The Poisoned Ink Well

Sunday, May 04, 2003

A Rant on Food from a Louisiana Cook

I am food obsessed. I am down right weird about food. I bought 20 pounds of potatoes at the super market, and I felt like a rich girl, and I know that’s silly. I looked around in the super market parking lot, and I hoped that someone saw my son load it in the car, so they'd know we had food, and plenty of it.

I watch the stock market all day on TV with it’s huge commodities, and markets, and billions of dollars, and millions of products, produce, and I think, my freezer is full of chicken and ground meat and I feel like a big success. I love plump juicy tomatoes, sweet vidalia onions, sacks of par boiled long grain rice (I have 10 pounds) I repeat what I have, over and over in my head, before I go to sleep, like night time prayers, and I memorize every thing in my pantry, and sigh comforted that I have enough food, and nothing can really be that wrong as long as we have something to eat, and food to last, and I try to make calendars in my brain to see how long each supply would last if there were a famine, or every grocer closed at the same time, or if for some reason I couldn’t buy anymore, and it is a big deal to me. How much food I have, and how long it will last, and how many people I could feed, and whether I have enough to help out, or contribute if someone calls, or comes by, and is out of work and needs some.

Groceries are my comfort margin, and my measure of my own person wealth, isn't what is in my stock portfolio, but is if I have enough food to share, but of course, even if I can't send a care package, if someone wants to stay for dinner, we can always stretch it with water, or tomato sauce, or flour, or we could eat it over rice, or with potatoes, or you know how it is don’t you?

Even if I am worried about something like a job, or a bill that’s due, when I go to sleep all I have to do is think of my refrigerator, and what’s in it, and what food I have to prepare the next day, and if it is full then I can go to sleep, it's like counting sheep for me. I think about food so much I ought to be 500 pounds and my idea of heaven would be to eat and eat and eat and never gain weight and never run out.

My father grew up on a farm, and in a rooming house in north Louisiana during the Great Depression and he was food obsessed too, because when he was young he didn’t always get enough to eat. The only time, that I ever went hungry was after he died. I was pregnant, and people turned me down for food, and it made a huge impression on me. I decided to not have anymore children, and never to trust a man, or anyone else to provide my living, and never to go hungry, or get pregnant, again.

(I am so self sufficient, that I scare the Hell out of most men, but that's Ok, my grandmother, my Dad's Mom, Edith was the same way. She never re-married and she managed to put all five of her children through college (even the girls) on her own by working.) I think that, that rough time brought me closer to my Father, even after his death. I understood him a whole lot better and I know, I would have never known a hunger pain in my life had he lived.

Anyway, he once took me walking down gravelly, dirt roads to his family’s former homestead, past newly plowed fields, railroad tracks, and oil wells pumping (of course they didn’t discover the oil till after they evicted his widowed Mom and 4 siblings, but you’ve heard those stories before so we won’t go there) and he would point out these little houses with white picket fences and small gardens and say “That man grew the best watermelons and when I was kid we would swipe them.” (he never said steal) and sometimes, the same family was still living there, and an old black man in his 70s would come out on the porch, and say “Look it’s that Eddie B. kid. Do you remember that time my Mama caught you with the watermelon, and we hauled you back here by the scruff of your neck, and she felt so sorry for you that she fed you corn bread and collards with ham hocks? Man you was a skinny little white boy back then, and you said it was the best food you’d ever had?” and my father who was in his 60s at the time (still the kid) and could still blush, would turn beet red, and laugh, and apologize, and introduce me to them. They would shake hands and everybody would hug and then we'd have iced tea or lemonade on the porch. My Dad said a watermelon tasted sweeter if it was snitched. Then he would tell me that he was hungry as a child, and if it wasn’t for them, that some nights he would have gone to bed without food.

Back when the Waltons (the TV show about the depression era family that wouldn't take charity) was on TV, my Dad would watch it with me, and tell me that they would have been the 'Rich Folks' in town, and then he would admire the heavy oak table that they sat at, and their big house, and big front porch, and he said, he didn't understand all the talk about the Waltons, not accepting charity, and being self sufficient, because any fool could see that those folks would have had money back then. "Hell, he'd say, "Look at em. They owned a whole damn mountain. That ain't poor."

My dad always ate very quickly. He said, he couldn't help it because after his family lost the farm, his widowed mother had to open a rooming house in Ruston, Louisiana for college kids, and that he was the youngest and smallest person at the large table, and if he wanted enough to eat, then he had to eat large amounts, and he had to eat it fast, and he never took the time to say "please this' or please pass that" He'd laugh and tell me to use my boarding house manners, because when he was young all the meat would be gone in the time it took to pass the salt or pepper. One rule was observed, though and that was the elbows "Mabel, Mabel get your elbows off the table" he'd say to me. I think it was so you could fit more people at the table.

( I still have that very same rooming house table. It is sitting in my dining room. I often wonder what it would say if it could talk. It'd probably say, "Get your elbows off of me and invite some people over for dinner." I'll bet it's lonely compared to it's boarding house days.)

My father cooked a big pot beans every Saturday like clockwork and beef or pork roast on Sundays. He would cook huge amounts and even the insurance salesman or Tupperware guy was invited to have plate. He was food obsessed and I guess anyone who has been without, always is, and the driving force in life is an empty belly or the memory of one. I know it is in mine.

My son and his friends worry about labels on clothes and products (better known as the upward pull strategy), and it freaks me out, because I have never cared who made what, or what name was on it, as long as it fit, and was comfortable. He thinks that the more you pay for something the better that it is, and I try so hard to steer him away from that notion. Yet all the while I hope that he never looses his youthful naivete, at least not the way I did, and then I think about getting life insurance, and making sure that he never, ever has to worry about food, and he loves to eat and I am so glad that he has enough right now and I tell him that he should be a chef because then he'd never go hungry.. Blah, blah, blah, blehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

(Yes, I'm nuts. Maybe toasted almonds, or pecans, never peanuts, but possibly cashews. Have you ever had Cashew chicken? Yum.)