Every few years we hold a food writing contest. These are the results from 2010. Thank you to everyone who entered! I really enjoyed reading your memories.
First Prize – by Super Dave
In the fall 1997 I had planned on throwing a big party to celebrate the five-year remission of my cancer. It was a chance to thank everyone that had been such great friends and provided me support in getting well. The five-year point seemed appropriate, but my best-laid plans were undone when at my checkup the doctors found the cancer had spread to my lungs.
Instead of a party, I was having surgeries, chemotherapy and readying myself for a bone marrow transplant. Thanksgiving was coming and through an unrelenting stream of begging, I convinced my doctors to let me see my family and fly from the East Coast to Portland. They packed me a cooler full of drugs and I arrived in Portland looking (and feeling) like a ghost. Being somewhat unfamiliar with Portland at the time, I asked my sister to make reservations for us at a “really great restaurant” for Saturday. I really wanted to have my some acknowledgment that I had indeed made it five years.
We arrived at Paley’s Place and once we had filled everyone’s glass with wine (including myself, against strict orders) I stood up and thanked everyone for being there. As I struggled to maintain my composure, I explained that while I had planned on my celebration to be a bit more grandiose circumstances dictated that the party be a bit more modest. Nonetheless, I had made it five years and I was determined to recognize the accomplishment. It was at this point, we all realized that this was likely to be our last time together as a family and the mood became decidedly somber.
And then my 85-year-old grandmother stood up. She had started drinking earlier in the day and had a penchant for ill-timed, inappropriate comments. We all looked at each other nervously as she proclaimed, “I propose a toast to David! We hope you live longer than we anticipate!” She then sat down and took a long pull on her glass of wine. The table erupted in laughter. It was what we were all thinking but afraid to say. It was finally a party, a family meal with all our unique craziness. We ate fantastic food, drank really good wine, told stories, and argued over things of little consequence. It remains the best and most memorable meal of my life. The food was wonderful, but sharing it with people who were acknowledging their love for each other made it something special. The meal is now part of family lore. I live in Portland now, and at each five year anniversary from my bone marrow transplant, I have dinner with my family and I toast my grandmother.
By Tiffany – Our Runner Up
The orange surprised me. So did the Nutella. We were in Venice, me and the American boy I’d met in Gare du Nord, there to pick up some money being wired to him from back home. For several days we traveled together on the trains, mostly arguing about religion and enjoying it. Now we stretched out on the warm, yellowy bricks alongside a canal, breathing in the spring air, drowsing, rarely passed by other pedestrians, using our backpacks as oversized pillows.
It was Darren’s 18th birthday, and I, an ancient 20, felt protective of him. He should have a birthday celebration, though both of us were broke and the wire money hadn’t arrived. I converted some of my few remaining Irish pounds into lire and sneaked off to find a little something. In one street, a man sold tempting bread loaves; I couldn’t tell you which fabulous Italian bread type it was, but it was a big, meaty loaf with a crinkly crust that crumbled when you bit in. A wine shop was not hard to find. And in a small plaza near our canal, a tiny street market sprang up.
The oranges smelled heavenly even from far away, sitting seductively in the sun. I pointed at one, seeing as how I spoke only two words of Italian, and offered the old woman a coin worth approximately 50 cents American. She pocketed the coin and handed me an enormous bag of oranges. “Grazie,” I managed, amazed. Off I tottered with Darren’s birthday feast.
Darren was delighted. My very awesome Swiss Army knife made short work of the cork, and Darren responded to the bread with a smile.
“Have you ever had Nutella?” he asked. No, I had not. This was long before you could find such a thing (not to mention a salt bar) in your local Fred Meyer. He smeared a bit of the poopy-looking goo on a hunk of bread and handed it to me. I toasted his birthday, well, as much as you can toast when you’re both drinking directly out of the bottle and followed a swig of good but cheap red wine with my first Nutella. Oh. My. God.
I grew up in Oregon. I loved the taste of filberts, as we called them then. I grew up American. I loved the taste of everyday chocolate.
And here were both tastes, slathered on the wonderful bread, with the wine, in the sun, on the bricks, absurdly charming stone and brick buildings piling up all around us, even a quaintly arched bridge nearby, like something out of a movie. Nutella was my new best friend. Venice was my new best friend. Life was my new best friend.
I wiped the choco-hazelnut from my knife blade and plunged it into a warm orange. Deep red, almost purple liquid dripped down my hand, splatting the bricks like blood. Startled, I checked my hand, the one holding the orange; it didn’t hurt, but it sure looked like I’d stabbed myself. I realized the purplish blood wasn’t leaking from me, it was leaking from the orange. “There must be something wrong with these oranges,” I muttered. “No wonder they were so cheap.” But the fruit’s flesh smelled citrusy and sweet, floral and deep, not like a rotting thing at all. And the taste, warm and fragrant, was like visiting my grandmother in Southern California, where citrus literally grows on trees and you just pluck it down whenever you please. But richer than a Sunkist orange, steeped in some magical Italian soil, ripened under an exotic Italian sun.
