How perfect that this project began on Thanksgiving, the one day in the year specially devoted to the family meal, a meal always with a retrospective quality. A meal, a day, that brings out memories as reliably as it produces cranberries and pumpkin pies.
The afternoon was unusually warm and before dinner I visited with my brother in Kansas City, sitting in a lawn chair by his swimming pool, covered for the winter, with a few leaves floating in shallow puddles on top. He brought out a small black trunk that I recognized as our late mother’s storehouse of mementos. We began going through it, looking at photographs, reading letters. Our conversation seemed trapped in the past, as we talked about childhood, trying to unravel knotty family mysteries. Was our mother the glamorous playgirl she appeared to be in her old photographs and love letters? Had she been a red, or at least a little pink? How did she become our mother?
At one point, apropos of our mother’s shortcomings, my brother recalled some of our childhood meals. He screwed up his face and named off a series of homely family dishes, clearly revealing his distaste for mother’s cooking. He reminded me that the food she served could be watery, tough, and greasy, and that our meals were often made up of odd ingredients and combinations. I recalled how mother would add green pepper to leftovers, introducing a jarring flavor that she must have thought would rejuvenate tired dishes. We laughed. Yes, they were awful, weren’t they?
Over the next few days, after I returned home, those childhood meals haunted me. As humble and even mildly revolting as they might have been, I loved my childhood food. Admittedly not all of it — not the hash spiked with green pepper — but almost everything else. As memories of food came seeping back, I realized how strongly they linked to other aspects of my life such as the streets I played on, my friends and family, school lunchrooms — and how they evoked feelings that were hard to put words to.
Soon I began to wonder, how was it for other people? Did their memories of childhood food capture the flavor of their lives too? How were things different for those who grew up in the 1940s, say, compared to those who grew up in the 1970s? How did family circumstances, worldliness, wealth or poverty, or their region of the country, affect their experiences with food? If I could find people who were willing to talk freely about the food of their childhood, would I learn aspects of their lives that don’t usually come out in everyday conversation? Would the voice of the inner woman and the inner man speak?
Beyond brand names
Would it be possible, I wondered, to get people to talk about food without merely naming lists of products: Skippy and Banquet and Moon Pies and Baby Ruths? The internet is filled with banal food memories, so many of which quickly devolve into stereotyped tales and mere litanies of names. I am fascinated by what people eat but I wanted to get beyond the food itself to the roles it played in people’s lives. I also wanted to hear about the unique and the unpredictable.
I decided to try just one interview and see how it went.
I chose someone I knew well. I knew his family and I had heard many of his childhood stories. I didn’t expect revelations. But there was something all new to me this time. When he finished, especially after I transcribed the tape, I heard his voice in a way I had never heard it before. I believed, I wanted to think, that through the simple recollections of milk and beef and Jell-O, he had accessed his core being. That he spoke of what Timothy Dow Adams has called “material learned, not by heart, but by soul.”
My second interview was quite different yet equally surprising. It too revealed how prominently food looms in memory and how it reveals intimate relationships and hidden aspects of the self. It was then I detected a theme common to both interviews, one that I would use as a selection criteria for those to come: the love of food. I decided not to interview people who were indifferent to food, never gave it a thought, or had numerous food aversions. At the same time, I decided I would not decide which food was worthy of being loved. Let them eat cake, corn curls, or chilidogs – all were fine with me.
I shouldn’t have been surprised how quickly I encountered madeleines, or to be more exact, references to madeleines, those little French cookies that few eat but so many talk about. For Marcel Proust, who thrust the madeleine into the limelight, the taste of a nursery treat brought back a landscape, a life, and framed a literary work structured by remembrance. That’s what this project is all about, isn’t it?, some people asked. Yes and no. Probably everyone has their madeleines, long forgotten taste sensations which vividly invoke a sensory memory of time and place. For Elizabeth it is child-sized bottles of chocolate milk and finger painting in kindergarten. For Benjamin it’s ice-cold tea and a queasy hot summer day spent on a ranch.
