The food of my childhood

My two friends and I did a book swap a few weeks ago. I gave him Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, which I had walked to the bookstore and bought on the second day of Spring break, after reading excerpts from it for a class, and which had changed the way I thought about storytelling and the agency of myself as a reader more than anything I’d read since To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. He in turn gave my other friend a book I can’t remember the name of, and she gave me Toast by Nigel Slater. My friend has already finished Calvino, but I’m just starting Toast, and feeling a bit guilty that I’d put if off I dived in tonight, determined to sink into it, but after reading just the first 27 pages I had to stop and write.

Nigel Slater is a British guy, and the book, I’ll say briefly, is about his growing-up, and his mother and father, but also about the food of his childhood. The two: his childhood and nostalgia for the food and the memories of his family are both interwoven seamlessly and feed into each other beautifully. The impetus for the full-length memoir, he explains in the introduction, came from an article he wrote on the same subjects for a newspaper, the Observer. He explains towards the end of the introduction how surprised and pleased he was that so many people identified with his story and the nostalgic memories and feelings that we tie to the food of our childhood. I hummed at this, scoffing a little at the sentimentality of these sappy readers. But then, as I was lying full-length on my dorm room floor alone in my pajamas, reading, the fan going quietly in the background, I came across the bit about his mother making pancakes, and memories of my father making homemade pizza came rushing back, and everything that that meant to me, and I felt my eyes start to water. And there were so many other memories, so many smells and dishes that no one makes in my family anymore, and I felt an overwhelming need to rush and write them down. And even now I feel like some of them are fading away.

My father was here last week. Parents don’t really visit very often here; it’s a small college, and a bit removed from everybody, and parents just don’t really hang around their kid’s dorms much, you know, in general, anywhere. Except for my father: he can sometimes be very social, very outgoing and talkative and excited and unreasonably conversational. It used to be easy to recognize this is as a symptom of his manic-depressive bipolar disorder, but now, about a year after he told us he is in the process of being divinely healed of it and will no longer accept that diagnosis (which is too strong and too close to me and too confusing for me to write about yet) I’ve been hesitant to peg his periods of elevated mood as such. Suffice to say he sees no problem in visiting me in my house near campus as long as he can, and talking with all my friends, and going back to talk to my friends again, and being there still when I go to and then come back from a meeting and expect to see him gone.

Towards the end of the night when he had come to visit, he was in the house kitchen (which is pretty threadbare; the cupboards hold, at most, a bag of flour and a bottle of something’s extract) and he looked around and said “You know, we should cook something here, sometime. Together. That’d be great.” And I doubt that’ll ever happen, since the kitchen paraphernalia I have at my disposal I could count on one hand, but tonight I remembered suddenly the way he used to make pizza, homemade pizza. And he was very, very good at it. It was a family thing, we all did it together, but he was the leader, we all knew he was in charge, and he was very meticulous and scrupulous and particular about it. He was an excellent cook when he wanted to be. We’d get the big metal pans out from their place under the oven, and make the dough, and spread the dough, and put on the sauce and the cheese, and then customize them with all sorts of toppings. I always put green bell peppers and onions on mine.

And I realized tonight that that would probably never happen again, now that my parents are separated. He has no kitchen of his own to make food in. My mother would never let him take over her kitchen for a day. My grandparents are moving out of the house they’ve been in for over twenty years and most of the living organs of it are packed up in boxes; the walls echo a bit when you speak, and the aesthetic emptiness must persist for people coming to view the house until it’s sold. I can’t picture them hosting such an involved and savory mess now. They have qualms about loaning him the keys to their van to drive me the hour back to school, much less the keys to their small, clean kitchen. But I really want to do that again, to make that with my father, in some kitchen, before I get too old. And I want to make it with my children, too.

That night when my father visited and it seemed like he’d never leave there was a knock at my door and I opened it and it was Hans Rauch, who babysat us as kids back in West Philly. He and his family (the kids were asleep in their car seats by then, it was late) were in the area for a friend’s wedding and stopped by to say hello, and we talked for a while and we talked outside with him and his wife, standing in front of the car, and he drove my dad home later, which I, in all seriousness, thanked God for, when he did. If a knock at your door and a vehicle with an extra seat when your sociable father has no car of his own is not divine intervention, I don’t know what is.

            Hans Rauch made pancakes. He made really good pancakes. When he’d babysit us, or when he just came over for the heck of it because he used to live in the tiny, book-filled apartment above us, and then later in the house right across the street, he’d make them for breakfast and he’d make them for dinner. He’d make stacks and stacks of them, thick and perfectly browned, and he’d have us stand at the stove on the stool and flip them with him, too. Sometimes he’d put chocolate chips in them. And always maple syrup on top, or jam.

