Remembering Food …

I grew up in a family that was not sophisticated about food. We were not sophisticated about many things … the red Nash Rambler with Bible verses painted on both sides, our clothing from neighborhood rummage sales, our house on the north end of town … and our food. I trace our relationship to food to my grandmothers. My mother’s mother, Grandma Williams, was a grim woman. It is telling that I don’t recall her first name. And I have no “food memories” of her and though we visited often, they were short painful visits for a child. I even had meals in her home, but it is like trying to recall invisible food. Grandma Jenkins, Gladys, on the other hand, brings a flood of food memories … home-made flour noodles and roast beef gravy, orange or lime Jello and Cool Whip for the times I was sick, and the back porch filled with large popcorn tins, left over from the heyday of Mom Jenkins Popcorn Wagon. I was very partial to the caramel corn.

I got the impression that my mother learned to cook from her mother-in-law and not her mother. I know for a fact that my father insisted that his mother teach his wife how to make the wide flour noodles that were a staple in his childhood and mine. She never quite got the hang of it and abandoned hope of replicating them.

There was a rhythm and schedule to food in our family. Sunday was always fried chicken and it was always delayed, because my mother would be caught up in watching football on television. Monday was meatloaf. Tuesday was fish, halibut to be exact. Wednesday was macaroni goulash. What was Thursday? Friday was steak. Saturday was hamburgers from Arctic Circle. I’m sure there were occasional reprieves from this schedule, but it amazes me that I can recreate it now, with the exception of Thursday.

My mother made excellent fried chicken and excellent potato salad. I know of almost no one that makes potato salad with chopped sweet pickle. However, my mother was partial to the taste of charcoal; she would burn her toast on purpose.  Meatloaf always had ketchup atop a mound of hamburger. Everything had lots of onions and no shortage of salt.

Sophistication would slip into our food lives every so often. My sister would come home from college and make green beans from a can with Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup. We would stop at a restaurant in Pendleton called Gunther’s and I would discover the joy of sour cream on a baked potato with coarse black pepper. There was the one night my father made me butterscotch pudding from scratch.  We always had clam chowder on Christmas Eve.

We lived close to poverty. The family across the street had hamburger gravy almost every night or a fried egg sandwich with pepper and ketchup. The Mormon family that lived closer to the river had eleven children, but would always ask me to stay for supper if I was around. I don’t recall the flavors, only the quantities.

Some things didn’t require sophistication … fresh corn on the cob with butter and pepper, rhubarb broken off from the stalk and immediately dipped in sugar … eating homemade butterscotch pudding with my father at 11:00 PM.

There is a power to our memories of food. November 22, 1963, I stayed home from school because I was sick. I liked school and did not make excuses to stay at home. At noon that November day my mother instructed me to fry a piece of baloney for a sandwich. I expressed frustration that the slice of baloney was making a bubble in the pan. My mother came and stood by my side and made a slit in the frying baloney from the edge to the center, “Now it will lay flat.” She returned to the living room to watch her soap opera, As the World Turns. From the kitchen I heard the earnest newscaster say, “We interrupt today’s program with a special news bulletin from Dallas, Texas …” I ate a fried baloney sandwich and slowly learned that the world was unraveling.

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. Dan Cook says

    Very moving piece of writing. Another reason I feel sorry for those who simply eat to live. Food is so much more than something to convert to energy.

  2. Joan says

    The story was great – and only the first of what will be many I hope that are shared here. Your memories shone very clear through your words so we could share them with you.

    What makes this special to me is you are the only other person I’ve found who has had a fried bologna sandwich!

  3. Hudson says

    This is totally great. I think quite a few people around have not been brought up to eat well, especially in America, and I get the feeling that for them, the more of whatever it is they are eating, the better. I was really shown the world of Good Food by my step mother, who totally opened my eyes, and from that I became interested in cooking as well.
    Go FOOOD!

  4. Babyfood says

    Here’s another kid who grew up on fried bologna (and sometimes peanut butter and bologna sandwiches).

    Loved the writing–reminded me a bit of growing up too. My mother was a little more adventerous (souffles, chicken cordon bleu) on occasion but Saturday night was always franks and beans followed by a trip to Baskin & Robbins. That was always an agonizing moment, trying to decide which flavor to choose, not sure if it would be there again next week. My sister had more prosaic tastes–she always got vanilla (not vanilla bean or old fashioned, just plain vanilla). I still am paralyzed when faced with a gelato case and a harried counter person!!

  5. rooswife says

    I’ve always thought it’s more interesting to read these stories rather than the ones about prime rib, fillet mignon, etc. I grew up rather poor and food was the central theme in our family. My father was the one to prepare all the meals except for some lunches and burnt barbecue chicken (with bloody middle) that my mother threw together.
    My all-time favorite meal is still fried rabbit with some rabbit gravy over a piece of toast. Thanks Dad!

  6. kelly says

    Thank you for sharing this memory, it strikes a chord with me. I remind myself of tales like this (and my own) when I am around others who accuse me of being a “foodie” in a derogatory manner, like relating to meals in any way other than sustenance is wrong. Sweet pickles in potato salad is the only way to go!

  7. says

    Goodness, all us 1963ers are still around, rustling though our memories from The Assassination. There is a great play about day Kennedy was shot, I think it was written in the late seventies, called Kennedy’s Children by Rbt Patrick…tis a great story at a bar with several different characters never interacting but all intersecting and essentially delivering monologues about where they were on Nov 22…kind of like Facebook and this site…all of us doing monologues- kind of obliquely connecting due to our histories and happenstances….love those fried bologna sandwiches…lovely writing. Thank you, z

  8. Ross Pullen says

    Thank you for sharing your food memories. These are just the things that moved me to start writing my blog on yolksonus.com
    By the way, my Mom’s potato salad was the BEST. She insisted on chopped sweet pickles and put some juice in the mayo for the dressing. Fried baloney sandwiches were often me and my brother’s lunch time fare,with the side cut too…very important.
    That day in 1963, I was working at National Steel and Shipbuilding in San Diego,just a rookie doing grunt work and the impact it all had on that huge shipyard was amazing. The place didn’t shut down that day, but it sure seemed like it did.

  9. Katherine Leppek says

    Beautiful memories and beautiful writing. My mother’s cooking was honest and self taught. She believed in taking you by the wrist and dragging you into the kitchen to see how it was done. She is 91 and still lives on her own. She is now teaching her caregiver cooking tricks. All of my mother’s teaching was put to good use when I lied my way onto a commercial shrimp boat in Kodiak, Alaska as the cook. I wouldn’t have made it without my mother’s lessons and the Joy of Cooking. The saddest thing is that her housing is government (HUD) and many seniors there do not get enough to eat. She is always making soup and cakes to share. Her life long lesson to me was, share. Share what you have. Thanks, mom.

  10. Megan G says

    Thank you for sharing this sweet lil’ tid bit of your life’s story! It’s beautiful! And Btw I think I would still enjoy a slice of spam if I ever have to try it again!

  11. Brian says

    I was not yet in shool, having Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup for lunch and also watching As The World Turns. My great Aunt Ruth was watching me that afternoon. After the news bulliten all I remember is her sitting very close to the TV saying “Dear Lord” over and over. I finnished my soup and went into my room to play, the sweet oblivion of youth keeping me safe.

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