Friday, October 15, 2010

to wake up: same story told a different way

Dear Reader, don't you already know everything about me? I rewrite, rewrite, rewrite and it all must seem terribly repetitive. 

On the other hand, I like the odd twists I find in all the variations of the same story. So. Here you go.

If I grew up half-asleep to food, it’s because I grew up half-asleep to all my senses. I possessed no means to comprehend subtlety of flavor or construction of food. We opened cans. We ate in quantity. We liked our foods packaged, so the results were the same every time. Sloppy Joes, Hamburger Helper, Campbell’s Tomato.

I remember the first whiff of basil, age 25, still one of the most miraculous scents on earth. I remember the first taste of asparagus, age 20. I remember the first fresh bagel when my school drama team produced Fiddler on the Roof. Tabouli, that marvel of lemon and garlic and mint and bulgar—I asked the waitstaff, “but what IS it, in this dish?” French onion soup, amazing. The first cheese I liked, age 22, backpacking in Tennessee and just starving for protein. Smoked mozzerella, heaven.

Where had I been all my life?

The answer is quite simple: I’d been in my home on a side street of Farmland, Indiana. The food we ate was the food everybody ate, food from the television commercials, processed foods designed to make people’s lives so much easier. None of it was much better or worse than anything else. In a beautiful little town of tree-lined streets and quirky people, we lived by eating what the television told us. The television told us things all the time, and so it was always on at my house, and the constant noise level droned, a constant level of activity throbbed, a lack of quiet, a lack of social skills, a television-induced haze. No activity was much better or worse than anything else.

One Sunday a month my extended family of aunts and uncles would meet for a giant noonday meal at my grandmother’s house, fried chicken and mashed potatoes and gravy, peas in cream sauce, or chicken and homemade noodles and apple pie. Grownups would eat until the meal required recovery; clean-up would require hours, practically until dark. No television could be watched unless there was a very good reason. It’s not that we didn’t notice the qualitative difference between the food in grandma’s kitchen and the foods in our own—we’d practically wrestle over the rights to certain precious leftovers. But no kid expected her own mother to produce such ambrosia: that’s what grandmothers did. That’s why grandma’s meals were special. She didn’t eat foods from boxes or cans. But then, she was retired, and she lived alone, and she obviously prepared for hours, which is something no mother could really do. Not really.

When I left home I went directly to college, where the food was different but not necessarily better. Nothing was much better or worse than anything else.

After my freshman year of college I took a summer job in the Colorado Rockies. My boyfriend taught me to forage for blueberries and salad greens. My roommate crafted vegetarian Dagwoods for me, introducing me to avocado, sprouted grains, hummus. I met adventurers who questioned everything about why we wear what we wear, why we live how we live, why we eat what we eat. I took a course on backpacking cooking, where I discovered a recipe for Wheat Thin crackers, and it occurred to me that every food in a box was developed from some recipe devised by some person in a kitchen. Even the local restaurants featured their own blends of iced tea. Without a television indicating what was “normal” food, I made the break from my sleepy world: some person in a kitchen could make Wheat Thin crackers, and that could be me. I was no cook, but I loved to experiment. I’d find whole wheat flour somewhere. That could be me.

When I returned home to my mother’s house I tried the experiment: homemade crackers are utterly delicious, almost precious, and not much harder to bake than cookies. I returned to college, with a jar for alfalfa sprouts and a keen determination to eat more whole foods. To eat whole foods, one must commit to curiosity. Still years away from my own kitchen, the curiosity arose.

What did I wake up to? Thinking back, I woke up to the great experiment that is eating, first, and I woke to the oddity and wonder of how food is crafted, what kinds of lives people live in their kitchens. I still thought my grandmother’s skills were untouchable—she cooked without measurement, by texture and scent, and those skills cannot be easily taught. But I possessed the recipe for homemade Wheat Thins, and if that recipe could be mastered, who knew what else I could learn? If blueberries really can be found, for free, under the leaves of low shrubs in July, and stonecrop makes an excellent salad, and honeysuckle nectar can be sipped, what else does the world hold for the person with eyes to see and ears to hear?

I woke up to the world, to every good thing. I woke up to myself.


Ann Kroeker said...

I love this. I see bits that were woven into your essay for The Spirit of Food, but I also see you looking at your food journey from a different angle and tossing in a slightly different memory here and there, like shaking in a different spice from the spice rack, to see how it works with the other ingredients.

My grandmother cooked a lot like yours, and my mother, a working mother before it was common, depended on (and appreciated) convenience and prepared foods. She still is often the first to pick up the latest snack product marketed by Frito-Lay. So though I ate homemade noodles at Grandma's house, it took me many years to learn to prepare real food.

I can confirm your observation that "to eat whole foods, one must commit to curiosity." In high school, I tried to bake whole wheat bread without any instruction. Every effort was flat and brick-like, but I ate the loaves anyway, each slice slathered with jam. Curiosity kept me trying.

I also love your conclusion, "I woke up to the world, to every good thing. I woke up to myself."

This is so much like my journey, too, though I am still on it (and far behind you). In fact, curious and open, I think I'm still waking up a little every day.

L.L. Barkat said...

I really related to you when reading this in its refined form (in the book). Gee, Denise, you even used the word "seedlings" in your essay.

Yes, I fell in love with you all over again. :) (And that, my dear, is a reference to a question you asked me on an airplane, now years ago :)

Laura said...

This is gorgeous. I can relate to that sleepy world you describe growing up in. But my roots were different. We started out eating fresh and homemade. Beautiful canned goods in the winter. But when my parents divorced (which happened to be about the time a young girl begins to learn her way around the kitchen), all that was lost. Enter the world of the pop-tart.

I am still on that journey of discovery and you are such an inspiration, Denise. Thank you for sharing these parts of your story with us. What a gift you give to the recovering processed food junkie ;).

Jennifer @ Getting Down With Jesus said...


This is so, so good. I enjoyed your thoughtful essay in The Spirit of Food, and now this adds even more depth to it.

Reading about your grandmother and her noodles and those long Sunday dinners and 'til-dark cleanup ... all of that reminded me of my own childhood.

I have Granny T's noodle recipe, written in her loopy cursive. My sister has finally mastered the art, but I can't get it right. Not even close. But even in the experimenting, I am being awakened, too.

Denise said...

I found my own noodle recipe-- something close to the recipe in The Enchanted Broccoli Forest. But with a food processor! Thank you all for coming by!

Denise said...

And dear L.L.Barkat-- what did I say? Was it that good, that you should remember it over years? Hmmm.