Food As Memory and Metaphor

She loved to eat. At supper time, she would often have second helpings of whatever remained in pots and pans littering the stovetop, eating directly from them with a joy not displayed over other activities. Simply put, food was her friend.

            Food replaced so many things her life did not provide, like a stable, happy, martial relationship and adoring children. Not that we didn’t love her. We did, each in our own way. But displays of adoration were muted all around. Food, however, never failed to satisfy her desires, wants, needs and so it became a vehicle, a device for expressing love.

            We never went out to eat. All meals were taken at home and all were made by her except breakfast. I’m speaking, of course, about my mother, a woman who rarely awakened before 10 o’clock in the morning. Regardless of when she did get out of bed, her mood was dark and didn’t lift until well after her first cup of coffee and plate of toast.

            Earlier in the morning, Dad would provide a breakfast of eggs cooked in inches of bacon fat, if you wanted that, and the smell of burning grease wafting through the house lingered. Hours later, the smell of toast and coffee signaled the real beginning of the day. Ma was up.

            Once she was up, dressed, and moving through her tiny domain, the schedule of events was under her control. Laundry, dusting, sweeping, shopping lists, planning the nightly meal; we were her minions acting out our roles as fetchers and laborers. My jobs were primarily grocery shopping and dish washing.

            Ma would carefully calculate down to the penny how much she would spend on a shopping list that contained the day’s provisions. She taught me, without ever leaving her house, how to find the price of items, how to check eggs for hidden breaks, how to read labels so the correct items could be sourced, and how to make sure the bread wasn’t crushed in the paper bag. I was probably around seven when the training began. Those lessons and early responsibilities should probably be credited with enhancing my ability to read well at an early age. Thanks, Ma.

            As I collected each item on the list, I would put a line through it so that if anything were missed, I’d notice that before the leaving the store and disappointing Ma with an incomplete job. Substitutions were not allowed. If I couldn’t find an item noted on the list, I’d report that in detail so she could decide if another selection was necessary. Doing the shopping was an important part of my day, one that I took very seriously. Pleasing my mother was the reward.

            Later that day, the smell of supper cooking was usually a very pleasant scent except on liver and onion day. What kid wants to face a plate sporting a slimy looking animal organ covered in equally slimy looking slices of onion? But making negative comments about the menu was never even considered. So great, would be the response. However, generally speaking, supper was a standout moment.

            Ma’s specialties were basic, filling, and flavorful. Although, if I’m being truly honest, many of the following dishes I wouldn’t eat today. But back in the day, they were thoroughly enjoyed.

            There was macaroni soup. Ma would take cans of stewed tomatoes into which slices of Velveeta cheese were melted to a smooth, thick broth. Into this she’d pour pre-cooked elbow macaroni. As she was preparing this delicious concoction, and if you were in her favor that day, she might saw off a piece of bright yellow-orange cheese-product to suck on until supper was ready.

            Cream chopped beef over mashed potatoes, roast pork with peeled potatoes soaking up the meat juices, American chop suey, and, in the summertime, BLTs with fresh beefsteak tomatoes and fruit salad with a dressing consisting of two ingredients – the juice from a can of fruit cocktail, and mayonnaise. Hopping John with lima beans, canned baked beans and brown bread with hot dogs, or frozen fish sticks and French fries were all greeted with eager appetites soon to be appeased.

            Simple meals. Filling meals. Delicious meals I remember to this day. There is a power in food and the manner in which it is prepared. Ma knew her job was to feed us, period. That she enjoyed food herself was to our advantage. I’d like to believe that seeing her family enjoying her cooking brought her joy. At least it was, for the most part, a gentle part of the day.

            Everything Ma did in the kitchen was purposeful and nothing was wasted. Leftovers were carefully stored for the next day in a refrigerator that gleamed inside and out. Food preparation areas, counters, and the kitchen table were washed down, and garbage removed. The moment she was done eating, the cleaning up began.

            We neither sat together at the table nor engaged in end-of-the-day banter. We ate and then we cleaned up. The food-memory lingers because it was everything our relationships were not – outwardly expressive, tender, and harmonious.

            For our birthdays, Ma always made a cake from Betty Crocker mixes. But the buttercream frosting, which was really made from oleomargarine, was from scratch – and to die for. Often the cakes were accompanied by Neapolitan ice cream, that strawberry, vanilla, chocolate combination that was sure to please everyone. I don’t recall any specific birthday parties, but the cake, at least, noted the day. As the mouthfuls of cake slathered with ice cream satisfied the taster, the soul received a balm. A gift onto itself.

            I have never successfully recreated macaroni soup or many of the other dishes my mother effortlessly pulled together on our behalf. And, letting honesty seep in again, that’s okay, I think. The memories, the food, her robust appetite, and those times when she seemed at peace are the joyful recollections I hold dear. She’d agree that her cooking wasn’t much, uncomplicated and featuring the latest in convenience cuisine. I’d like to believe that if she knew I remembered this much she’d be pleased. I’ll never know, and that’s okay.

This Mattapoisett Life

By Marilou Newell

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