June 21, 2010
And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for…the next Inviting Writing theme! In celebration of summer, we’re focusing on a simple pleasure that we hope everyone has experienced at least once: Picnics.
The rules are simple: Tell us a true story that somehow relates to that theme (and food, of course), and e-mail it to FoodandThink@gmail.com with “Inviting Writing: Picnics” in the subject line. We’ll pick three of the best, lightly edit them and publish them over the next few Mondays here on the blog. For more guidance, please read this and peruse last month’s stories about “fear and food.”
I’ll start the party by telling you about a particular picnic I remember…
A Picnic for the Fourth of…January?
Northerners know the peculiar illness well. It often infects a household after the holidays have come and gone, leaving a wake of wrapping paper, pine needles and chores. Faced with the grim promise of three or four more months of cold, snow and slush that will keep them largely cooped up indoors, folks can go a little crazy. It’s called “cabin fever.”
My mom must have had a bad case of it one midwinter afternoon when I was about thirteen years old. I don’t remember the exact date, but I think it was sometime in January. My friend Kristen had come over, and we were hanging out upstairs in my room, when my mother called up to us.
“Find some shorts and T-shirts to put on, and come downstairs, girls!” she hollered in her I’m-up-to-something-fun tone of voice.
We rolled our eyes, being teenagers, but were curious enough to play along. I retrieved some cut-off jean shorts and T-shirts from deep in the dresser drawers, and we even found some flip-flops and sunhats in the closet. (I’m embarrassed to remember this, but I think we also tucked our oversized shirts into those glittery plastic T-shirt slides. Hey, it was the early ’90s.)
In the living room, we discovered a fire roaring in the potbelly stove. My mother had spread a checkered cloth over the carpet in front of it, and laid out a full-fledged picnic, complete with the basket, paper plates and plastic cups, and she’d festooned the room with small American flags and other red, white and blue decorations.
“It’s the Fourth of July!” she declared. “And it’s a hot one, isn’t it?”
The funny thing is, I don’t remember what we actually ate. Probably hot dogs or hamburgers that my mom surreptitiously prepared in the kitchen, and some grapes or other out-of-season fresh fruit she’d splurged on at the supermarket. I think there were cans of soda, chips and ice cream sandwiches.
But the real joy was the picnic itself, an act of defiance in the face of winter. We giggled as we complained about our “sunburns,” pretended to find ants in the carpet, and blasted cassette tapes from our boom box. It reminded me of other outdoor meals my mother had orchestrated through the years, from fried eggs cooked on campstoves to elaborate birthday-party picnics at the beach by Lake Champlain. Just the word “picnic” sounded playful and bright.
From our ground-level seats, we couldn’t see any snow outside the windows. Maybe it really was summer?
I think that’s when my father walked in from shoveling the driveway, stamping his boots and shaking his gloves and hat to dry them.
“Cabin fever, eh?” he remarked, chuckling.
(Interestingly, according to food historian Kathryn McGowan’s blog, the first picnics were held indoors. Guess my mom’s idea wasn’t so crazy after all!)
June 14, 2010
Our last writer remembered always dreading dinner at her intimidating grandfather’s house. Christine Grogan, on the other hand, had no reason to fear dining at her sweet old grandmother’s house…until one particular afternoon.
By Christine Grogan
One of the great pleasures of visiting my grandmother was sitting at her kitchen table and eating her home-baked pastries, cookies and cakes. One of twelve children who were raised on a dairy farm by immigrant Finnish parents, she learned to cook and bake at home. The kitchen was her domain, and on its wall a folk-art plaque—“No matter where I serve my guests, it seems they like my kitchen best”—declared the pride she took in her food.
When I was ten years old, I visited her after school one day, expecting to have an hour or two to visit with her before my father came to pick me up. I took a place at the kitchen table, and she brought forth an assortment of baked goods and reached into the refrigerator to retrieve a chilled pitcher filled with a red-colored beverage. I was already enjoying a cookie when she urged me, “Have some Kool-Aid. It’s really good. I added poison berry juice to it.”
I paused for a moment, thinking that I must have misheard her. “What did you put in the Kool-Aid?”
“Poison berry juice.”
She pushed a glass toward me. Something had to be wrong. I couldn’t be hearing correctly.
“What did you say?”
She repeated it, and I was stunned. My grandmother, always such a gentle person, couldn’t have put poison in the Kool-Aid. Even so, I told her I didn’t want anything to drink.
“You must try some,” she insisted.
I sat silently, scrambling mentally to find some explanation as she said the words one more time. Poison berry juice—there was no mistaking it.
I managed to choke out another refusal, but the situation had become a standoff. My grandmother wasn’t taking no for an answer, and all attention was focused on that glass.
