Food for the Soul

The_Garden_WaitsI’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.

13 thoughts on “Food for the Soul

  1. Wonderful post Michael! It rang like a bell from my own youth. My garden is looking very similar to yours in the photo. Nice to know you grew up beside the tracks. I still don’t think there’s any wrong side. Take care. Bob

  2. Michael, you always make me think more deeply about things I don’t often consider. Growing up, our food was hearty (and probably not very healthy) northern English food – two of my favourites being pea soup (made from split peas and ham) and leek pudding (a suet pudding of leeks) – both meals my mother would make and now she’s gone, things I don’t have anymore. It was turning vegetarian in my teens that made me more adventurous and I probably wouldn’t have tried many of the things I did were it not for that. I’m no longer vegetarian, but I think our diets are much more adventurous now than when I was growing up.

  3. It is very nice to read about your happy memories about the food, as you got served as a kid Michael 😀
    I did my best to learn my kids to enjoy our food together as family and today they do the same where they live, which proof to me, that I did something right.

  4. I love this post, it offers such intimate insights….and I guess food is pretty intimate stuff. Like you I’m not really drawn to sweet desserts, and would take savoury every time, and like your father I love to cook using flavours and textures from the garden whenever I can.
    Scottish cuisine is really delicious and the modern trend for shop bought bread and meals is thankfully passing in favour of old traditional natural foods. Nothing beats a home baked loaf💕

    1. Yum! I have not been to Scotland since my childhood, and hope to return relatively soon. I look forward to the new cuisine!
      I had a very memorable trip to my childhood home in Lincolnshire many years past. I stayed in a pub, and as a result, made new friends, and had several really good meals! I had been at a conference on the Isle of Wright earlier in that trip, and the food there was great as well.Our last couple of England trips were not very food worthy, except for some amazing Indian.

      1. Fresh Scottish cuisine has gone through something of a revolution….and although not cheap, it’s delicious and worth every penny! The seafood is especially yummy😊

  5. Nice post! Mealtimes can be nourishing for body&soul. I love the feeling of security that tasty foods & good company can bring. 🙂

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