I was just reading an article written by an old chef from Paris. He wrote about his memories, about food, and about the relationship between the two. He wrote about mushroom hunting in France as a child. He wrote about special meals prepared by different family members, and about the first time he tasted milk straight from the cow. His memories were strong, and every smell pulled him back to some evening with friends, or a morning in the forest with his brothers. This chef had grown up in kitchens, peeling potatoes at first and then working his way up to preparing the meals. I enjoyed reading his memories, and I loved how one sense would pull on another to bring the memories to the front of his mind.
I began to wonder about the memories I could write about when I am in my 80’s. Or, an even scarier thought, what memories will my children cherish when they are in old age. For many people a good meal is a fast one, burgers and fries, or perhaps pizza and soft drinks. Maybe their memories will settle on the many restaurants they have experienced over time, eating with family but in a busy room filled with others. How many people will remember drinking warm foamy milk from the cow, or hunting for mushrooms? I can’t, having never done either of those things.
It is true we all have to pull on our own histories, and each life is different, but an authentic and real childhood will give deep and meaningful memories in our old age. Children that grow up in suburbs, eating fast food before rushing to the weekly activities, playing video games, what kind of memories will they have? I can’t even imagine.
I am not trying to be a food snob; I have a couple of good memories of fast food dinners. My grandmother often would pick my brother and I up for lunch, and take us to the local Hardee’s. I can still smell the hamburgers cooking, and I am sure they smelled better than they do now. We sat at the plastic tables, ate our burgers and fries, and enjoyed the time with our grandmother. She was always interested in our stories, and really wanted to know how our day had been.
We attended a Wednesday afternoon youth club at my grandparent’s church. After school we gathered in the churchyard and parking lot to play ball games. We then went inside to practice singing hymns, or to learn how to play the bells, my favorite. We had Bible classes and a meal, and often the meal included tater tots. I have no idea why that mass produced food is so strongly related to this good memory, but it is. When I eat tater tots I remember sitting at the table with the other kids, laughing and enjoying each other’s company. We were in the church fellowship hall, the same place my Girl Scout troop met. The walls were covered with mod styled banners, doves flying up and words like Peace and Love in blocky bright colors.
My parents loved to back pack, and we had many one pot dinners cooked on the little stove, eaten from tin cups while sitting on a rock or a log. The food would be hot, and I would be so hungry I would take a huge hot bite. I can pull up the image of me sitting on a log, chilly near the end of the day, surrounded by trees and mountains, and holding my full mouth open trying to cool the food by breathing in the air. We usually had dry French bread, a hot pot of noodles with canned meat, and water to drink. Those meals were the best. I never ate as good as when we had hiked many miles to our campsite. There is no better food than camping food. I remember wanting to spend my 16th birthday at Shining Rock Wilderness Area. We hiked the 5 miles up and down to the camping spot, set up our tent and cooked the dinner. I don’t remember what we ate, but I do remember having cake afterwards. My mom had snuck a small cake into her cook kit and carried it all the way to our campsite, just to surprise me.
Maybe I do have good food memories, even though I grew up in the 70’s. My mom often decorated our birthday cakes in creative ways. One cake was made to look like a large music record, complete with label. We had a huge garden, and ate fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, silver queen corn, and many other vegetables that are just not as good from stores. I grew up thinking vegetables came from the ground, not cans. I want my kids to think the same, but that hasn’t worked out as I hoped. For several years we had a good productive garden, with corn, peas, and the usual vegetables. We froze and canned. I cooked home made bread and lots of soups. And then, the kids got older, and busier. Slowly we moved into faster meals, store bought bread and hot dogs. We moved to another home, and the garden ended. Even so, the garden time made for good memories, and I am glad we had a few years working the soil.
We homeschooled the children, and one year we used food as a passport to study other countries and cultures. The memories of that “food travel year” are good ones. We would pick a country and pretend to travel there. We drew maps, recreated the flag and studied history, culture and customs. We looked at photographs and listened to music, but we ended every study with a large family cooked meal of typical food. Sometimes one of us will say, “Do you remember the Indian food we made,” and the rest of us will nod and smile.