Did she not understand the meaning of the word poison? That was impossible.
“Try it. It’s good. I made it especially for you.”
Especially for me? My grandmother’s kitchen, once so familiar and comforting, had warped into a sinister place where guests were poisoned. My grandmother, once so kind and loving, had apparently descended into madness.
When had this happened? Had anyone noticed that she was losing her mind? Why had she chosen me as her victim? Would anyone figure out what she had done to me? Would she kill more people before anyone realized she had gone over the edge?
I couldn’t speak, and my grandmother wasn’t talking either. She just stared at me—quizzically at first and then, as the showdown continued, with some irritation visible on her face.
She pushed the glass closer to me. “You must try some.”
Terrorized as I was, I began to think that I risked losing my life in some other way if I continued to refuse to drink. What if she realized that I knew she was trying to kill me? We were alone in the house. I couldn’t risk enraging her. I couldn’t let on that I was afraid.
The glass was under my nose, and she continued to insist that I drink. I took a sip, wondering how long it would take before I would lose consciousness. Maybe if I drank very little, the poison wouldn’t kill me. But she urged me to drink more, and I took another sip. Where was my father? When would she be satisfied? I watched the clock, and the minutes ticked by. My grandmother was silent, and I was too frightened to speak.
I began to have some hope that whatever she had put in the Kool-Aid was a slow-acting poison. Maybe my father would arrive with enough time to get me to a hospital. Maybe I would live to warn others about her insanity. I envisioned her being led by a doctor and guards down a dimly-lit hallway, disappearing forever into an insane asylum.
More than an hour passed and then, finally, my father arrived. As soon as we left the house, I told him that he had to take me to the hospital immediately so that I could get my stomach pumped, explaining that Grandma had insisted that I drink Kool-Aid with poison berry juice.
My dad started laughing. It was several minutes before he was able to gain enough control to explain what I had never noticed before—that native speakers of Finnish always pronounce the letter ‘b’ as if it were ‘p’.
And that was the day I drank Kool-Aid with boysenberry juice.
June 7, 2010
Today’s Inviting Writing essay on the topic of “fear and food” comes all the way from Singapore, where reader Melody Tan is based. We appreciated her vivid, insightful storytelling, and think you will, too.
Dinner With My Grandfather
By Melody Tan
For as long as I can remember, my family has spent Saturday evenings at my paternal grandparents’ home, an old walk-up apartment that boasts peeling paint and cracked concrete walls. It’s a rare sight in Singapore, one of the few rundown buildings not yet demolished and replaced by a whitewashed new condominium.
Saturday evenings at my grandparents’ place consist of two key events: dinner, and television watching afterward. My grandmother still cooks the dinner by herself, a traditional Teochew Chinese meal featuring at least four dishes, a soup or curry, and steamed white rice. In the kitchen, next to the rice cooker, is a teapot full of heavily sweetened hot English tea for anyone who wants a cup.
It all sounds admirably homely, but with six middle-aged children and ten grandchildren squeezed in the cramped dining room, Saturday night dinners are more apt to recall a frantic assembly line: people taking turns to eat at the undersized round table, loud calls for more soup to be ladled into the communal bowl, conversation kept to a bare minimum in favour of scarfing down rice as quickly as possible.
Us grandkids never wanted to sit next to my grandfather, a formidable presence in his tattered white singlet and blue pinstriped boxers, still a big man even in his old age. He had a habit of glaring silently at you while you ate, somehow managing to convey a powerful disapproval tinged with disappointment over his bowl of rice.
Is it the way I handle my chopsticks? I used to wonder nervously. Did I eat too many meatballs? Or too few? It’s because I’m a girl, isn’t it?
My older cousins, all male, managed to keep eating throughout this bloodshot scrutiny, but I invariably lost my appetite five minutes in. I couldn’t ask my grandfather what he was thinking while he glared at me; we didn’t speak the same languages. Occasionally he grunted at me in the living room, which was about as close as he might get to acknowledging my existence beyond the dinner table.
Throughout my childhood, the terrifying ritual of Saturday dinners with my grandparents continued. I would slink to the table reluctantly, and pray my father wouldn’t tell me to sit next to my grandfather. Once ensconced in the dreaded seat, I kept my eyes down and nibbled on dry white rice, too frightened to reach out with my chopsticks for a stir-fried mushroom or one of my grandmother’s golden, eggy prawn fritters.
Sometimes my grandfather would place food in my bowl. To a picky child, these occasions were the height of terror. He always gave me something that was “good for you”—according to my parents—but was the equivalent of Fear Factor to my white-bread tastebuds. Shreds of black fungus, steamed cabbage with preserved shrimp, a gamy slice of braised duck. Under the watchful eyes of the adults, I whispered “thank you” and choked each offering down, too afraid to protest and risk a scolding.
