My most vivid food memory is from when I was little, returning to New Orleans from San Diego every Mardi Gras and smelling eggs, grits, sausage, toast and coffee wafting up the stairs and permeating every crevice at my grandmother’s Uptown 2-story double house. The windows were often open to circulate the air, but that never diminished the beckoning power of that savory aroma. It let me know it was time for breakfast. I got to see my Paw-paw (grandfather), though he was no longer married to, nor lived with my grandmother, and my Marran (godmother), but hardly ever my Parran (godfather). It was time to watch Rev, the old man who rented the front room from my Grandma, head out in his 3-piece suit and matching hat to parts unknown (to me at least). It was time to dive in to what was probably not SUCH an amazing a meal, but to me, it was absolutely everything.
I grew up in an apartment in San Diego, an only child to a single mother. Things got fancy at my place when we had Waffle-O’s for breakfast and not her favorite, Corn Flakes. She cooked, but it was what I could characterize as “survival cooking”. Mom became expert at a couple of meals that she made up. My favorite of them was smoked sausage in red gravy over rice (which wasn’t really red gravy at all – it was just jarred tomato sauce; and yes, now I know there is a difference). Otherwise, we did Swanson’s TV dinners a lot so we would not miss an episode of important shows, Arby’s because there were coupons in the Sunday paper, Jack-in-the-Box because it was on the way to my school, and a fair amount of Hamburger Helper.
Having a big breakfast that wasn’t from McDonald’s and didn’t come with a side of donuts was an anomaly. It being home cooked was amazing, again not because the food was so incredible, but mainly because it was a time to catch up on the “news”.
More of my grandmothers’ friends and neighbors had fallen invariably ill, some had relocated to be closer to their children, some had died. The new hotspot was the Senior Center where grandma was learning to paint and enjoy her crotchet circle. My Marran was well into her 30s and still not married. She spun lavish tales of her job at the shoe store on Canal Street and her “near misses” to her settling down. She and my Parrain hadn’t spoken since 1973 (which could be an exaggeration) when he broke off their engagement to marry another woman. But far as she knew, they had some kids, lived someplace, and seemed to be happy. My Paw-paw would only ever talk enough to say hello, ask us how we were doing, and complain about my grandmother just enough to irritate her, then head off to his new family (to be fair, he had been married to whoever she was a good 20 years by then).
What I mean is that this wasn’t just about the food – it was the feeling and experiences that came with the food being there on the plate, on the table, in the kitchen, with my family, that sticks with me. That feeling of connectedness, a sense of belonging. And no matter how the characters change or what the actual food is in the memory, that is exactly what I remember: the togetherness. And so we learn from our family and pass on our traditions across the table, just as you would pass the peas.
For instance, we had milk or water with meals – never wine, soda, or juice. The only wines I recall were Manischewitz or those gallons of Gallo, so no great loss there. But Grandma would hide her pink canned Tab sodas in her room, so that no one else would drink them. She was on a fixed income and was a diabetic so she needed her Tab. I learned soda was reserved for special occasions and certainly not to be consumed willy-nilly.
There was no drinking any of whatever you had before you had cleaned your plate. This was along the same vein as “having eyes bigger than your stomach”, which was a major sin punishable by stern reprimand, about don’t waste food because it was hard to come by. Now, as an adult, I look back and see that my grandmother had survived the Depression. She lived in a time long before mass food production, for her there was no such thing as food waste, and everybody had a Victory Garden. Food really was hard to come by and growing it was hard work. So I learned to be respectful of the value of food; it is to be consumed consciously and intentionally; it is not to be discarded carelessly.
We said thanks to the cook and Grace before eating, no matter what the meal. If Rev was around, he would lead the prayer, but it was generally just an expression of gratitude to have something to eat. It wasn’t until I got my first job and my own apartment that I understood intense gratitude for having food. I learned appreciation.
My food habits started when I was a kid, but they evolved much more when I had children of my own. My kids wake up to the smell of baking quick breads, muffins, or even granola fairly often. They understand that “eating with the seasons” means we only have blueberry pancakes in the summer and pecan pie muffins in the Fall because that’s when the fruit/nut is available. They know that crawfish is a spring thing, but shrimp and okra smothered with creole tomatoes is a gift that summer has to offer.
For me, it’s still not just about the food – it’s about what comes with it. It’s the zany stories from the family, about knowing who you are and who your family is. It’s still about being respectful of food and learning to consume it consciously and intentionally. It is still about gratitude and appreciating the greatness in the most humble constructions and presentations…just like I did then and do now.