table, the eighty-something-year-old man is smiling and nodding as though he expects an enthusiastic acknowledgment, and since he seems sweet as a dented helmet, I try to convey something like “WOW, IS THAT SO?” without using actual words — because I don’t know which ones to use with regards to having done something that sounds vaguely notable for a school or a team or a fruit named Clemson.

In moments like this, where I feel pinned against grimy vinyl upholstery by someone’s assumption that we share language and values, I am tempted to respond in my own tongue: “Isn’t it affirming that Jesmyn Ward not only won the National Book Award for Sing, Unburied, Sing but also scored a MacArthur ‘genius grant’? Helluva year for a worthy author, right?”

It is not a fair bet in this country, however, to assume that a stranger would be a book reader and literary fanperson. Rather, all we can presume of the strangers among us is that they are conversant in Ball Sports, able to reel off scores and jersey numbers in between bites of sandwiches that could be tucked into armpits for a sprint to the end zone.

Such presumptions have, on more than one occasion, caused my husband — an honorary woman — to groan, “I don’t like men; they sidle up and think we’re going to connect by comparing notes on our favorite teams, but when I tell them I’m not into football or baseball or basketball, they do a kind of physical recoil and stutter a little bit. Then it gets quiet because they can’t think of anything else to talk about. MEN. UGH.”

Thus, it is shortly after the guy sharing our table has asked, “So if you’re from Minnesota, you guys must follow the Gophers?” that silence falls. I consider unleashing some tit-for-tat on him, thinking this would be a great moment to quiz him on his feelings about Jesmyn Ward, but the Parkway is a mad crush, and I worry that in the din he’ll hear “Quandon Christian” by mistake, and then I’ll end up paralyzing my facial muscles from “WOW, IS THAT SO?” overuse as our tablemate holds forth about linebackers. 

I opt, instead, to lean into Byron’s shoulder, put my mouth close to his head, and murmur: “So I don’t actually have anything to say, but to spare you from these painful conversational attempts while we wait for our food, I’m just going to keep talking intently and intensely into your ear here, okay? That way this nice guy won’t feel like he has to engage with us, and we can relax.”

Scratching his chin, Byron nods thoughtfully and responds loudly, “That’s a really good point. Tell me more.”

Patting his shoulder as though I’m talking him through a crisis, which, in a sense, I am, I continue. “So I’m super excited to have a big ole roast beef po’ boy with gravy on it, and the reviews said the fries are amazing, so I can’t wait to tuck into those, and isn’t it weird how we have to keep all those ceiling fans running in our Airbnb in order to keep the heat from rising, and I’m so glad we scored seats in this hopping joint. I thought we were going to end up outside in the cold, snarfing down our lunches. Also, I keep thinking our new friend here has a faux leather sectional couch in his rec room at home.” Making my eyes wide and sighing dramatically so as to communicate Important Words Being Said Over Here, I add, “I like how well organized this place is; they are very efficient in terms of getting people in, feeding them well, and then getting them out. I also really like that they use a microphone to call out the orders that are ready rather than just hollering, don’t you?”

Tipping his head from side to side to indicate “weighing a thought,” Byron slowly responds, “Yes, microphones are nice.”

Fortunately, the friendly guy sharing our table has managed to snag eyes with a couple passersby and, in this fashion, create for himself the feeling of community that our family is unable to provide. As nonsense waterfalls out of my mouth into my husband’s ear, we hear the guy in orange excitedly ally with other customers, using words like “game” and “ball” and “game” plus “game.” But for the grace of tight space, we would be watching an exchange of high fives.

In the midst of my murmuring, it occurs to me I have an actual thing to say to Byron. “Okay, so about the Gophers. I mean, when he asked us, it genuinely took me a second to realize he didn’t mean burrowing rodents. But when I realized people usually don’t talk about vermin while in a restaurant, I did cop to ‘Hey, this is sports talk,’ but even then I realized I didn’t know what he was talking about. Soooo. The Gophers. Is that what all the UMD teams are called? I can’t remember.”

Here’s a beautiful thing: after 19 years together, I can still surprise my husband.

He knows I’m often six steps behind public knowledge, but still. He would have guessed I would know who the Gophers are. 

I meant to know. My ears had heard of sportsing Gophers. But they hadn’t seen any reason to file the information into the brain, so one ear let it in, and the other ear ushered it out, thus leaving more memory storage available for details about what Rhianna wore to the Met Gala.

Smiling, Byron explains, “No, the Gophers are the U of M in the Cities. The UMD teams are the Bulldogs.”