This fear of my grandfather kept me at a distance from him for years. He was so forbidding, so uncommunicative and remote, like a mountain range no one was foolish enough to climb. Later on, when I had grown up and conquered my fear of the man and his unfamiliar food items, the distance remained. We had nothing in common beyond shared genes. He liked American pro wrestling and nature documentaries featuring sharks and lions. I liked Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons, the concepts of which were difficult to explain in Teochew. He continued to glare at me during mealtimes, but I nonchalantly ignored him and helped myself to seconds.
Then one evening I sat down at the table earlier than usual and was repulsed by the sight of my grandfather feeding my cousin’s year-old daughter. I had never seen my grandfather engage in any form of child-rearing before. It was a stomach-churning sight. First he pincered up a bit of steamed fish with his chopsticks, placed it into his mouth and chewed, carefully extracting the fine silver bones with his fingers. Then he extricated the grey mush and fed it to his great-grandchild, placing it onto her tongue delicately with his fingertips.
“Gross!” I whined to my mother, in the car on the way home. “He chewed it first!”
She seemed amused. “Don’t you know he did it for you too? When you were a baby, he fed you fish the same way. You ate it without complaining.”
Stunned into silence, I stared out of the car window, watching the buildings and streetlights go past. My grandfather had fed me, moving food from his mouth to mine, like a baby bird and its mother. Not even my parents had done that. It was disturbingly intimate, and I was unable to believe that we had once been so close.
The car stopped at a traffic light, and I remembered how gentle my grandfather had been with the baby, the way he gingerly placed the chewed fish into her mouth, in case she should choke. One part of me was still shocked, unable to get over the Animal Planet nature of what I had seen. The other part of me thought: Maybe we do have something in common after all.
May 17, 2010
Welcome to the second installment of Inviting Writing, our new monthly storytelling feature where we welcome food-related submissions from readers. In case you missed the first set, here’s how it works: We give you a writing prompt—last month’s was “manners”—and then Amanda or I will share a story that relates to both food and the theme of the month. If the prompt brings to mind a true tale from your own life, send it to FoodAndThink@gmail.com with “Inviting Writing” in the subject line. Be sure to include your full name (feel free to include a link if you have your own blog or website). We’ll post the best ones on the blog on subsequent Mondays.
These stories can be funny, sad, strange or just interesting, as long as they’re true and have to do with both food and the theme, however you interpret it.
This month’s prompt is “Fear.” I’ll start it off, then it’s your turn!
When people talk about childhood comfort foods, they often mention macaroni and cheese or fresh-baked chocolate cookies—what Mom would dish up when they were feeling blue or sick or scared. The love that went into it was as important as the food itself.
Not me. During what may have been the scariest period of my young (and admittedly sheltered) life, the food that gave me solace came in a styrofoam clamshell container, not-so-lovingly prepared by a minimum-wage worker: it was an Egg McMuffin.
The year was 1978, and I was in the middle of first grade. My family had just moved from a small community in a semi-rural suburb of Philadelphia to the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles. Until that point I had loved school. My new one, however, was a far cry from the gentle, nurturing place I had come from, where the teacher had spoken in soothing tones and the harshest thing to happen on the playground was getting caught in a game of “London Bridge Is Falling Down.”
My new teacher was a gruff New Yorker who raised her voice frequently—even, to my horror, at eager-to-please little me! Scarier still were the other children—streetwise girls who talked tough and shoved each other around. My only “friend” was a girl who joined in bullying me whenever her other playmate was around, digging their nails into my arms to try to make me cry.
Everything was unfamiliar; on the first day in my new class, the “caf monitor” came around to collect “caf money.” Having no idea that this was short for cafeteria, I missed my chance to purchase lunch and went without.
Not surprisingly, I often tried to get out of going to school. Every morning I tried to persuade my mother that I was sick. I wasn’t exactly lying; I’m sure my anxiety about going to school caused me to feel queasy. Though my mother sympathized, she couldn’t allow me to be a first-grade dropout.
So she did the only thing that seemed to work: she bribed me.
If I went to school, she’d say, we could stop at McDonald’s for breakfast on the way. For reasons that are hard for me to fathom now, something about the combination of a puck-shaped fried egg, Canadian bacon and American cheese oozing out of an English muffin was impossible for me to resist. It was even worth enduring a day of school for. Maybe it was because McDonald’s was familiar from my former home, or because it felt like something special between just my mother and I (my older brother took the bus). Whatever the reason, it worked.
Fortunately, this little deal we negotiated didn’t lead me down the path of childhood obesity or interfere with my education. At the end of the school year, my family moved again, this time to a place with less intimidating schools. I once again became a model student, eager to go to class without having to stop at a drive-thru on the way.