The little girl sitting at my feet said that she was glad we were having spaghetti that night at camp because she was a “little bit homesick,” and spaghetti reminded her of her mother. I think that perhaps there’s nothing in our life that has as great an emotional attachment and a familial connection as food. I can eat neither oatmeal nor fried potatoes without thinking of my own mother, Freida. Ironically, it’s because I don’t remember her ever serving either of these. She told us that during the Great Depression that’s all she ate and so she was never going to cook either again. I was nearly sixty before I tasted my first oatmeal. I found it sort of like kissing your sister. . . you go through the motions but it’s no big deal.
The foods that I do associate with my mother? Probably T-bone steaks and garden tomatoes. Mom was a fan of the T-bone, a cut of meat seldom offered in restaurants unless they’ve rebranded it and called it tilapia or something. She left the strip of fat on the meat all through the cooking process and I can still pick out the sound of its sizzle across a crowded restaurant. And when tomato season came in we were rolling in them, baby. Tomatoes at every meal and I don’t mean these plastic things that come slapped onto your McBurger. Big, oozing, beef steak tomatoes were what summer was all about and as long as my neighbor keeps going to bed early I plan to steal them for the rest of my life.
I read recently that the smell of fish will drive many Japanese and Chinese eaters into feeding frenzies. In the U.S. we only eat about half as much fish per annum as the average world citizen and the fish we do eat are what food companies call “dough delivery vehicles,” simply an excuse to eat the fried coating on the outside. Japanese prisoners of war were once punished by the U.S. Army by denying them their fish ration. When they bit into their mackerel they thought of their mama in Osaka.
So I sat around my little circle of campers and quizzed them. “What food do you associate with your mom? What food reminds you of her every time you taste it or smell it?” Every hand went up. This was a much more readily accessible question than, “Where did you see God today?” Sorry Lord, but these were fifth-graders. The first little girl said, “Hamburgers! Mommy makes Daddy grill them at home, even if it’s raining.” Second respondent: “Gravy. But she doesn’t make it. But she buys it. But it’s really, really good.” Third little girl: “When we eat at Grandma’s!” Remember that these were fifth-graders and staying focused wasn’t their forte. But the most interesting thing about our little circle of sharing is that every child had an immediate answer and I don’t believe this quick response was simply because they were still living at home with Mom. Us older kids have similarly strong emotional attachments to food.
I’d been in Europe for ten days with my group of Morgan and Cass county teens and had given them instructions to try the wide variety of European foods offered to us. I made it clear that I didn’t want to ever see them darken the door of an overseas McDonalds. What happened next was straight out of a Hollywood comedy. I snuck off one night in Paris to get a cheeseburger at McDonalds and walked right into two tables full of my kids chowing down on fries and Big Macs. We looked at each other sheepishly then dug in. True, we didn’t associate American fast food with our mothers but when you’ve been traveling in foreign lands for nearly two weeks, using strange bathrooms, listen to exotic accents, and trying to read directions in French and German, there’s nothing like grease, fat and salt to cure your homesickness.
I would venture that I could walk into Knollwood or Prairie Village or Jacksonville Skilled Nursing and get and equally quick response when asked what foods they associate with home. The combination of taste, sight and smell that food brings is the perfect storm to kick start even a failing memory.
All of which brings a bit of sadness when we consider that fewer and fewer families take meals together. Will the food memories of future generations be able to only recall fast food restaurants? Will the memories of Mama be only those of a note stuck to the microwave saying, “Grab something from the fridge. I’ve taken Jenny to dance lessons.” I hope not. Some things in life are too precious to give up and I can’t imagine growing up without the taste of a home grown tomato.