As exhausted as I am, I simply couldn’t write anything new today. I have two guest blog posts (TBA) coming up this month and they have gotten all my juice. In honor of my own blog, I am republishing an oldie from another site. What does it have to do with magic? Oh. I’m sure you can figure that out. Let’s see . . .
Friday, February 26, 2010: Sustenance
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about food lately. As a self-proclaimed Kitchen Witch, this is not as weird as it sounds. My grandma passed down many things to me, none as important (as far as I am concerned) as the ethics of food. There is a picture of me, around three I suppose, elbow-deep in cake batter with a look of complete and utter nirvana, and at first glance you would think “that’s what chocolate does to a child.” Look closer. That look is the direct result of love and acceptance, the taking in, if you will, of my Grandma’s soul that sustained me then and supports me now. I remember her tales of the depression and “sugar rationin'” and how dismayed she felt when folks came over for coffee, there-own-selves already depleted of sugar, gulping down the last little bit. You see, her food was a show of sacrifice and was not meant to be hoarded or taken for granted; such an ungrateful, unsacred consumption was scarring to her heart.
When I went to live with her, a wild chile at sixteen trying to kick a meth habit and a rage so deep that it consumed me like a cheeseburger from Shoney’s, the smell of her roast, carrots, taters and onions would calm me, make me remember who I was underneath the rot of teen angst, and bring us together afterwards with a glass of Alabama tea on a porch. We could talk about food even when nothing else was safe: what to make for lunch, how cheddar always tastes better when you slice it real thin off the block, whether ‘nana pudding is better with or without nutmeg, her memories of her momma, Bubo, and how she could fancy a desert out of little more than cocoa, butter and biscuit dough . . . sustenance, you get me? Sustenance. Oh, but it had little to do with calories, folks. Little indeed.
Then there’s my own momma, beautiful, Southern, educated, who would make this barbeque pork chop dinner from scratch and the smell of the bay leaf always smells like chocolate hair and elegant hands and Ciara perfume to me. We went ’round, god, and for years didn’t speak at all. And in the torrid mess of tears, anger, and lost time, the one thing I remember best about my childhood is this: picnics. Peanut butter and apple slices, banana sandwiches with mayo, the sun dancing on the blanket, my mother’s laughter. Sustenance people. Love. Now, we are best friends, and when I leave her house at Christmas I take a slice of her apricot fruitcake and freeze it, taking only little bits with my coffee when the world slides in on me, and I feel her hands on mine, hear her laugh, remember who I am. Can’t tell you the phone calls that start off with small diatribes on how butter melts best when it’s real, what corn tastes like off the grill (yes, I know Momma, leave the husks on!) and how just damn delightful it is when folks mix chili peppers into our dark chocolate. It’s that language, Southern, sweet, slow, that makes us closer. Shows our love, and forgiveness, like a slice of orange across a palate.
Then there’s my dad, Bri. We lost him ten years ago this coming July. Now, Bri was not Southern, was he momma? Ya’ll might not think this was a big deal, but it’s what kept Grandma and Momma fighting for years. Bri was from New Jersey, a Winston-smoking, beer-drinking, steak-loving cop from Jersey with a Southern bone. Now, his plans on dinner would start ’round bout noon: looking through the Pennysaver, planning out what bread would go good with what meat. Then, grown as I was, I would take off on the food excursion while he perused price per pound, marbling, argued with me on whether or not we needed an extra can of this or that, but when we got home he was out of the game plan. (This did not go over well with Momma, as she was left to fend for herself in the kitchen while Bri and myself got nice and toasty over cheap beers.) But here’s the gist: he was waiting for “Momma love” on a plate. Getting himself all ready. Maybe it would’ve ruined it to for him to come in and help a spell. He would take the little shrimp tails and round his plate with them, put pepper on everything, shake the house down if you messed with his dinner or forgot to thank the love of his life for the good eats. Dinner took at least an hour, bread sopping up juices, several beers . . . Momma says that he died because the great state of Florida outlawed smoking in restaurants, and damn if that didn’t screw up the whole culinary experience. According to Momma, he would outright tell the waitress to not come back until he raised his hand, that each course was to be savored, then a Winston in between, then savored again. Moment by moment. With his brown-eyed girl, Momma. Sustenance. The last time I saw him, about a week before he died, he had a righteous headache (damn sneaky hematoma) and sat there relentin’ on how he wished he had mushrooms and onions on his burger. Which affected me into grabbing an iron skillet and making that burger of his sustenance. So, so, so glad I did.
