a food memoir

Communion in the church is partaking of a tiny piece of stale cracker, broken off from a larger piece. Everyone eats together, this represents Jesus’s body. We eat together, we understand together, we live life together. Food, people, Jesus, forgiveness, it’s all wrapped up in that one ceremony which teaches us -by consummation- who we are and where we are going. Food is a teacher .  it has taken me a long time to realize it’s not about the food, but what the food symbolizes in life. Food is a vessel, the vehicle, the teacher. the food teaches us about Jesus, Jesus teaches us about God, God teaches us love.

It all started at birth. My mother was a Baptist then. I was the only child she nursed of three daughters. I was the only child she prayed for when she thought that God shut had her womb. A miracle baby , set apart by seven longs years, from my older sisters. As a breast fed baby,  food became a social engagement for me, a love language from the heavens.  Being breastfeeding was the first reminder that I am slightly distinct. It proved true. I was the first to graduate high school in the traditional way and now the only one in therapy.

The first food I hated was ice cream sandwiches. They were cold like our stepfather, imitation chocolate cookies – filled with empty calories. What kid hates ice cream, you might ask? Someone who grows up to be thrillingly op positional to the status quo. My mother had left the Baptist church by that time and had started to speak in tongues with the Pentecostals. Most of the time we were hungry, but at least we were filled with the Holy Spirit.  Man shall not live on bread alone.

The first food I loved was my grandmothers “welsh rabbit”. We would get home from church and Mim would pull everything out of the refrigerator. She would spread it all out, like yard sale items on the counter and begin to create lunch. She would lay two crispy pieces of white toast on my plate and pour warm, white gravy with little “rare bits” of ham, onto my toast. We always recited the Lord’s Prayer before our meal. Unfortunately Mim died before she could write down the recipe for me , I haven’t had it since then. At least i still have the Lord’s prayer.

I hated milk products from an early age. My mother said after I weaned – I refused to take a bottle. I would throw my bottle at the door in protest-she gave up.  I just couldn’t except anything but the truth. I hated milk frozen between two imitation chocolate cookies, I hated it tall and white with dinner, and I hated it in a bottle, but apparently I loved it warm and creamy with ‘rabbits’.

There was this one negative experience I had with milk which sealed my feelings forever. On the weekends, when I visited Dad, I was forced to drink milk with supper.  I was told it was “good for developing strong bones” or something that seemed like nonsense. I could just barely get it down with “strawberry” syrup. I would sometimes have the “chocolate” syrup. To this day I can taste the awfulness of not enough chocolate to mask the taste. The worst part was, I had to choke it down, while staring at a single long, straight hair protruding from the large mole of a Vietnamese man named Bow. Bow was sweet and kind and he lived with my Dad. Dad took Bow, his student, in when Bow was homeless.  I could never stop staring at his soft, chocolate- colored mole while I drank my room temperature milk. That hair tortured me for years, I would try to position myself at the table so I didn’t have to look at it, but the table was round, and he liked to sit across from me. It changed how I felt towards milk forever.I never believed Dad knew Jesus the way we did. Dad grew up Catholic, but didn’t go to church. Like many Catholics,  church was for kids, since all Catholics are active members until the age of 18. My Dad assured me that he was going to heaven, but Mom had her doubts. I drank my milk until I was 18 and then I  was free.

I was raised on the 1980’s American diet. By the time we left my mother’s second husband, we were occasional church goers and the food we ate was occasionally healthy.   It seems to me, that Christianity has no rich food culture, so we settled on  packaged food.  Oscar Meyer bologna, Chips Ahoy, hostess Cupcakes, Prego and  Prince Elbow’s. We had Raisin Bran,  Land O Lakes and huge bags of carrots and potatoes because what the hell was cheaper than carrots and potatoes? The only meat I remember Mom cooking was ground beef, in the form of shepherd’s pie, meatloaf, or “Chinese food”. Tuna casserole was an occasional two night special. Oyster stew consisted of: canned oysters, milk, butter, salt and pepper. Canned foods were staples in our kitchen, salmon (yes it comes in a can)  buttered egg noodles, beets and Campbell’s soup.
On holi-days,    we ate Turkey  with mom’s homeade stuffing- her signature dish: fried onions with bacon and Bells stuffing.  She would stir in milk, cup after cup until the stuffing resembled a soft white schmaltzy consistency.  Lamb on Easter -its because of Jesus. I guess it reminded us of his death, and then communion, but not with bread, even though he is the bread of life and the Lamb of God, and he did tell us to eat his body. I’m not really sure. but Easter was Holier than thanksgiving. We did not eat Jesus on Christmas.
My first “chef” experience, was with Ramen noodles. I added fresh vegetables and called it gourmet.
As I grew older and more aware of my surroundings, I began to notice how trustworthy food could be.  I worked in a nursing home kitchen where discovering food was practically a requirement.  Early in life, tuna was little more than a stench in my nostrils , but at work it was manna from heaven. Ham salad, chicken salad, vegetable soups, tomato soup with grilled cheese sandwiches, hot dogs, baked beans with warm corn bread, a thick turkey slice, mashed potatoes and perfect round little scoop of cranberry sauce on the side and topped with gravy. these were all on a menu rotation. I found myself goo goo for the elder’s food.  I fell in love with familiar, expected and anticipated. i became acutely aware of certain smells, colors and tastes, i came to rely on them, because i knew they would always taste the same, i trusted the food to nourish me, and to satisfy my cravings. Pouched eggs with buttery toast, sliced cantaloupe and stewed tomatoes were among the regular items. I learned to like them all.   I was eating food that i wasn’t “old enough” to eat, but was hungry enough to eat, sort of like the things i was learning in chapel at the private christian school i attended.  There i learned the importance of  presentation- the nursing home kitchen that is.
After my second nursing home job, I  went to work at a steakhouse, waiting tables. There I discovered the joy of meat. It all started with the teriyaki steak tips, sweet and tangy, served beside a heap of rice pilaf. I learned how to eat at the Big Smokey Valley Steakhouse. I would start my shift with a bowl of warm chili and end with baby back ribs, or a quarter pound burger with real beef, onions lettuce and tomatoes-to go. I developed some tastes. I worked there for one year after getting booted from college for several reasons. I was learning other things too. How to read my bible, how to drink, how to see the world from my own perspective, how to be me. Before Big Smokey, food was something we needed to survive, we ate what we could find; we ate to live. Big Smokey corrupted my taste buds by teaching me that eating could be an enjoyable past time.  I learned food could be a source of great pleasure and desire. In other words I learned about sin, but i also learned ironically that food can also be sacred. This was around the time I was acutely aware that the first act in the garden was linked to food. People wouldn’t just steal and kill for it, they worshiped it.

