By Margot Kahn Case, WITS Writer-in-Residence
For my 12-week course at Franklin High School, we’ve been working on profiles, or portraits, of other people. Each week we tackle one aspect of getting to know a person. How do they identify themselves? How do they present themselves to the world? Where have they come from? What’s important to them? Who and/or what do they love? What are their secrets, their dark sides? What do they want in life? To practice asking these questions of others outside of class, we ask them of ourselves in class first.
For our third session together, I brought in food. I’m no veteran teacher, but I’ve been doing this long enough to know that a little food goes a long way when it comes to paying attention. “I brought you snacks,” I said to kick off class. “So listen up!” Everyone cheered. So easy!
Together, we read two essays from an old 2010 issue of Saveur Magazine. “Lost in Translation” by Monique Truong is an excerpt from her book Bitter in the Mouth. It’s about how her South Vietnamese family first encountered Jell-O salad on the table of their North Carolina neighbors who were kind enough to have them over for dinner. “We were horrified,” she writes, “which was really saying something considering that this man, woman, and child had only months before escaped from a country at war.” In “Our Daily Bread”, Richard Rodriguez remembers the simplicity of his father’s refried beans and chorizo. It was a dish his father made daily, and one that Rodriguez didn’t fully appreciate until after his father had passed away.
We read these two essays and talked about how much we learn from the narrators—Where are they from? What are their families like? What is important to them? Family, respect, ritual, hard work. We talked about how these essays are about food, yes—but the food is really just a vehicle to talk about so much more.
In the penultimate paragraph of Rodriguez’s essay he talks about Proust’s Madeleine, so we talk a little about Proust’s work being an exploration of how memory works. We talk about the difference between voluntary and involuntary memory—voluntary memory being the memory we call upon (What’s her phone number? Where did I put my homework? What year did the Civil War begin?) and involuntary memory, those memories that comes to us unbidden (walking down the street we catch a whiff of blossoming roses and think of our grandmother who used to wear a rose-scented perfume). I gave everyone a madeleine cookie and instructed them not to eat it until I started reading:
“No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having had on me the affect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. ….Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? …And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of Madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Leonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little Madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.”
What is Proust talking about? He takes a sip of tea and all the hardships of his life—even the fact that one day he will die!—everything falls away and all that fills his head is the memory of being with his aunt on Sunday mornings before going to church, sitting in her bedroom and eating this cookie dipped in a cup of tea. Taste and smell have the power to flood us with memories, have the power to evoke experience and emotion. And they can be powerful writing tools, as well.
After the crumbs were brushed from our desks, we set to work. The assignment was (choose one):
Write about a food you love. Or a food you hate.
Write about a food that is important to you or your family.
Write about a memorable meal (because it was so delicious, or because something wonderful or terrible happened).
There were no blank pages on this one. Everyone wrote. About a week later we were lucky enough to have Molly Wizenberg visit, which was an inspiring experience for many. Here are a few excerpts of the results.
In Calmar, the family piled into the kitchen, mashing potatoes, rolling dough, flipping the thin disks onto the hot grill. To make an excellent lefse was a virtue we all yearned for. Political and religious differences were forgotten. Guilt over leaving Iowa melted right along with the butter.
I always hated visiting Calmar, but I always craved lefse. Grandma’s house was an unwanted destination, claustrophobic and full of expired food. I begged to stay with my Uncle Luther when we visited. But the lefse was never expired. Never overwhelming. It was always sweet and kind. Everyone made it; everyone ate it.
We had lefse at my uncle’s wedding. We had lefse at Grandma’s Christmases, too. The last time Grandma and Grandpa visited Seattle, they brought a lefse grill. Grandma convinced mom to buy the special pastry cloth and the flipping-stick. Grandpa sat in the green recliner we got him just for that trip while we filled the kitchen with flour, sugar and potatoes. At Grandpa’s funeral, we had lefse. I don’t think I ate any. Maybe I wasn’t ready for the memories that buttery-sweet Norwegian tortilla would bring.
In Calmar, we’ve been getting rid of garbage bags full of junk for the past week. My aunts and uncles have thrown out moldy puzzles, age-old medicine, clothes full of moth balls. Grandma rides back to her house and asks, “Where did everything go?” In her new kitchen in an assisted living building, she makes lefse. It tugs at my gut at first, and then somewhere deeper. Lefse is the Norwegian roots we’ve all but forgotten.
– Hannah B.
