Food. It holds as many memories as our minds, perhaps more. In my case, food serves as road markers, sign posts on the way to childhood and back again.
Peanut Butter Cookies. My dad made the best peanut butter cookies. From scratch too. They were perfect. Soft in the middle, with the right amount of crisp on the edges. He would make them in these giant batches and then freeze some for later. And these giant batches were always cooked in the twilight, past bedtime. I would occasionally wake up, as I often do, in the middle of the night to relieve myself, but the scent of my father’s cookies would carry my sleepy eyes into the kitchen, vaguely mumbling and rubbing my eyes. I don’t think he ever heard my door open, but he somehow managed to detect my presence and right as I would hit the light in the kitchen, he would break away and gently turn me around, directing me towards the bathroom or bed. These cookies were his babies, just as I was. He was proud of them. “They are from scratch,” he would say. They always managed to get passed around to teachers or babysitters or congregation members, like a little digestible trophy. “They are from scratch,” he said. And they were delicious.
Clam Chowder. I should be more specific…Pike’s Place’s Clam Chowder. Typically found in a little area across from the green barn with all the lovely, fresh produce, paste, flowers, etc. They have these silver metal counters that sit in between the kitchen areas…its hard to describe if you haven’t been there but all you really need to know if the Clam Chowder and the Fish and Chips are fresh and delicious. This particular food item is something magical for me. Something that represents my home in the West, the peace I find when I travel there. The evergreen trees meeting the mountains and walking to the ocean front together. I love Washington state. And to me, Seattle and Clam Chowder represent that. Clam Chowder is also associated with good company. The past couple times I’ve been to Pike’s its been in the company of my two favorite men, my brother, Ian and my husband, Victor. If comfort food is such a thing, clam chowder it is for me.
Macaroni and Cheese. I hated macaroni and cheese. I still hate macaroni and cheese. And yes, hate, is the only word I can imagine to use to accurately express my dislike for this item. I’ve tried various forms, boxed, homemade and always the same reaction – I gag before the spoon can enter the bowl. Even the smell of it turns me off. I remember one time, my sweet grandmother put together some homemade macaroni and cheese. Everyone was hopefully that with grandma’s magical touch, fresh ingredients and love, I would be converted. I’m sad to say, I was not. I felt bad about it too. My grandmother had put all this time into making it a special dish, making it something different…but…the attempt failed. Much like my sweet mother-in-law tried to convert me to beets by making me special vegetarian borscht. Beets, the other food item that will never enter my mother. Borscht is usually made with a beef broth but the first time I visited my husband’s parents (we were not yet married), my mother-in-law, knowing that I was vegetarian made me this special borscht. Again, I was not converted. Of course, the reason that I don’t like beets is very different than the reason I don’t like macaroni and cheese. I don’t like beets because…well, I don’t like beets. But, I don’t like macaroni and cheese because I O-Ded on the item as a young child. You see, when I was little and for much of my life, my mother had a prescription drug problem. And when I say problem I mean addiction. And when I say addiction, I mean nightmare. It left her sedated and absent all the time. She could mostly be found, in her room with all the blinds pulled, curtains drawn, in bed, no lights except the flicker of a T.V. screen that was kept beside her bed. To this day, I won’t allow a T.V. screen in the bedroom. My mother was so drugged when I was younger that simple things like feeding me or deciding what to feed me were difficult, sometimes impossible tasks. Sometimes asking me was the only way she could make a decision about what I should eat, my response was always the same, “macaroni and cheese or plain Cheerios.” Oh, yeah. I don’t eat plain Cheerios either.
Souffle. My parents, both of them, make an excellent Spinach and Cheese Souffle. Now, I have no idea where this recipe comes from. We are not French or anything close to it. My dad usually did most of the cooking growing up but this is a recipe shared and still made by both of them, even though they haven’t spoke in over ten years. But, when the souffle is in the oven, “NO RUNNING AROUND THE HOUSE.” Which of course means, when the souffle is in the oven, all my brother Ian and I want to do is RUN AROUND THE HOUSE and JUMP UP AND DOWN like hooligans.