I associate all folks by the food they love or that we’ve had or discussed. Herein is a list of how my friendships came about:
*Robin Bates: About the winter of 2001, all the other grad students had hightailed it out of Auburn. So I commenced to calling down the phone tree and found Bates, hanging out here for another few nights. One thing led to another (we hardly knew each other) and we ended up at Ruby Tuesdays. Somewhere over onion rings and steak and very dark beer we became friends. Slide forward about five years to her New Year’s Eve party and my first introduction to pork tenderloin that must have cost her a quarter of her paycheck. The taste of it still makes me warm and think of her beautiful thumbs, her quick wit and that glorious way she laughs and hates the sound of it. Every week for eight years, it was Robin and me: at Provinos, me the eggplant parmesan, her the Marsala veal, a bottle of red–or Laredos, her the burrito, me the tacos de laraza, too much quacamole and cheese sauce and we conquered the academic world like that, heartburn and all. I think it kept me sane. It assuredly earned us both a doctoral degree.
*Jill Smith: I was teaching Women’s Literature and Feminism, January of 2008, when she (my student) brought in Chik-fil-a. I was starving, she offered one of those crispy on-the-outside-soft-on-the-inside waffle fries. Fast forward to Jill following me back to Auburn, Alabama: Monday Night Dinners, otherwise known as MND. (Look for a Chad reference to follow.) Every Monday, we’d trade houses. Never had chicken piccata before, or known the joy in real linen outside under the stars, candles lighting up red wine like rubies, and man, we’d talk about food: what we were making next, ideas on how hot olive oil can get — “burn rate” I think Chad called it — and when we lost a friend who sat at that table to suicide, we took kind comfort in knowing that once Jim ate well, took in our love and drank it in with abandon. Jill and I understand each other and food, how it’s the glue in our lives and how we must savor every morsel if it’s made by a friend of the soul.
*Chad Mueller: Well, hellfire. Now we really have an issue. I came back from Georgia to Alabama and one night my daughter brought over all of her friends. Chad was a bit older, had a mohawk and enough tattoos to make my grandma blush, and as all the menfolk crowed around me to vie for who was gonna take my nine-year-cherry, Chad looked across that porch and said: I’m a chef. Well, the rest is history. We chewed on the fat of foodie talk till nie about two in the morning: how asparagus is best grilled, how many onions are indigenous to Alabama, what wine goes with what and how life is only worth hanging onto if you can still taste it–and it was love. Much better than sex, ain’t it honey? He became a best friend right then and there and one day, I can only hope, we will open that restaurant, watch the sun go down with a good Muscato, and remember how we fell into this delicious friendship that validated our addiction. His last MND here in the South was a slam-dunk, and we cried over various dips and spreads and drank until we couldn’t feel our noses. We’ll always have footnetwork, my friend. And wine, lots and lots of wine. Only took him two years to run back to ‘Bama, ya’ll. And he left his thermal underwear in Minnesota.
Course, there are others, but my hand grows tired. Let’s just bullet:
Heather Crocker: that cake that you put together with the lemon curd/blackberry stuff and whipped creme. Damn girl. And all the nights of pigging out while we cried. It was survival.
Anne Marie: a sister who taught me that vegetarian can make you weep if it’s roasted and loves a good cheese sumpin’. This one doesn’t care as much about the calories/fat as she does the nutritional content, kinda’ like she feels about everything else in her beautiful life.
Kari: a sister who makes this goddess/heaven salad dressing that I drink, when no one is looking, even though I tied her up when she was little and force fed her orange juice so that she could “turn into a real princess.” And the woman drinks wine like it’s Koolaid and uses props for her drunken jokes until we pee with glee. Celebratory, that’s my girl.
Wiebke: ya’ll have NO idea what this German woman does to a potato pancake. Calls them latkes, not that it makes no nevermind to me what she calls ’em as long as she keeps frying. The number one thing I wanted from her for my wedding, past her singing, and I stole them all and snuck them to the honeymoon. Damn. With sour cream and chives? Applesauce? Can I move to Germany?
And finally, my own house. When I was pregnant three summers back, right before we lost our baby girl, I began to cook for real. Now, I had cooked my whole life nearly and I will be 46 this April, but this was different. This had vengeance in it, you know what I mean? My son was known to have said: “I love this pregnancy. Just keep cooking.” After I lost her, I lost that passion for a while. Coming up on threes years since she left my body, I find myself again in the kitchen, whipping up a little magic along with gorgonzola steak,chocolate lava cakes, grilled salmon . . . and with every slice, chop, saute and broil I bring back my soul. Lay all that down beside my children and my husband, who (goddess love them) are just as giddy about my kitchen magic waking back up when I lay it down, candles, wine and all, on our wooden table. Put my foot in it a little. And I’m back. Awake. And I’ll be damned if I’m not now sustaining my-own-self.
And there’s only one thing left to do.
Ray Lamontagne, “Winter Birds”: