October 24, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked for stories about food and reconciliation—reconciliation with a food or a loved one, or even a food-related failure of reconciliation. Today’s story comes from Kelly Robinson, a freelance writer for Mental Floss, Curve and other magazines, and the author of an earlier Inviting Writing essay about addiction to Tab. She blogs about books and writing at Book Dirt, and can tell you without equivocation that she didn’t do it.
The Case of the Criminal Lunch Meat
By Kelly Robinson
I read nostalgic food memoirs with a skeptical eye, especially the ones that are sweet as cotton candy unicorns. They’re true, I suppose, but the Norman Rockwell-esque scenes just don’t jibe with some of the most memorable moments at table with my family.
Sure, we had our share of dinnertime jollies—my toddler sister eating mountains of chicken livers because she was told they were chocolate cake, for example—but they’re so easily eclipsed by images of things like my Aunt Nancy in a white nightgown, covered from top to bottom with blood-red beet juice. I’ve never seen Carrie in its entirety. I don’t need to.
There’s also my other sister, who spilled her drink at something like 3,057 consecutive dinners, giving our mother fits that left no tooth ungnashed. Our mother seethed just as much when we had guests one night and the lid to the butter dish was removed to reveal the Twisted Sister logo my metalhead brother had carved there.
And then there was the incident of the gritloaf, which I’ve promised my mother never to speak of again.
The real family drama, though, the one that surpasses even metal bands in the butter or horror movie nightgowns, involves a single slice of bologna. It was 1979. My sister, brother and I were anticipating our mother’s arrival home, and for once, we scrambled to make sure things were in order: no plastic bags tied to the cat, no stray Weebles on the floor. We were neatly lined up on the couch, wondering what stunt Yogi Kudu would pull next on “That’s Incredible!”
Mom walked in, surveyed the room slowly, then stopped suddenly and screeched: Who put the bologna on the wall?!
And there was, indeed, a single slice of bologna, red plastic ring outlining its shiny meat circle, adhered to the wall, slightly above and to the right of the television set. The denials came in rapid fire, and once the interrogation was well underway it was clear that none of us seemed to have done it. None of us admitted it, anyway.
I don’t recall the actual punishment. I may have blocked some it out of my mind, but I know it was severe. I’m sure we were grounded for life plus twenty years and cut off of Little Debbie snack cakes. We probably didn’t get to watch “That’s Incredible!” that night, either.
The bologna game of whodunit still rages today, and it rages hard. We’re now entering our fourth decade of pointing fingers and making accusations. You’d think someone would be mature enough to cop to it, but no one has ever cracked, and whoever it was, the other two of us didn’t witness the deed.
The feud still rages, yes, but the more time passes, the more the feud bonds us rather than divides us. We’re parents of children who have moved out of state or joined the Army. We work in very different fields. We sometimes go months without seeing or talking to each other. But, come holiday time, when we’re all in one room for what might be the only time until next year, there is no conversation so awkward or silence so deep that it can’t be completely turned around with the question, “So who really put the bologna on the wall?”
I fume. I didn’t even like the smell of bologna, I insist. My sister points the finger at my brother, who is my prime suspect this year. He thinks it was me, and that my dislike of lunch meat smell is a lifelong cover story.
It might seem odd by some family’s standards, but it’s how we communicate, and there’s comfort in knowing that’s how we always will.
I’ve always wondered if a deathbed confession might be what it would take to ultimately solve the mystery, but it hardly matters. In fact, it’s far more likely that one of us would slowly wheeze and cough out last words from the hospital bed and say, “I-i-i-i-i-t wasn’t m-e-e-e-e-e-e-e.”
The only proper response from the rest of us would be, “We love you too.”
September 26, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing series, we asked for stories about food and independence: your decisions about what, how or where you eat; the first meal you cooked; or about how you eat to the beat of a different drummer. Debra Kelly and her husband have taken food independence to an extreme: They have lived on 23 remote acres in California since 1978, experimenting with solar energy and eating organic, home-grown food. And sometimes fighting for it.
Confronting a Nemesis
By Debra Kelly
I live on a remote mountaintop. A four-wheel-drive kind of place. Living here requires independent thinking and action. In this place are deep canyons and heavy forests of redwood, oak, pine and madrone, crisscrossed with old logging trails and overgrown with brush. Our homestead is a solitary retreat. It is modest and handmade. We travel along eight miles of pitted, potholed and curvy dirt road—like a stream bed in some parts—until we reach pavement. In this setting, independent people and food grow and thrive.