Pumpkin Roll. My husband calls this another word for crack but I call it perfection. I call it roommates. I used to live with Mormons. Not really, like, only Mormons. For years. Because, for years, I was Mormon. For years I need direction, I need guidance when I was abandoned by those who typically deliver this and I found it in the Mormon Church. Along with spirituality. If you ask me who first taught be about spirituality, not religion, spirituality…I will tell you, it was the Mormons. I may not practice anymore but I still hold a profound respect and love for the Church and the people. Even a Pagan rebels. But, how could not love the source of all goodness…the source of the Pumpkin Roll. I owe my Pumpkin Roll education to my former roommate and superhero, Annie. Annie…is…amazing. She really is. She is a bundle of positivity, energy, understanding and fun. I lived in this apartment with she and a lovely lady name Amy, equally as amazing and magical. For me, it really was the best of times, in many ways. My independent brooding could me challenging sometimes for them, I’m sure but really…I felt so loved and I hope I returned it. I stray. So…the Pumpkin Roll. Yes. Annie would fill apartment with this amazing scent. It danced on the wind and beckoned you into the kitchen, where Annie, usually doused in flour had before you the most perfect and tasty treat a girl could as for, a moist pumpkin cake rolls in a cream cheese filling. Yum. I liked it so much, its probably the only thing I will actually bring myself to bake. Because I am not baker. I can cook…baking…I struggle. I assume that Annie sprinkled some of her magic dust on me because somehow my Pumpkin Rolls always turn out, they are blessed. And they are usually gone within a day or so if my sweet husband finds them.
Welsh Pasties. My grandmother, on my mother’s side is the Welsh woman. Hatherall is a very Welsh name. My grandmother loves pasties, they are such a special and emotional treat for her. Of course, she is much older now and cannot make them. Her sweet arthritic hands cannot craft and mold the dough. Making pasties is pretty involved. A couple years ago, we starting a tradition. We try to gather for or around Solstice every year. Most of us celebrate it and those that celebrate Christmas (my grandmother and mother) are always up for a good pagan celebration, its in the blood. So, during the Solstice celebrations, which usually happen at my Aunt’s house (a cozy, candlelit fortress of magic and bliss) we have serving pasties for our traditional holiday meal. The first year my cousin Liz, her husband Petey, myself and my brother Ian cooked and baked the dinner. It has shaped into a “kids cook for the adults” kinda thing. Because if the adults aren’t cooking or cleaning, they are drinking and that’s how we like it. If they are drinking and we are cooking, we are safe from the fussing, or so I suspect this is how this arrangement occurred. So all the cooks are gathered in the kitchen for a majority of the day, chopping and slicing and sauteing and kneading and salting and baking and…at the end of the night, Grandma is presented with a beautiful meal that brings tears to her eyes and a smile to her face. It tastes like home and childhood for this woman. And it takes like tradition and memories for us all. By the way, I dare you to Google “pasties.” You have to put the “Welsh” in front or you are eating at a different table.
So food, in my life, has had many different types of associations. Good and bad. Pleasant and otherwise. But, I think the remarkable thing for me is how it has shifted in my life. How food has become something I can do for others, something I can share, something that brings be together with people. I live with Russians, my in-laws to be precise and they are, 100% Russian. Imported from St. Petersburg in 1989, rescued by the Jewish State from Communism and eventually landing in Austin, TX. Russian food, not my favorite. The food itself has been an adjustment but also the family lifestyle. It was rough for awhile. I’m not going to lie. But in the end, it is food that I feel bridges the difference. Every Sunday night, I cook dinner for the whole family. This is usually a task performed by Victor’s mother, who does it gracefully and willingly but, she will be the first to admit that she appreciates the night off. Aside from offering a little help, these meals are an east way for me to integrate vegetarian cuisine, try new recipes and remind myself what it is to gather around a table. This concept was lost to me for so long. Many, many years I did not understand this. But the dinner table is a magical place. We are all equal there, all sharing, all engaging, all eating and rejoicing. The dinner table is neutral, the dinner table is Switzerland in Russia.