Clearly, one of us reads the newspaper, and it’s not me.

“Oh, hey, that’s right! I might have known that, actually. We know so many people who go to hockey, um, hockey clashes — derbies? — that I do get an image in my head of toothless men on skates when I hear the word ‘bulldog.’ Well, anyhow, I had no idea what Dude Over There was talking about when he asked us about the Gophers. I was so glad you were able to tell him we don’t follow ball rodeos because I had no idea how to answer him.”

As we chuckle over my sports aphasia, I lean into his shoulder. He squeezes my thigh. 

Our moment of quiet communion provides opportunity; the friendly guy in orange can’t keep himself from small talk. It’s an impulse, this search for quick moments of compatibility. If we have something in common, we establish ourselves as together and somehow stronger. For a sports fan like the man in orange, this means we at the table have an opportunity to come together as a team, if only he can coach the right moves out of us. So he tries again. “Have y’all eaten here before? We haven’t. Are you first-timers, too?”

And even though this poor, lovely man was unfortunate to have plopped down at the table of standpat individualists, we let him score. 

Squaring my shoulders, facing the challenge, I enter the field. “No, we’ve never been here before. Did you read about it in a guide book? That’s where we learned about it — said it’s the best place in New Orleans to get a po’boy, so we figured we better give it a try. How’d you hear about it?”

The question makes him happy. It gets lonely with just Dad sometimes. But now we all have each other. It’s a relief.

As is the moment when the harried cook behind the counter pulls down the microphone and calls out, “Order for John.”

 

 

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Categories
Potlucks

Competitive Potlucking: Promotion

The beauty of social media is that it can not only be used to issue invitations to a party, it can also be used to remind invitees of the upcoming event. The hosts can occasionally post a little tidbit to the event page, attempting to wring one or two more responses from the semi-responsive guest list.

Let me put a finer point on this: has anyone else notice that the RSVP is dead?

I bemoaned this death years ago, back when we were throwing birthday parties for our kids and wondering how many of their friends would actually be showing up for the bowling, or the crafting, or the tubing. It was kind of a half-annoyed process of “We have to pay per head, and the invitation asked for an RSVP, and so now I have to call you up on the phone and chase this information down?” Fortunately, at least with the easy-response system built into Facebook, there are quite a few folks who do indicate if they will be able to attend or not. You know, like 20%.

At any rate, as we closed in on the evening of our Nostalgia Potluck, I enjoyed tossing the occasional post onto the event page, both to remind folks of the event but also because I find the intertwining of food and memory to be endlessly fascinating.

Thus, a few weeks after the invitation first went out, I reminded potential guests:

Two weeks left to mine your memories and identify those foods that are lodged deep within your hearts. Or, y’know, stop by the Holiday gas station for a pack of Twinkies. Whatever works.

The most iconic food/memory association in literature was written by Marcel Proust in his Remembrance of Things Past. Dude could hang some words together, so let’s be glad he and I had a falling out some years ago. He won’t be at the potluck; due to his absence, the rest of us actually stand a chance at winning the “story” prize.

“…one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’ which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory–this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it?”

Madeleines
Photo Credit: https://flic.kr/p/9kJ2ct

————

A week or so after that, I posted:

As a shout-out to Halloween fears of the 1970s, I’m currently thinking I might make apples with razor blades in them as my potluck offering. You’ll vote for me, right?

Go ahead and fill out your ballot using blood from your tongue instead of a pen.

Apple
Photo Credit: https://flic.kr/p/29L8Fo

————–

The day before the party, I recalled:

A few years into marriage, I learned even more about Byron’s family. Showing up for a Christmas family gathering, I stood, stunned, as Byron’s grandma and aunt bustled around the kitchen, preparing the entree.

It was to be HAM PATTIES.

As often also happens when I’m in the classroom, I had a moment of paralysis, thinking, “I don’t even know what’s going on here.”

Sliding out of the kitchen and into the basement, Byron and I had one of our patented tete-a-tetes, wherein he explains the world to me. I hissed, “What in the hell is a ham patty?”

“We had it off and on at family gatherings when I was growing up. Basically, you buy a ham and then ask the butcher to grind it up.”

I heard his words, but I didn’t understand. I had to use “hell” a second time. “Why in the hell would you grind up a perfectly good ham and then make PATTIES out of it?”

“It’s war-time cooking, really, a way to extend the meat by grinding it and then adding things like bread crumbs to it. So it makes sense in times when food is short.”

