memories involving food without indulging in sentiment . . . is it possible?

For those who turn up their noses at fruitcake at Christmas, it’s only because you haven’t tasted my slightly altered version of Mama’s. I’m getting ready to make Mama’s Best Every Christmas Fruitcake at Hubby’s special request. (That’s not it, by the way, I’m just trying to jazz up the post a bit.)  So while I was looking through my self-produced memory cookbook locating the recipe, it reminded me how so many of our memories are associated with food. Particularly so around the holidays. Don’t you think so? Were I to ask readers to contribute their own food-associated memory, I expect it wouldn’t be difficult for any of you.

When Amanda Hesser became food editor of the New York Times Magazine in 2004, she asked well-known writers of all kinds–playwrights, screenwriters, novelists, poets, and journalists–to contribute essays about an important moment in their lives involving food. The only caveat was NOTHING SENTIMENTAL. She wasn’t so much interested in grandma’s corn bread as she was in why grandma always made it when she was lonely. In 2008, as a result of those special essays, she published EAT, MEMORY – Great Writers At The Table (W.W. Norton). Some of the selections are so creative that it’s easy to see why they are published.

After reading most of the Eat, Memory 2008 collection, I couldn’t help reviewing my cookbook a little differently. Sure enough, most if not all the reminiscences are of a sentimental nature: Mama’s Fruitcake, Grandma’s Clabber Biscuits, the funeral wake potluck dinners, etc, so I challenged myself. Could I write a food memory without being gushy in that special fifties I REMEMBER MAMA television series way? Were there even any food memories that affected me in ways other than sentimental? Sure, I can think of lots of food-associated things to write about that don’t involve emotion. Or can I?

I could write how Grandma Leona and Great-Grandma Nina ate Ritz crackers crumbled into a cereal bowl with warm milk for Sunday supper. After eons of lavish Sunday dinners prepared for extended family who usually showed up every Sunday, it must have been wonderful to finally take it easy in their later years. No pots or pans to scrub, only two dishes and two spoons to wash up, no one else to clean up after. Since they lived to be 84 and 92 respectively, they may have been on to something in those simple Sunday suppers.

Or I could write how all the kids in my school lunch room scraped their beans into the hog slop barrel instead of eating them because they knew the more you eat the more you toot. Some of them liked to see who had NO beans to scrape so they would have a target to point a finger to should unpleasant balm or flatulent noises strike the classroom later. How I loved those beans, so what was I do to? I’d sneak in a few bites and rearrange those that were left with my fork, then dutifully scrape the rest away for the hogs.

But could I write about either of these in a non-sentimental essay? It certainly wouldn’t be easy.

In EAT, MEMORY are some wonderful stories: One about a couple who nearly break up over a dinner in Paris at a famous restaurant, another by an author who professes to hating ice cream, and my own personal favorite by a famous chef who needed a line cook. He found what he thought might be a perfect match. In the personal interview, he discovered the man was blind, his eyes wandered around in their sockets like tropical fish in the aquarium of a cheap lobby, yet the chef convinced himself that this blind man had evolved into such a higher species of line cook that HE would learn great things from him. Sometimes we see only what we want to see, after all. The rest of the story is both heart breaking and hilarious. I think I recognized myself in both characters.

I decided writing like this is a good challenge and I hope I can live up to it. So I invite any interested reader to write your own food-associated memory without being overly sentimental if you can! It might be harder than you think. I’m not even sure I can. If you’d like to try sometime–perhaps in a post on your own blog–please link to Wintersong or this post so that I’ll be sure to know and not miss your entry. Or–if you prefer–jot a short memory in the comment section. If the book I’ve talked about here sounds interesting to you, or you’d like to see it yourself, you can probably find it in your local library. You can also get it here real cheap.

Now, I published Mama’s Fruit Cake recipe, along with notes on my slight alteration, in December 2007. If you missed it then, you’ll find it here. It’s beginning to smell a lot like Christmas around me, and I’m not referring to the beans.

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11 thoughts on “memories involving food without indulging in sentiment . . . is it possible?

  1. I’ll think about it. I have two holiday food stories that aren’t at all sentimental, but they may be posted later. Now where is India?

  2. I love fruit cake in general. So I immediatly went to your Mama’s recipe, printed it and will start it today. It looks yummy, I’ll let you know how it turns out. Our mince pies will be here soon. sue

    • Hi Sue! Did you get my email? I’ve been wondering if you were in England for the season…wrong time of year, huh? I miss your mince pies! But I think you’ll like Mama’s fruitcake. Instead of the vanilla, I use almond extract. I think it goes better than lemon with cherries. Happy eating!

  3. I’m confused! “The only caveat was NOTHING SENTIMENTAL. She wasn’t so much interested in grandma’s corn bread as she was in why grandma always made it when she was lonely.”

    That sounds like she *wanted* sentimental, rather than avoiding it?

    • Yes, when I thought about it, I agreed with you, but I have to say most–maybe all–lived up to the challenge. I loved this book, but then I actually have nothing against sentimental memories either–as long as they’re not manipulative. As a writer, I’m sure you know what I mean. A writing prof chided me once for jerking the reader by using melamine dishes in a passage. She wrote “Oh no! NOT melamine dishes.” I got over that fast. Whatever Amanda Hesser was really after, the collection turned out quite well. Thanks for your thoughts.

  4. Sigh … even the most ordinary foods mean more than I thought. I found out this year that whenever my daughters and grand daughters have a premenstrual pms bout they go for the Doritos and bean dip like I did. I didn’t realize then that it was going to start a tradition passed down from mother to daughter for generations. I think you are right, it would be difficult to find a food that I don’t associate with a sentiment.

    • I have an addiction to crunchy Cheetos, especially the ones with Jalapeno and the others they call firey hot! I can stop with potato chips, but a bag of Cheetos just disappears before I know it. Sentiment is all right with me.

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