Living far from a town makes you self-reliant. We planted a garden and fruit trees to supplement our diet. We were well on our way to a nice harvest of veggies, and our fruit trees were still young and fragile, when we noticed ominous signs on the ground. A presence pressing in on us. It ravaged and stalked our homestead in the middle of the night. It peeled the limbs off our young fruit trees, like you would peel a banana. It tore a path of destruction through our place like a rototiller without a driver. It was wily and fast afoot. It has tusks it could use if it were challenged. Although this independent food is prized by famous chefs around the globe, it was my nemesis. It was the wild pig.
Wild pigs began roaming the mountains in increasing numbers. One pair was so bold that they dared saunter up on our deck at night! Our St. Bernard lay silent as a lamb as they approached him. I heard a noise and looked out the window to see one pig at his head and one pig at his tail. He was afraid. I stoically said to my husband, “the pigs gotta go.”
We hatched a plan. We knew their habits. The problem was that their hearing was so acute. They could hear our footfalls inside the cabin, which would send them running into the darkness and safety of the woods. How then would we be able to shoot them? They would hear us get out of bed, climb down the ladder from the loft, get the gun and open the door. SIMPLE. We decided to shoot them without leaving our bed!
Yes, it was a master plan by masterminds….
Our bed was a mattress on the floor of a loft. It faced a picture window flanked by two smaller opening windows. We would leave one window open, just to slide the barrel of the gun out of it, as we lay on our bellies, ever watchful. My role would be to hold a powerful flashlight and turn it on the pigs below. My husband would finish them off. We’d have a luau and a boatload of meat for a season! We pledged to stay awake. It would be a piece of cake.
Midnight passed—no pigs. One in the morning passed—no pigs. I yawned and said, “this will be the only night they fail to come.” More time passed and we fall fast asleep. Then it happened. I awoke abruptly to the sound of a snort and a rustling below. I carefully, gently, shook my husband awake. He rolled into position and gave me the signal to turn on the flashlight. So I did. All hell broke loose, in an instant. Instead of the light piercing the darkness below, it bounced off the picture window glass, reflecting back at us, our own image. In a split second, my husband let loose both barrels, out of the window to the ground below. A short squeal resulted and they thundered off into the forest. At that moment, with the sound of the blast reverberating off the walls and ceiling of our small cabin, my heart pounded like a Ginger Baker drum solo. We looked outside to find no blood, and no pigs anywhere. Our master plan thwarted. We missed. The food got away!
September 19, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing series, we asked for stories about food and independence: your decisions about what, how or where you eat; the first meal you cooked—or ordered in—after moving out of the house; or about how you eat to the beat of a different drummer.
Our first story is about the thrill of illicit food. Nikki Gardner is a writer and photographer who lives in Williamsburg, Massachusetts. She blogs about art, food and stories at Art and Lemons.
A Mission for Candy
By Nikki Gardner
After years 7 years of living under my mother’s strict sugar-free household rules, I couldn’t take it anymore. It wouldn’t be far off to say that I kind of freaked out. My mission, which I bestowed upon myself, was to sample as much sugar as my stomach and allowance allowed.
My younger sister and I were allowed an occasional doughnut before a special Sunday church outing, a piece of birthday cake, or ice cream scoop. But there was a red line between candy and me: it was NOT allowed.
I remember clearly the ride home from school that day. I rode up to the stoplight, smiled and waved at the crossing guards, and made it through two crosswalks. Then I stopped. Parked my bike outside the Burger Dairy, which was another mile or so from our new neighborhood. The fluorescent lights flickered inside. One wall was dedicated to butter, bread, cheese, eggs and milk. Staples we often stopped for between trips to the grocery store. This was my first time there alone. The woman behind the cash register sized me up. We both knew I wasn’t in it for the milk that day.
She wore one of those black hairnets and snap-up white jackets like the lunch ladies at school. I was nervous and broke from her stare and busied myself with the business at hand. The coins in my pocket jangled recklessly, ready to be laid out on the counter. In a moment of haste, I pulled out 30 cents or so and quickly did the math. Thirty cents could get me a box of Lemonheads or Boston Baked Beans, a cherry Blow pop, a Fireball, and 2 pieces of Bazooka comic gum.
The cashier popped and cracked the small pink stash of gum in her mouth. She seemed as old as dust to me and she was all business. We were alone in the store and the small bubbles she blew between her coffee-stained teeth echoed in there.
I slid my money toward her. She wore black cat eye glasses. I noticed her eyes go squinty and small, like dots made with a ballpoint pen. I wasn’t sure what she would do. Rough me up a little about spending my college fund or give me some wisecrack about ending up like her one day, which seemed pretty okay to me.
“That it, sweetheart?”
A few gum cracks later, I walked out of there clutching my candy stash. I went back a number of times and it wasn’t until I developed a few cavities that I came clean, well not totally clean, but eating less candy anyway. So I switched to the fast food burger joint and replaced one restriction with another. But that’s another story.
September 6, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing series, we expected some horror stories about cafeteria culture. Instead, writers have shared largely positive memories: learning social customs in the United States, creating an open-air lunch spot in Kolkata and today, a civilized taste of socialized shrimp in Luxembourg. Helene Paquin lives in Toronto and blogs about books at the CrackSpineDrinkWine book club. Her twitter handle is @CrackSpineBkClb
Cafeteria Culture? It’s Not All Bad
By Helene Paquin
Business travel can be taxing. The time spent at airports instead of at home with family. The challenges of inventory control as you’re living out of a carry-on for a week. The unfair reality that the Earth rotates around the sun and therefore you will be jet lagged. It’s not all negative, however. Business travel does provide an opportunity to visit places that you wouldn’t likely visit on your own. In my case it was Luxembourg, not exactly on my bucket list of must-see. I’d been asked to attend a week of meetings, and having no real choice in the matter, my answer was, “Oui, I shall go.”
After managing five hours of sleep on the flight, I take a taxi to Luxembourg’s second largest town, Esch. As the taxi pulls up in front of the headquarters I’m struck by the architecture of the building. A giant stack of red plastic building blocks in the shape of a V greets me. In contrast, next door is what appears to be a dilapidated steel plant facing foreclosure. I hand over 75 euros and in my best French I manage to squeak, “Merçi, au revoir” to my driver. I’m determined to use my native language while I’m here despite my Quebecois accent.
The morning meeting goes well and I’m invited to have lunch in the cafeteria. Flashes of high school flood my memory bank: long lines, steel trays steaming with the bland daily special, the refrigerated cases with slide windows to reach a chocolate pudding. Frankly I’m a bit horrified and do not have the best poker face. My peers immediately start explaining: The district is being developed and has no restaurants in the immediate area for dining. The office has planned for this and a subsidized cafeteria has been built for the employees. Apparently it’s the law for companies to do this. I fake a smile and we head to the second floor.
The elevator opens and I’m greeted with a display table featuring the season’s offerings. Giant white asparagus tied with string on a silver platter lie below vases filled with spectacular flower arrangements. A rectangular blackboard lists today’s menu choices written in white chalk. Employees pour in and say hello to each other as they swipe their employee cards. I ask about the cards thinking I may need one to order my lunch. I’m informed that employees swipe their card to prove that they have taken a lunch break. If an employee doesn’t swipe, his or her manager receives an email indicating the staff might be overworked. Again this is the law. The labor codes want to ensure health and wellness by encouraging breaks, eating meals and socializing. In my office we eat lunch at our desks while answering phones and typing emails.
There are five lines divided by meal types: grill, pasta, pizza, daily special and salad. I head to the shortest and quickly the chef asks what I would like. On my first day of travel I keep it simple: pasta with tomato sauce. “Voulez-vous des langoustines?” I grin widely. Why, yes, I would like subsidized shrimp on my pasta. He makes the sauce from scratch in a saucepan right in front of me. No bastions of steel trays filled with food that’s been sitting there for 3 hours. Everything is fresh. I look over at the others and it’s the same everywhere. The pizzas are made to order, so are the salads. This is unlike any cafeteria I’ve ever seen. Everyone looks happy, standing in line, talking to each other.
I’m handed my dish and head over to the fridges. There’s wine and beer! How civilized! I’d love to grab a red wine but my North American employment policy says not to. I make a mental note that I need to see about getting a transfer when I get back. The desserts are works of art. The shelves reveal crème caramels with slivers of chocolate on top, chocolate éclairs with fresh custard and what looks like a lemon cake. Want a coffee with that? Enter some coins in the espresso maker and a freshly brewed cup magically appears. I see my colleagues and join them at the cashier. She tallies my order: three euros. This is the best cafeteria ever! I sit at a table and stare at the trays filled with treasures from the kitchen. I’m overwhelmed and realize how grateful I am to be here among people who care so much about food and quality of life. I raise my water glass, “Bon appétit everyone!”
August 29, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked for stories about cafeteria culture: the sights, smells, rituals and survival tactics of shared mealtime. This week’s entry takes us a long way from American middle schools. Somali Roy, a freelance writer living in Singapore who last wrote for Food & Think about her mother-in-law’s kitchen, takes us to lunch in Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta).
A Wildlife Cafeteria
By Somali Roy
As I squint to proofread the fine lines of advertising copy on my computer screen, a message box pops up: “Lunch?” I look through the glass wall at Jatish, who gives me the perfunctory nod and ambles towards the cafeteria with his stainless steel lunchbox. I scoot off to catch up.
On our way, we grab Seema, our third lunch-mate, and settle down at our standard spot. When the lunch boxes open and the captive smells of mixed spices and herbs waft through the air, bellies grumble and roar here and there. People waiting to buy lunch shift their gaze sheepishly.
The food in our lunch boxes differentiated us, in a way nothing else did. Jatish, being Gujrati, mostly brought thepla, a spicy, whole wheat flatbread accompanied by some chutney. Seema, a Punjabi, had split peas or kidney beans in red curry sauce with paratha. And I, a Bengali plus a sloth, did not bring any regional specialties to the table except some drab looking sandwiches. When Anoop Nair, a strict vegetarian Brahmin from Kerala, cared to join us, we formed a mini India around the table.
This was the routine for the two years I worked in a newly built four-story multiplex in Kolkata. Designed by one of the most prominent architects of the country, this swanky building with its transparent glass façade, English speaking service staff, plush movie theaters and other modern trappings, was surely bulldozing a good number of old and rusty single-screens but was seen as a welcome change by the city’s young, educated, bourgeois crowd that represented the modern and developing Kolkata, a crowded metropolis in east India.
All was good except that the building lacked a cafeteria for its employees. While moviegoers happily stuffed their faces with popcorn, soft drinks and other goodies, we employees had to fend for ourselves. Much to my dislike, I began carrying lunch to office, which was packed by our maid, who was not exactly known for her cooking skills. I joined the petition for a cafeteria soon after examining my lunch box one day: a burned sandwich that had gone soggy from mushy fruits on the side.
Our plea was sanctioned, but until the cafeteria was built in line with the design and decor of the rest of the building, a makeshift arrangement took shape on the terrace. Four poles were lodged at the four corners, and a musty, threadbare cloth was mounted as a cover. A much-needed coffee machine appeared, a dozen white plastic chairs and tables hop-scotched across the floor and a temporary cooking area was set up at the far end with necessary accoutrements.
As most employees were local, the lunch menu was typically Bengali, with little or no variation to the permanent rice, lentils and spicy fish curry, much to the disappointment of others. Though a purebred Bengali, I too denounced the menu—rice makes me soporific, especially in the afternoons, and fish isn’t a favorite. Looking at the bright side, I am glad I escaped being mocked as “Fishy Bong,” as the fish-eating Bengalis were dubbed.
If I had to advertise this facility, I would have touted it as “lunching amid nature and wildlife.” Crows, sparrows and cats that pecked at leftovers or begged for food often greeted us with their cawing and purring. When the cloth ceiling leaked at places during monsoons, we huddled together around dry spots. On scorching summer afternoons we gobbled everything in seconds and rushed into air-conditioning, and dust storms made us take shelter behind a semi-constructed brick wall.
Yet we came, every single day, climbing two flights of stairs, crossing over half a dozen pipes and passing by loud and trembling generators to have our lunch, talk about our day, complain about the system, lament over the workload, gossip about the latest love affairs. This transient, tent-like cafeteria was tacky, morbid, far from the real deal but we went there because it added color to our plain vanilla workdays.