But in a larger sense this book is not about madeleines. I did not give Benjamin, Hanna, or the others chocolate milk, violet gumdrops, or cookies and tea, to try to stimulate their unconscious memories. Quite the opposite. I asked them to think for a few days about their most prominent childhood memories of food. I did not seek to envelop them in a fog of memory that I, the author, would dissipate, but to enlist their help in painting a picture of themselves, their places, and their times. Food was their paint, but they were the artists.
Memory plays tricks
Although I wasn’t looking for grand life stories, there can be little doubt that the people who tell their stories in this blog were participating in what theorists call the construction of identity, an ongoing but ever-changing process that we use to integrate the fragments of our lives and maintain a stable sense of who we are. And, of course, they were not reminiscing in solitude. Since I was sitting across from them with a microphone and occasionally interrupting their narratives to ask a question, we might call the interviews “identity-constructing transactions.” They are records of people talking to me at a certain point, a moment, in their lives. I made every effort to avoid influencing their reconstructions, but of course that is not entirely possible.
In a sense, then, the stories are as much about contemporary selves as they are about childhood selves. Not only do the life stories we tell to others and ourselves tend to confirm positive events and feelings, they dig up memories that reassure us about our abilities to manage life now. The result, though, is not necessarily sunny tales of happiness. Telling stories of the past can lead some people to include negative memories or emphasize unusual childhood tastes and traits – to show, for example, that they are tough, that they can handle what life dishes out. Or, tales of past weakness and poor judgement may demonstrate how much we’ve evolved “since then.” All these tactics may serve, as Fred Davis shows in Yearning for Yesterday, how we inhabitants of modernity thread our past together into a comprehensible and digestible whole to convince ourselves we have a continuous, worthy identity.
Mis-remembering is an inevitable, perhaps necessary, part of the process of reconstructing our lives and sustaining our identities. As far as I can tell everyone who talked with me believed what they said was true, even though they admitted occasional confusion about details. Upon reflection, Elizabeth said the mental picture she had of restaurant owner Madam DeFoe might really have been that of her great-grandmother. Alexander thought the figures in the Koren cartoon on the refrigerator at his home were a family like his own until I showed him the cartoon again. Then he was surprised to discover it depicted two adult couples instead of parents and children and recognized how much more strongly he had been affected by his parents’ intentions than by the literal image.
Archaeology of taste
Archaeology is not only about ancient bones, sherds, and projectile points but about the strata and contexts in which such artifacts are found. Without these, old fragments are nothing but lost objects. The layers of earth in which they are deposited, the soil’s composition, what lies above and below are the clues which enable archaeologists to frame a story about the people who once formed pots, made points for hunting, or scraped animal hides in this place. So it is with the food remembered in this book. It is suspended in layers formed by time and place. This is what gives it meaning.
Taste should be taken broadly. In this blog it includes not just oral and gustatory sensations and discriminations, but wishes to possess, touch, appraise, and even reject food, as well as elemental and deeply personal decisions about what is fit to eat.
None of the caveats above should lessen the enjoyment of hearing stories of childhood, nor do they prove the stories are altogether fictive. These are stories that describe lives but also suggest, at least tentatively, how we develop our tastes. Our taste for food is one of our most stubborn personal characteristics, one we consult daily, one which plays a huge role in our sense of self. “I am someone who” … can’t stand the taste of cilantro; prefers bittersweet chocolate; loves the bite of vinegar; is disgusted by eels; thinks melted cheese is heavenly; could never, ever eat a fish head. The process doesn’t stop. Semi-conscious on her sickbed, my mother inexplicably uttered, “I love ham.”
Adams, Timothy Dow. Telling Lies in Modern American Autobiography, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.
Davis, Fred. Yearning for Yesterday: A Sociology of Nostalgia, New York: The Free Press, 1979.
Neisser, Ulric, and Robyn Fivush, editors. The Remembering Self: Construction and Accuracy in the Self-Narrative, Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Proust, Marcel. Remembrance of Things Past (À la Recherche du Temps Perdu), Paris, 1913-1927.
Slater, Nigel. Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger, New York: Gotham, 2004.