I love food. Not just stuffing my face with it. Food and food culture are a foundational part of the human experience. Sit two groups of people down, who don’t speak the same language or know anything about the other. Have them trade meals and they would gain just as much as having a conversation. Food is a language in of itself. Over the years I have developed a better understanding of food and food culture and what it means to people and their identity. How they live and their relationship to the rest of the world. From time to time I’ll do an article about my experiences, thoughts, or philosophy of food. Here I’ll start at the beginning of my relationship with food.
I grew up in a family that knew its food. My grandparents on my dad’s side ran a farm. My grandpa raised cows and chickens. Once in a while he would bring my dad those big blocks of cheese. Or pounds of meat from a slaughter. My dad moved into the city and I really only ever ended up on the farm during the holidays. But I always got to experience the fruits of their labor.
My dad’s family always did these traditional mid-western family meals for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Thanksgiving belonged to my aunt and Christmas belonged to my grandparents. I’m going to focus on Christmas because my emotions involving food are more associated with Christmas than Thanksgiving. The main dish for Thanksgiving and Christmas had always been turkey. But at some point I said we should have fried chicken for Christmas. I don’t remember how old or how serious I was but my grandma obliged. Every Christmas forward we would have fried chicken.
When I got the chance I enjoyed watching my grandma cook. One year she showed me you could keep a pot of boiling water from boiling over with a wooden spoon. It’s a simple piece of knowledge but it’s one that means so much because it’s wrapped in an emotional blanket.
My grandma passed away a few years ago. I still miss her. I wasn’t there the last couple of Christmases she hosted. I had moved further away and retail is a bitch when it comes to taking time off for the holidays. But she carried on making that fried chicken. I’m a bit stoic with my emotions and I don’t know if I ever let her know how much a simple Christmas dinner meant to me. She changed the way we ate simply because her grandson asked her to. She didn’t have to. I don’t know why but that meant a lot to me. Christmas for me the last few years has had a melancholy aftertaste. I think about the days we sat around the table digging into the food she made. Pouring out the candy in our stockings stuck to the wall.
I still haven’t joined my dad’s family for Christmas. Things move forward, things change. I have had the pleasure of joining them for Thanksgiving but the last couple of Christmases I’ve spent with my fiancé’s family. Christmas isn’t the same but it doesn’t need to be. Thanksgiving dinner isn’t even the same. That too has evolved over the years. But there is still great tasting food all around so it’s all good.
As I write this I realize just how much I associate food with my grandparents. When I was young my grandparents owned a bar. Apparently I called it the “free food place”. If my brother and I came in the morning my grandma would be in the kitchen making us breakfast. Sometimes grandpa would let us have a bag chips from the selection hanging over the bar. If we came at night I would always get chicken drummies. Days weren’t always easy. My parents struggled for financial survival and their own personal demons. Things that flew over my head at that age. But there were always these moments food could comfort.
One final note on this set of grandparents and food. I don’t remember when it became a ritual but every time my brother and I visited our dad, my grandparents would come on Sundays with a box of doughnuts. We would sit there chowing down on doughnuts while they drank coffee. We would catch up. My brother and I would be ourselves. These days too disappeared. I stopped visiting my dad during high school. The only times when I would see my grandparents after this would be during holidays or if they decided to visit the local Perkins where I lived.
I generally think of my mom’s side of the family more as sweet makers. My grandma made cakes for a living. She can cook other things too, but cakes or other baked sweets is what I’ve always associated with her. I think the other food thing I associate with my grandma, besides cake, is the family reunions she would take me to. Her extended family would gather every year at a lake. There would be food and summer activities. There was a lake to swim in. One year I got a tick that refused to drink my blood or drop off. The food was your standard mid-western potluck food. Various forms of fruit salads. Noodle or slow cooker dishes.
I don’t remember much about the food my great-grandmother made but there are a couple of food related things that have stuck with me. She lived in a small mid-western town. She canned a lot of her own vegetables. She also had a rhubarb patch. And I love rhubarb. And apples. She also had an apple tree.
Now for the food I grew up with day to day. I don’t remember much about the food my mom would regularly make. I have memories of hamburger helper and tuna noodle casserole. We were lower middle-class and didn’t have the money for anything too expensive. But we had what we needed.
One food ritual I remember fondly is every two weeks we would order Godfathers pizza. These were the weeks my mom got paid and we would treat ourselves. Godfathers has always remained my favorite fast food pizza. I also worked there my senior year of high school. I say it’s because I think it really does taste better than all the others but maybe it’s just an emotional attachment to those moments. Nothing beats chowing down on pizza and watching Red Dwarf and Doctor Who on Iowa Public Television.
Another food ritual we had might explain my preference for Burger King over McDonalds. Every other weekend my mom would take me to spend the weekend with my dad. On the way there we would drive through Burger King. It became a ritual treat in the same way Godfathers was.
Until my senior year in college it was just my mom and I. She tried dating and had a partner or two but they never worked out. It’s not easy being a single mother, especially in your 20s. But she worked hard to make sure I had a roof over my head and food in my belly. She was usually gone in the morning before I left for school and didn’t get home until a couple hours after I did. I learned to fend for myself food wise as early as I could.
And my mom gave me the freedom to experiment with food, even when it resulted in a destroyed kitchen. In one of my earliest attempts at fried chicken I coated the chicken in powdered sugar instead of flour. I thought the flour was a little funny but didn’t think too much about it. My mom got home as I was frying and pointed out my mistake. We finished frying what we had, with uneven results. Some of the pieces we were able to cook all the way through. The skin ended up with a nice BBQ taste but sometimes the meat wouldn’t cook all the way before the skin started getting burnt crispy.
In high school I stopped eating school lunch. I played it off with others as not needing it but it wasn’t something we couldn’t afford at the time. I could have probably gone back on school lunch at some point but I had gotten used to not eating lunch. Instead when I got home from school I would load up on sandwiches. Or other foods I could readily make. Like hot dogs or macaroni and cheese.
My dad would almost always make the food when I went to visit him. He would make fried chicken a lot, much to annoyance of my brother who grew to hate it for a while. My dad would make other staples, like sloppy joes. I do have one negative memory when it comes to my dad and food.
I wanted to make something for the pastor of the church we went to. I decided I wanted to serve tuna noodle casserole. My mom had prepped some stuff so I could just combine things and put it in the oven. But I didn’t get the chance. I was off doing something else and my dad took it upon himself to make the tuna noodle casserole. He didn’t think it was a big deal. I was pissed and upset. I tried holding it in. I’m still annoyed about it to this day.
It’s hard to recount my entire journey with food. I think most people would struggle to. I’ve tried to cover the major beats I had with food while growing up. My ties with food were deeply personal and familial but I didn’t associate food with a cultural aspect. It wouldn’t be until later in life I would understand the cultural dimension food. I recognize the food I grew up with was part of a particular culture. And while I have branched out there is a certain comfort in those foods I grew up with.