Bemused, I wondered, “Does your grandma know the war is over? Or should I go upstairs and complain about FDR and the shortage of nylon stockings?”

Grandma Johnson DID know the war was over; however, she continued to make ham patties for special occasions because, for her, WWII had–to be honest–been the time of her life. She met and married her pilot husband; she served proudly in the WACS; she started her family. For the rest of her life, she adored the music, stories, and fashion of WWII above all others. And, yea, the food too.

I like to think that if she were still alive, Grandma Johnson (“Call me G-Gma!) would bring a platter of ham patties to tomorrow’s potluck.

———

Later that day–really pummeling the invite list–I added:

Reasons to bother yourself and get the hell over here tomorrow night:

Byron hung lights and planted torches;

there’s a black bear working the neighborhood these last few days. Yesterday, it was exactly where Byron just hung lights and planted torches, and how is it not fun to protect potluck food from marauding wildlife?

Such tales are the stuff of legend, I say!

lights

————

Finally, the morning of the potluck, I tantalized those few who hadn’t yet unfriended me on Facebook:

Gift baskets and cards for tonight’s winners. This shizz is gettin’ serious, people.

Baskets

————

Yea, I know you’re wondering what’s wrapped up in those baskets.

To find out, read my next post. We’re getting there, Gentle Readers. I’m giving you time here to make your offering for the party.

Get crackin’ on opening up those cans of beans, slicing that Spam, and weeping (shoulders shaking with emotion) over how much you miss your grandma. Or, more specifically, since she was kind of a crabby grump, how you miss her blueberry pie. Chicken noodle soup. Chestnut stuffing.

Dumplings.

Creamy pearl onions.

Lemon squares.

Squirrel stew.

Her Christmas specialty:

Roasted Raccoon
Photo Credit: http://www.midcenturymenu.com/2009/11/mid-century-menu-pineapple-hamettes/

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dad

Belle of the Bell

It was a square room. The dishwasher lived on wheels and rolled to the sink, where it was hooked up to the faucet when enough mugs and cereal bowls had accumulated. Hanging at the entrance to the dining room was a swinging door–usually propped open, unless there was company for whom the sight of cooking might be jarring, at which times it was closed to protect their delicate sensibilities. Separating the bustle of food preparation from the living room, where my dad regularly gave voice lessons while we stirred the chili, was a set of wooden, slatted doors, the kind Deputy Sheriff Festus had to push through to enter the saloon on Gunsmoke. The floor, the design of which had my mom on her hands and knees periodically, scraping gunk out of the grey channels with a knife, was Of Its Time:

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This was the kitchen in my childhood home, the heart of my youth.

In the kitchen we had:

  • skim milk and Dr. Pepper
  • grandmother-produced applesauce in Mason jars and factory-canned mushrooms
  • iceberg lettuce offered in small wooden bowls as our dinner vegetable, a smattering of carrot medallions like lily pads across the top, and a box of Rocky Road ice cream in the freezer
  • homemade noodles–rolled out on the counter, whimsically formed into all the letters of the alphabet before they were tossed into boiling chicken stock–and Dolly Madison pies featuring Peanuts characters

Peppermint
https://c2.staticflickr.com/2/1116/5163021514_45d8190485_z.jpg

Skidding back and forth on this continuum, ponging between “good food” (skim milk, Grandma’s applesauce, iceberg lettuce, homemade noodles) and “bad food” (Dr. Pepper, canned mushrooms, Rocky Road, Dolly Madison pies), was my adolescent self perception.

I wanted to be thinner, smaller, granted space in the world by taking up less of it. But I was bigger, thicker than my friends, diminished for taking up more space.

I was enough in the realm of normal not to be “fat.”

I was enough bigger than normal to be called “fat.”

I knew what I wished to be: someone who met with approval–from friends to boys to parents–but I knew, thanks to my reflection in a can of Dr. Pepper, that I wasn’t entirely approval worthy.

A bad day was when boys on the school bus mooed at me.

A good day was when the world played along with my hopeful sense of self and refrained from commentary.

An even better day was when some small gesture or group of words granted me a feeling of No Need to Worry–when the world was my Jewish mother, urging me to “eat more,” rather than a WASPy one in a crisp oxford shirt who deliberately averted her eyes–a stricken whisper of inhaled breath when I tucked my shirt into my jeans and revealed the curve of my belly.

The very best day was one when my dad and I stopped at Taco Bell.