My parents used to fight a lot. They fought over who did or didn’t lock the door at our family restaurant. They fought about whether the chairs had been arranged the right way. But when it came to dinner, all the fighting ceased. We often did not talk to each other when we ate dinner; the only noise came from the TV. Silently, my parents shared their love for one another by putting food in each other’s bowls of rice. When ‘I love you’ was hard to say, my mother would put a piece of beef in my father’s bowl. And sometimes, my father would put in my mother’s bowl a boiled enoki mushroom.
If my mom and I had been fighting, I’d gently twirl my chopstick to tangle the strands of seaweed together before placing it in my mother’s bowl to let her know I was sorry. My mother and I did not fight often until she whisked the family away into a new life in Seattle. The spacious home we lived in before was gone, and the differences between my mother and I were becoming more obvious. She grew up in China, and I was growing up in the United States. Neither of us felt we understood each other, and I never made the effort to understand that the sixteen hours my mother worked each day had all been for me. I would often yell at her for refusing to accept me for who I was while actively refusing to acknowledge the Chinese traditions that she lived by. I preached empathy and kindness towards others but could not be bothered to be empathetic to my mother’s viewpoint as a Chinese mother in a society speaking only English.
Some days, there would be a bowl of seaweed soup on the table as a side dish. It was my favorite, aside from pork bone soup. When there were leftovers after dinner, I’d drink bowls of it, feeling the soup warm all sides of my belly while washing away the dry feeling of rice I had just eaten. Sometimes I would wait until everyone was asleep just so I could have another bowl of seaweed soup. It had just the right balance of saltiness and warmth to comfort me on a cold day. Though seaweed soup takes less than an hour to make, it showed up on the table only sporadically. The soup is healthy and known to lower blood pressure, but my mom did not make it often because of my low blood pressure.
The soups that my mother strenuously labored over for hours, adding expensive ingredients like birds nest and sea cucumber, were her only way of showing how much she loved me when I refused to listen. The seaweed that I placed in her bowl was my only way of telling her I was sorry when I was too embarrassed to say it myself. Food was what brought the family together when we had no other way to show our love for one another.
– Judy W.
As a Filipino, it is almost customary that our shelves have cans upon cans of Filipino sardines, corned beef, Vienna sausages, and Spam. Also, as a lazy male, I am determined to make fasts form the cheapest ingredients. That is how I spent my afternoon.
While heating up a pan, I cut the Spam into thin slices and put those in a bowl. Then I diced the Vienna sausages and put them in another bowl. From my fridge, I took several eggs and cracked them in a bowl. After beating the eggs, I added some salt, pepper and some spices I found in the shelf. I don’t know if anyone else does this, but when my family makes Spam they sort of marinate the slices in egg. After putting oil on the pan, I cooked the Spam until they were dark. The layer of egg stuck to the slices. While cooking them, I would sprinkle some more pepper just because. Then came the corned beef. Nothing special was done there. I just put it in the pan and stirred it around. Once the corned beef was done, I put it in a bowl, but left some in a separate place. After that, I made an omelet of sorts. I poured the Vienna sausages in the egg and mixed it well. Then I poured the mixture onto the pan. While I was at it, I added some cheese. Before folding the eggs, I took the spare corned beef and spread it across the top. All that was left was the sardines. There’s a little meal my family makes with sardines. I don’t remember it anymore, but I remember that it was supposed to have onions and garlic, add water and oil, crack some eggs into it and then add at least two cans of sardines in tomato sauce.
As I looked at my work, I felt very proud. Until I realized that I had to wash the dishes.
– Joshua I.
Hot, moist air out in the field. Under the sun, a familiar figure bent down caring for her crops. Every piece of food we ate was full of her love and care. Her sweat planted every potato, every carrot. The grandmother she loved and missed, reminding herself of the memories with every bite of pickled radish. The crunch sound resembles the fresh smile on her aged face; salty sweet was her vibe. Yellow, golden slices of carrots and the time we bonded to make seasoned vegetables can only be remembered from old-time pictures and bits of salted carrots.
– Ling C.
My dad is so picky when it comes to food. “It has to be an awe in your mouth,” I translated as I interviewed him. As we continued on, he talked me back to when he was a kid—poor, with literally nothing but a pair of pants he wore every day to everything. Somehow, I realized the pain my dad went through as he told me that a potato was like a perfectly baked chicken to him. My father, a man full of anger and pride, teared up as he told me “with the potato I dug up, I shared with my family of 9, and that was our best meal I ever had, even to this day.” With that, I teared up realizing how much he has worked and sacrificed for me. And we ended our conversation there as I cleaned up and he went upstairs like usual.
– Thien N.