I’ve been thinking about food. Seems to me food, place, story, and language are crucial ingredients of family and culture. Each provides a marker for the construction of self, and aids us in the great task of understanding our place in the ongoing history of a people.
My mom could not cook. Actually, that is not quite so; if she followed a recipe she usually did fine. Most of the time though she cooked whatever she ate growing up. Vegetables were overcooked or fried, grains, other than bread, were largely absent, and the meet tough.
My dad, on the other hand, was an excellent cook. Meals he prepared were far superior to my mom’s efforts, and she knew and acknowledged this. He used spices, grains, and complex flavors in his dishes. Mostly they were drawn from Eastern Woodlands Native cuisine, and favored the Three Sisters of corn, beans, and squash. That said, his hamburgers were divine, as was his turkey. Unlike mom, he downplayed fried foods, and used cheese as a tasty garnish.
When my mom prepared dinner, we bolted through the meal and were quickly out the door. When my dad cooked, my sister and I stayed at the table and ate; scrumptious food is a table magnet.
Mom’s cuisine was Texas settler, decidedly southern and greasy. The fiery heat we so often associate with Texas was entirely absent. Dad’s recipes came from Native traditions of the Illinois and Indiana land we lived on. In summer, our backyard, adjacent the railroad tracks, was a vibrant garden, the likes of which I have never been able to reproduce. Most meals came from that garden, supplemented with ingredients from the store. We were poor, although I did not really understand that, yet we ate well.
Dad was an adult education teacher at our church, his stories, morals, and humor all seemingly grounded in our garden’s soil. He excelled at using the garden as metaphor, placing himself in a timeless Native tradition. He also hunted and foraged, he and mom often stopping the car to gather crab apples or berries alongside the road.
The one kitchen skill in which mom excelled was making desert, a skill my father failed to master. To the extent there was competition between them, and there was, mom was the clear winner when it came to anything sweet. Perhaps this was because dad wasn’t drawn to sweets, outside cobblers and pies. I tend toward his tastes, and would almost always choose pie over any cake, no matter how decadent.
As I write, I am reminded of meals on the family farm, simple and delicious, filling and deeply satisfying. One gets hungry doing farm work. Usually, either lunch or dinner concluded with a freshly balked fruit pie. When possible, the fruit was seasonal, but many fruits were canned for use in the winter. Oddly, my aunt and grandmother seldom baked bread, preferring the soft , white, tasteless fare bought at the store.
Meals on the farm perfectly integrated Native and European, reflecting the cultures of my aunt and uncle. Meals were a time for chatting, planning the next tasks, and savoring the day’s delicious spread. The atmosphere was warm, often playful, and deeply loving, soothing one’s soul, and bringing together the best of both cultures.