Two years ago, I delivered the keynote address at Augusta University’s freshman convocation, an annual gathering to formally welcome new students to the university. The academic theme the students selected for their first-year experience was Food for Thought, an exploration of the impact of food on society. As an alumna, a current member of the university family, a food writer with a degree in gastronomy and someone who wouldn’t require an honorarium, I suppose I seemed like a logical choice.
I opened my talk thusly: “I was not raised by wolves. I was not a child star. My family and I didn’t live on a farm in southern Rhodesia that was repatriated by African nationalists. I am not a recovering alcoholic, a musical prodigy, nor am I the disenfranchised offspring of Hollywood royalty. I have not given birth to multiples. I don’t have AIDS or autism or Asperger’s Syndrome. I am not a cancer survivor. I haven’t self-amputated a limb to save myself from sure death in a narrow canyon in Utah. I was not a member of the Manson family or of Bananarama. I have not had sexual relations with any member of my family, including distant cousins. I didn’t flee Cuba on a homemade raft. And dingoes did not eat my baby.”
My point then (and now) was this: Unremarkable as it may seem, we all have a story. And in my story, food is a central character.
I was born in the mid-1960s in the Pacific Northwest at a military hospital to a German mother and a career soldier. My father borrowed a friend’s car, a 1963 Mercury Marauder, to drive my mother to the hospital, but not before she cleaned the entire house. An Army physician named Dr. Boom delivered me. I like that detail. A lot.
Our shared childhood—a journey that took us from Washington to Germany to New Jersey to Kansas to Germany and finally to Georgia—runs through my sister’s mind like a movie. Born 18 months prior to my arrival, she remembers intricacies of plot, physical characteristics of leads and minor players alike, dialogue and the angle from which we viewed the action from opening scene to the rolling of the credits.
She remembers it all. She rewinds and fast-forwards at will, offering me glimpses into a life I’m not sure I lived.
My memories are a jumbled mix—one part my recollection of tales my parents have told over and over, one part flashbacks spurred by the family photo albums, of which I am now the official keeper, and another part authentic memories of my own, moments in my life that for some reason or another took up permanent residence in my gray matter.
I remember lying on my back in the thick, cool grass next to our apartment building, weaving intricate clover necklaces and watching the clouds roll by.
I remember the shame of stealing a small plastic action figure from Ms. Heiskell, my third-grade teacher, who trusted me to clean her classroom every day after school. It’s the only thing I ever stole and I still have it.
I remember not walking Rosemary Pascarella across the playground the day before my family left Germany for Georgia and regretting it ever since. I’ve never been good at goodbyes.
And I remember the food.
I remember bratwurst and home fries sizzling in the electric frying pan.
I remember watching The Love Boat on Saturday nights, digging into a bowl of fudge ripple ice milk. υ
I remember the orange sherbet push-ups we scored when we brought home all As on our report cards.
I remember munching on butter and cheese sandwiches in the way back section of the station wagon with all the windows down. The whistle of the wind and Marty Robbins crooning on the eight track: “All day I face the barren waste without the taste of water. Coooooool water.”
I remember buying watermelon Now and Laters at a small store across the street from C.T. Walker Elementary School on the low end of Wrightsboro Road, back in the day when you could leave campus at recess without activating an Amber Alert. That’s also the same year I was introduced to the lovely and mysterious pomegranate. Thank you, Mrs. Darlington, for opening up a whole new world for me with the gift of a single jewel tone fruit.
I remember the minty green grasshoppers my grandmother would sip
in the evenings while we watched Kung Fu in her little house by the Jersey shore.
I remember the day I wrecked my new bicycle. I rode it to a neighboring village (without permission) to get a free slice of leberkäse, my favorite German lunchmeat, from the nice lady at the butcher shop. No meat is worth the humiliation I felt pushing my bike home, bleeding from my encounter with a curb and a well-tended hedge of roses.
I remember the utter shock and dismay I felt when the Pillsbury Doughboy failed to emerge from the roll of biscuits I begged my mother to buy. I carry that life lesson, that things are not always what they seem, with me to this day.
Even my dreams revolve around food.
As a child I had two recurring dreams of being chased—in one, by my family’s cookie jar and, in the other, by a giant banana.
Years ago, when I was taking iron pills, I had a lot of vivid food dreams. One involved a bag of potato chips. I was walking down 15th Street in front of T. W. Josey High School carrying a super-sized bag of salt and vinegar potato chips. Every single person I passed either remarked on or complimented my bag of chips.
“What you got in that big ole bag?”
“Oh, I love me some salt and vinegar chips.”
“Nice chips, girl.”
I once dreamt I set myself on fire. It wasn’t nearly as horrifying as it sounds. I used an unschucked ear of corn as my torch and ended up with something akin to a light sunburn.
I’ve read enough Freud to figure out the banana imagery, but the other food cameos leave me perplexed. So I turn to the Internet, the source of all the answers to all the questions of our time.
It seems that potato chips symbolize overindulgent behavior or a lack of willpower. The highly specific scenario of eating potato chips while walking through a city means that I should pay more attention to my health and implement an exercise routine. Fifty-six thumbs up ratings on dreams.findyourlucky.com can’t be wrong.
Now if I were Muslim, eating those chips in my dream would symbolize suffering, trouble and adversity. Feel free to fact check me at myislamicdream.com.
I was hoping for a more validating interpretation. Something along the lines of “you’re all that and a bag of chips.” But that’s the Leo in me talking.
Food, in its most basic form, is substance taken into the body to satisfy hunger and give nourishment. It’s fuel. Gasoline. It keeps us going.
But food is also identity. Food is culture. Food, even in our dreams, has meaning. And food—the sight of it, the aroma of it, the taste of it—is a powerful connector to the past.
Think about some of the memories from your childhood…savoring a sweet slice of your aunt Darlene’s prized coconut cream pie while listening to your uncles trade fishing tales on the front porch. The smell of your grandmother’s empanadas wafting from the oven and you curled up in your footie pajamas watching Scooby Doo…your dad grilling steaks in the backyard and the splash of cold water on your face from the turquoise colored plastic pool your mom bought at K-Mart.
We all have them, these crazy casseroles of memories—food and people and places jumbled up in the baking dish of our minds. The 19th-century French playwright Charles Monselet, nicknamed king of the gastronomes by his contemporaries, wrote, “Ponder well on this point: The pleasant hours of our life are all connected by a more or less tangible link, with some memory of the table.”
My story is unremarkable, but it is ever so delicious.
This article appears in the June-July 2016 issue of Augusta Magazine.