I’m feeling a bit humbled by the world right now. Another mass shooting. Another potential war. Flooding out west. The challenges KHP and her relatives are facing. Weird weather changes (that are quickly becoming the norm) and the accompanying colds and aches that are rippling their way through my household, already reeling from the return to work, school, and training/sports regimens. We’re all getting on with it the best we can, but getting on with the stuff of life is frequently exhausting.
I thought I’d indulge in some comfort writing about food. All I want to do lately is sleep and eat. I can’t quite schedule enough sleeping time, so I’m concentrating on the eating. As I type, I am celebrating my “rest day” from training by cooking up a shrimp appetizer with Old Bay. An appetizer for a Thursday night meal, you ask? Why yes, of course. And bring on the red wine while you’re at it. (To be fair, it also happens to be my only date night with Newman this week, and we tend to live those up no matter what night they fall on.)
The writing prompt, should you want one, is to write about the foods that you grew up with. I’m going to try to create some good imagery with this one.
(Caveat: this is an unrevised freewrite. That shrimp is calling me.)
Mom has brought the big metal pot out and set it on the table on top of some dishtowels. I can see the steam and smell the meat sauce, round and rich in my nose. I can already taste the spaghetti, feel it slide down my throat following eager swallows of collapsing, dripping heaps of the stuff loaded on my fork. I can’t wait for my turn, and I’m anxious I won’t get enough. I always do, of course, because the pot is nearly full, and there is bread and salad as well. We salt our servings and stuff ourselves, washing it down with gulp after gulp of well water, crisp and cool in our plastic, color-coded cups. Soon my belly will start to feel full, and I can ease back in my chair, let go of the competitive edge we feel at the start of dinner. Pasta is one of my favorite meals. I like to hear the story my mother tells of when we visited Europe, me a toddler on her lap in the front seat, the oldest kids crowded three plus a little one in the seats behind, with two more little ones snuggled for good measure in the boot of our old Fiat. While in the car, everyone was allotted only the space for their body and one small pillowcase stuffed with clean underwear, one change of clothes, and socks. My mother–unaware–serving us sangria in Spain. Taping packets of pasta to the ceiling of the car on our way out of Italy. Whatever it took to feed our brood. The good stuff, too. No wonder I am hooked for life and will be satisfied eating pasta in endless variations but also plain, with butter and salt, or perhaps with sauce and a slice of bread, wrapped up in a happiness sandwich.
Potatoes are the other staple. We eat them almost every day, and they are always good. There is no way that potatoes could ever be bad, I think, properly mashed and with streams of hot yellow running through them–little butter lochs–or served with their peels so we get to slice and salt them ourselves, or creamy and peppery like our neighbor makes them. We get chicken alongside, hot roasted and gravied, or cold in a sandwich with (what else?) more butter and salt. There’s no such question as real vs. substitute–there is only butter and milk and bread–fresh, full, straight from a farm not too far away.
My mother cuts up tomatoes and cucumbers from the garden that we devour, as well as radishes and onions that no-one but she touches. Neighbors sometimes bring rhubarb, or we collect mushrooms, but these are not things we like to eat, really. At school we learn “ubh” means egg in Irish, and we see pictures of eggs in eggcups. I learn they are scooped out runny with a spoon, but this seems an English thing to me, something akin to boarding schools and horses that are for riding instead of working. Or perhaps it is for old farmers who read their papers while their wives serve them tea and eggs, their children grown and away or perhaps never born. Eggs are for inside baked food, more often, for us, although I know how they taste when drippy on toast.
My mother makes us sloppy joe on hamburger buns, endless grilled cheese sandwiches, homemade pizza on tray after tray going in and out of the oven. A roast cooks for hours, and you can smell it when it’s almost ready; you can picture the skin peeling back and turning its crispy head into itself until my mother opens the stove, cooling and calming it through basting. I love it when she lets me pull a bit of skin off and chew it before anyone else is even at the table. Fried chicken is for special visitors and there’s never enough, so you have to slow down and really taste each bite because it’s so good, crispy and greasy and juicy.
Food comes in regular doses of big, healthy, nourishing plates that fill us and settle us and calm us and rile us. We know nothing of diets or fads or exotic wares. A treat to us is eating out at the Highway restaurant because they have sugar cubes sitting in little cups on the table, perfect in their white paper packets glued tight, and mom lets us have two or three each while we wait for our french fries to be delivered.
Food is to be relished and enjoyed, sometimes all at once and in a rush and sometimes slowly, lazily, like a chocolate egg nibbled on after Easter mass while snuggled up on your mother’s lap. Food is to warm you in the morning before you get on the bus, hot cocoa with its cooling slimy milk that looks like snot hanging on the edges of the cup, making you gag as you quick pull up your tights and get your schoolbag together before the bus comes. Food is to gather around while the grownups sigh and sit for the first time all day and the teenagers argue and complain and tell stories you don’t understand. Food is sometimes to hoard and race to eat so you might get more. It is a way to know you are loved by a mother who doesn’t eat herself until we all have forks high and ready, swooping down on full plates. Food is something that grows and lives and makes its way to us through the swing and sweat of farmers and bloody shirts on butchers. Food is what takes hours and hours and hours and hours of my mother’s life behind the bar in the kitchen, its long wooden shelves and cabinets that my father built stretching at least twice the length of the Stanley stove and sink on the other side. There she slices, washes, pushes, prods, cleans and cuts and shakes and stirs. There she loves and lives and makes and feeds, kissing and shooing and listening and growing us as we run in and run out, asking when mom, when, when will it be ready?
Food is what goes in. Food is what we need and crave and take for granted, like air or water or fields or each other. It is only later, when we are older–when we learn what it means to decide on a meal, to shop, to cook, to feel the potato in your hand as you peel or the salt on a tomato that grew in your own garden–that we are amazed by it, that we are awed by it, that we understand how it can save us when we are humbled by the woes of the world.