            One time, he made pancakes and we were all sitting down to the big wooden table with the middle that you can take out which is gone now, too, and my sister bit into a pancake and make a look of complete disgust. “These are gross,” she told him. “Keep eating,” he said, “They’re fine.” (He’s got a beard. He’s got muscled arms from years of swinging hammers). Then he took a bite, and chewed, and said, “Yeah, you don’t have to eat them.” We’d accidentally mixed salt into the batter instead of sugar. He took them out and threw them in the compost behind the house. I don’t remember for sure, but I think we made another, salt-free, batch after that.

            The other thing Hans Rauch made was chocolate chip cookies. He was a master at making chocolate chip cookies. Borrowing milk from the Rauchs when we ran out was a regular thing, and went both ways. When he made chocolate chip cookies the whole house smelled beautiful. You wished you could eat the air. They were warm and gooey and soft and everything chocolate chip cookies look like they should be in commercials but a million times better. Hans Rauch always offered you a glass of water, too, when you came over, which felt like a signal that you could stay. As long as you had a glass of good, cold, clear water, or tea, or coffee if you were older, you could sip and talk (or do homework). And Hans Rauch always told the best stories over dinner, or right after, when the plates still needed to be cleared and cleaned but no one wanted to move just yet, about growing up and moving and lighting things on fire, and one about a wolverine that had us all taken in until the wolverine turned to the boy and said, “Take heart, brother, your family lies toward the East.” But those are stories for another time.

            I don’t remember my grandmother, my Meme, making cookies with us, although I’m sure she did at some point. What I do remember is the big metal tin of cookies she kept in a little alcove. The lid was hard to get off and until we reached a certain age we had to ask her or another adult to reach up and get it down and pry it open for us. There were all kinds in there, but the ones I remember the most fondly were the oatmeal cookies. The smell of them and their thick crumble to this day reminds me of my grandmother and that flowery tin.

            My grandmother also had a nutcracker and a bowl of nuts on the sideboard in the dining room. It was square bowl with relatively thick sides to keep all the nuts from spilling out. There were are all sorts of nuts, and my siblings and I became experts at opening each kind. The almonds were the easiest, and I prided myself on being able to crack them cleanly in half, without crushing the shell or the nut inside. The walnuts were harder, but not impossible. The peanuts didn’t require the cracker at all, and were easier and faster and better in large numbers, but made a terrible mess, the filmy layer around the peanut and the crumbled shells leading almost inevitably to a reprimand and an order to clean up. There were a couple nutcrackers always in the bowl; two or three were simple, silver, metal, hand-held ones you could crush a finger with if you weren’t careful. But the centerpiece, the one we had the most fun with, was an old, heavy, metal dog whose jaw moved up and down as you moved a lever that ran the length of his body and turned into his tail at the end. This was the one for the tough nuts, the big nuts. Sometimes you had to give it a good loud whack to break all the way through. My grandmother had that dog nutcracker until I broke it a couple years ago. I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but I remember going to her in humble but slightly defensive shame to show her its displaced jaw. When they cleaned up the house to put it on the market I guess the nut bowl went, too.

            My grandmother also always had a bowl of fruit on the table or the sideboard. Dessert was pretty consistently offered whenever we ate dinner at my grandparent’s house, which to us was a delightful novelty, but if she didn’t have anything prepared she would say “And there’s always fruit you can have for dessert,” as if a banana or apple could really take the place of a mug of ice cream or rice pudding. My grandmother always ate pretty healthy. Sometimes for lunch she’d sit down with just a big bowl of cottage cheese with maybe some yoghurt or fruit on top. I never tried any myself, but I secretly admired her fortitude.

            Bread and butter with every meal was another staple of my grandmother’s dinners. The bread went in a basket, ideally, with a cloth over the bottom. The other day my friend pointed out that in the section of the dining hall where they make sandwiches, which I rarely frequent (there’s something too demanding and stuck-up about having a forty-year-old woman make me a custom sandwich for dinner when I can just take whatever’s laid out already) they have bins with loaves of bread and you can take slices and make peanut-butter-and-jelly or whatever. I’ve become obsessed with them. The wholesome, clean smell and soft squish of one slice of whole wheat bread with butter makes me think immediately of my soft-spoken, strong, firm, yet kind grandmother and her kitchen with the trains that passed by and which we could hear during dinner, and which we sometimes went out and watched, for five, ten, fifteen minutes in the dusk; however long it took for all the rumbling cars to pass.

Remember moments of joy. Write them down. The time I knelt on the floor and wept (not cried, wept, it was too heavy and hot to be crying) and I couldn’t stop and I turned to my friend and he was weeping, too, and I said “I don’t know why I’m crying. God is so good. Why would we want anything else? Why would we want anything else?”  And he nodded and put his hand on my shoulder and didn’t say anything. And when I doubt I remember moments like that.

Half of her was obscured by a wall of sunlight,

and so it was like the voice of an angel,

or of a cloud or of sunlight itself

that sat lost in thought, on the edge of its seat,

its chin cupped in its small white hand, then said suddenly:

“I wonder if I have ever seen the moment

when two people fell in love.”