So we feasted on the oranges, wine, Nutella, and bread, all of which tasted like they’d been created especially to be eaten ensemble. The bond of flavor between these foods was stronger than the several-days’ acquaintance between me and Darren. When we parted ways, he insisted I take the Nutella pot, and I insisted he take half the oranges. Occasionally supplemented by a new loaf of bread or chunk of cheese, this was my diet for the next week, what I ate as I watched the mustard fields of Burgundy roll by the train, not yet knowing about the hearty Provencal stews a stranger, a local, would treat me to when I alighted in Dijon.
And that’s the story of my first blood orange and my first taste of Nutella.
“Hale’s Best Cantaloupe, best cantaloupe east of the Pecos!” My grandmother was calling it out boldly in a Kmart parking lot in Denton, Texas. I picked up the call and said it even louder standing beside her—I was excited at the age of 8 to be entrusted to help sell the cantaloupes as well as say “hell” out loud. We would show up early in the morning with yesterday’s fresh melons loaded on the old farm truck hoping to sell out before the heat of the day consumed all energy. The other farmers who arrived with similar loads groaned at the sight of us. ‘It’s hard to compete with an old woman and a child’ they grumbled on more than one occasion. As the morning went on, we did sell out of our melons first and loaded ourselves back into the truck for the drive home. My grandmother and her husband ran a 13 acre farm and I recall a local newspaper taking a picture of them standing in corn that towered over his 6’ 5” frame. It had once been a catfish farm with ponds all over it but now leveled, it produced all manner of vegetables, legumes, melons and other fruits. Once home, my grandmother would walk out into the field and thump a few listening for just the right sound before selecting one. She sliced it open and carved it into 12 large smiles of melon. On her half, she liberally sprinkled pepper and used a butter knife to cut each from the rind as she ate. For my half, it was vanilla ice cream and I tried to mimic her use of the butter knife to cut the meat from the rind. She would laugh and say I was the best helper she could ever have and didn’t we sell out fast. The sweet taste of a ripe Texas cantaloupe brings me back home to her kitchen every time.
By John Book
Growing up in Honolulu, the only thing I worried about as a kid was the sun going down. I was surrounded by a wide range of ethnicities, and with that a diverse amount of foods. Saturday morning meant mom, dad, and my sister were at home together, which usually meant breakfast and a morning full of cartoons. It would be a surprise visit from my grandfather that would make our day, for a surprise visit usually meant he would be bringing over a huli-huli chicken wrapped in newspaper. In Hawaiian, “huli” means to turn or turn over, and a huli-huli chicken would simply be a rotisserie chicken cooked over kiawe wood with different types of spices, as a kid I didn’t care what was on it. What I did care for was the taste and that crispy-but-not-burned skinned that got all of us smiling.
I lived in a neighborhood adjacent to a school, and on some mornings we could smell the chicken roasting from their parking lots. In fact, even with modern conveniences like e-mail, instant messages, and Twitter, people to this day still follow the trail of the huli-huli chicken by word of mouth, driving around, looking for rising smoke, and of course having a keen nose. From afar, it seemed like my grandfather was the Twitter of his generation, as he always knew where to buy the best chickens, cooked with certain woods and spices, and it would always taste good. In truth, he had a job that made it possible to “talk story” and know what was going on throughout the island, so if it meant a school 15 miles out of town would hold a sale, he’d be there to pick it immediately.
My grandfather was a busy man who lived his own life, but food was the one thing that brought us together at any given time. If it wasn’t chicken, it was a box of a dozen Long John’s or cream puffs from our favorite bakery, maybe lychee or mangoes from a family who were picking them in their yard, or a box of manapua (char siu bao) from a restaurant owned by a lady friend. He was not an easy man to read or know, but he knew how to make us smile and in return, we got chance to see him smile. I did not get a chance to talk with him deeply before he became ill, but in the few times I was able to get a glimpse into his life, it seemed he simply wanted to share what was passed along to him. Food as a communicator was something done automatically, and as someone who has been curious about what makes myself and the world tick, I realize that a newspaper full of chicken, or a pink box full of eclairs can be the first step towards learning more than what you knew before, and making sure people kept their communication lines open. I am forever thankful.
By Frieda Lighthouse
Sometimes a moment defines a relationship. A smell can bring back a part of your life. Some colors. . . . I’m alone with Grandma in her little Brooklyn kitchen. Her yellow canary is singing, runs of high trills. I glance over at the red and yellow plaster boy and girl on the wall, familiar and funny. Out the window, a gray day, pigeons swoop. Grandma’s at the refrigerator, getting out the little blue ceramic container of schmaltz. She shmears it on some pumpernickel, and smiles as she hands it over, her blue eyes sweet. It’s not something we get at home, it means Grandma, and it means feasts and stories about Russia, and poignant silences when we look at photos of her family from the Old Country, and walks under the El. I bite in, stare at the shiny gold Bon Ami can on the sink, and just know, at that moment, how lucky I am to be washed in her love.