It was a glamorous place, one rarely visited. For some reason it was just the two of us that day, as though all the other contestants in life’s rich pageant had been eliminated, and we two finalists were the only ones left huddled on the stage, sharing a spotlight, wiping our smudged mascara, gripping each other’s hands as lifelines.

Standing at the counter, we contemplated our choices. Wanting to be budget conscious, wanting him to know I wasn’t overweight because clearly I didn’t eat too much, I ordered a single crunchy taco. He, budget conscious, having battled weight himself, ordered two.

He grabbed the plastic tray from the counter while I found some napkins, and we chose our seats in the dining area. Save for us, it was empty.

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https://c3.staticflickr.com/7/6194/6156363845_71eab377b7.jpg

Two of us. Three tacos.

The silence was broken by crinkling as we unwrapped our meals.

I was so hungry.

The heft of the taco in my hand was satisfying, like one of my mom’s jars of Avon face cream. It was warm, like the heating pad I put under my head when my ear ached. It was a damn face-cream-heating-pad miracle, this taco.

Tipping my head to the left, I bit into the narrow end of the shell. Three drops of juice ran out of the meat and punctuated my bite as they tap, tap, tapped onto the parchment paper.

Crunching, I put my face close and examined the perfect waxiness of the shredded cheddar, the familiar sprinkle of iceberg. Every ingredient was a wonder of perfection.

As I watched the curls of cheese melting slightly on the warm meat, I heard the plink of my dad’s taco drippings hitting the tray.

Tipping my head again, I took a huge bite. Another. One more.

Then it was gone.

Dad continued to crunch. Across the laminate table, listening to him chew, I was inexplicably happy to be sharing crunches and drips with my dad–his sweetness always clearest when no one else was around. I wanted it to continue.

Being eleven meant my body was a constantly changing terrain, and my friendships were a lasagna of petulance layered over love tucked under resentment dusted with competition. My grades were good, but during gym class the bully, a popular blonde boy, would whisk close to me and mutter “You’re so lame. Next time, you better kick the ball better, or I’m going to kick you where the sun don’t shine.” At home, in the neighborhood, I would discover I was bleeding, run inside to put on a new pad, and head back outside to play Cops & Robbers on bikes with the next-door neighbor, a girl a year younger who rode bra-less and shirtless up and down the boulevard on her ten-speed. At age eleven, I was fine except not.

Plink, plink, plink.

Forever, if I could, I wanted to sit in that all-but-empty Taco Bell dining room, the safest place I’d been in years, and share the sounds of a meal with someone whose shadow protected me.

“That was so good,” I ventured, teetering on a wire of fear that he would respond with a warning that we needed to be careful about how much we ate.

But this was the father who heard my smallest comments. He had heard me say, one time, “I sure love chocolate milk.” After that, sometimes a half-gallon would show up on the top shelf of the fridge, next to the skim.

Another time, I noted, “That lemon chiffon yogurt is the only flavor I’ve ever liked,” and a half dozen small containers appeared, crowding the container of chili leftovers.

My dad was a man who would drive five miles across town to save $.18 per pound on ground beef–and laugh self-deprecatingly at his compulsion to do so–and he would go to any lengths to seek out a symbol that he’d registered an offhand comment. Always, he absorbed my words without judging my hips. Always, he showed me love by hearing me.

At the Taco Bell that day, impressed–not appalled–by the way I’d shoved that taco down my throat in four bites, he smiled, enjoying my appetite, lighting the room from napkin dispenser to trash bin.

“Well, then, how about another?” he asked.

$.59 and four bites later, we gathered our plastic tray, tipped our crumpled papers through the swinging mouth of the garbage. I kept my half-drunk cup of water, clicking the straw between my front teeth as we walked together across the blackness of the parking lot, feeling the sun on my face,

the fullness of unconditional love in my stomach.

——————————-

 

 

 

The inspiration for this post came from a piece that appeared in the Life in Chains series on Eater.com. The one that ran there is a vastly superior essay, but I nodded the whole time I read it, thinking, “I had something much like this in my life.” You can read that excellent essay here: “Finding Home at Taco Bell.”

It is hella good, so I’m almost afraid you’ll go read it, for mine suffers in comparison.

Also, my friend Brooke, the person who shared the Life in Chains essay with me, wrote her take on “fast food family memories” which was then posted on a blog called Well Fed, Flat Broke. You can read Brooke’s post here: “The Golden Days.”

In return, Emily of Well Fed, Flat Broke wrote a post that appeared on Brooke’s blog, Miss Teen USSR. Emily’s take on family life and Dairy Queen can be read here: “Dairy Queen.”

 

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