It was my husband and I together who discovered lobster and portobella mushroom pizza, and oh the guilt and condemnation of rebellion which comes with maturity. With him I felt a type of food courage. He came from a Spam and little Debbie’s food family , slightly less religious than mine. the truth was we were both desperate to get out from under our parents cabinets. Together we tried sushi and loved it , spicy Japanese kimchi, Mexican burritos with loads of cilantro, Thai food with peanuts and fresh basil, wild salmon baked with rosemary and whole grain mustard, real grass fed beef, expensive cheeses like brie and gouda, and wines that made us look, well …happy. We learned that even things that don’t seem to go well together actually do like watermelon and feta cheese, or lobster and mushrooms on pizza, or even a christian and an atheist.

Shortly before I got married Mom became a Rabbi and my Rabbi. I unofficially converted to Judaism. I immersed myself, even though i had been baptized at 9. At this point mom took the bacon out of her stuffing recipe. My choices became limited and my tastes more distinguished. I learned about self-control, discipline and limiting myself. I learned about family and tradition from the Jews. I eliminated pork and shellfish per Moses’ order, providentially I hadn’t discovered the joy of seafood until becoming a baptist again. Every Saturday after Shul there was an oneg, at our house. At this time I learned about pot luck , briskets, baked chicken,  vegetable lasagna, casseroles, breads, cheeses, and baked ziti,  tzikki, guacamole, foods of adult quality. I also learned about fellowship, something that had been as foreign as policy to me.  Within that fellowship everything grew, my taste buds ,  my faith, my knowledge of the bible, and at some point my belly when i got pregnant.  During Holy days I learned about a whole different culture of food. A culture which made sense to me. At Passover there were bitter herbs, and parsley, matzah ball soup and cheroset; during Rosh Hashanah we ate loads of honey, and on Shabbat , challah. During the feast of dedication it was everything oily,  and on Yom kippur, nothing at all . Everything meant something,  the bitterness represented slavery , the fasting repentance. Food began to melt together indistinctly with my faith. Once again i found myself savoring the body of Christ. There were connections between what I put into my mouth and why. I wasn’t just eating for survival, and i wasn’t just eating out of sinful pleasure and gluttony, i was eating in obedience in order to understand. and when your careful what goes into your mouth, your a lot more aware of what comes out.

after having children, everything changes again. Food, suddenly to your 3 year old becomes an arch enemy, you think he’ll grow out of it, but when at 14 your still pleading with him to “try a bite”, you realize wow, i guess he has his own ideas about food, maybe i should back off. He wont’ starve that’s what the pedi said.  My faith has grown beyond anything that could fit into my fridge. My friends they mostly have shrunk down like a really lovely, reduction sauce.  I look up recipes and i make bread, and i cook for the people i love,  because i know that God feeds me, why shouldn’t i feed others. We can never ever be separated from food as long as life exists on earth, it is a teacher, a mentor, part of us.

Food has taught me over the course of living that life and faith is in constant motion waiting to be created and recreated and consumed every day, it takes on new forms and flavors depending on what it’s mixed with and that’s ok.

Food has helped me make meaning out of my world : bread is always better when shared with others, like tiny bits and pieces of stale bread, manna in various tones, broken off and dispersed in different seasons, making a bigger picture, a fuller understanding of who I am and giving me a place in the universe no matter how small.

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