Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Food Memory

I hadn’t realized how traumatic my early experiences with food were until I was assigned to write a “favorite food memory” piece for my Food Writing class. Some classmates’ food-memories were handed in early and read aloud, and were what you might expect: Watching her grandmother make pie from scratch; Helping her mother make tomato sauce. They were all standing in warm, sweet-smelling kitchens as the new, young recipients of culinary wisdom passed down through generations. The kind of comforting clichés that inspire a life-long love of food.

I have nothing like that.

From the ages of eight to thirteen, my mother and I lived with my Aunt’s family on their ranch in the mountains between Buellton and Lompoc; since the wineries came, the region has been dubbed the more mellifluous “Santa Rita Hills.” My most memorable experiences with food are from that time because, in my aunt’s house, sustenance bordered on the bizarre.

My aunt stored her potatoes for months…or years…beneath the sink next to the pesticides. Her pantry—if one braved the smell of her rashed, puss-encrusted blind poodle who slept there—was used for the preservation of vintage Spam and canned carrots. I learned early to check sell-by dates and to avoid family dinners whenever possible; and when not possible, I ate lightly.

For fresh vegetables, my aunt, cousin and I used pick-axes to crack the adobe dirt of the yard to plant seeds. My aunt used a ‘survival of the fittest’ model of farming. Gophers and mice were permitted to pilfer what they could before snarling ranch dogs rushed at them. I planted corn one summer, and when the fat ears stretched out from their stalks, my mother and I shucked them for popcorn—letting fly colonies of black ants across the kitchen counter. In the fall, the hard-packed dirt of the vegetable garden was layered with apples on which dogs, horses, and rodents gorged themselves. The humans and birds opted for the sweet sun-burned pink apples on high branches. Eggs came spotted with blood and excrement from the nesting boxes of hardy chickens and, occasionally, we would drill into a giant egg from the nearby ostrich farm and pour the watery mass into the largest skillet for a family-sized omelet.

I knew where to hold my breath in the rooms and hallways where mice decomposed in the walls. When odors of dead rodents or dog-scared-skunks weren’t wafting through the kitchen, it smelled like medication and sugared cereals. My uncle was diabetic and my aunt couldn’t bear to be deprived of cheap cereals and Albertson’s cakes (two for five dollars). My cousin’s teeth were permanently stained Hawaiian Punch red. My mother’s idea of healthy cooking was to heat frozen diet dinners and vegetables in the microwave. We went out to eat frequently, but our options were limited to two steak houses, two diners and Baker’s Square; the waitresses of these establishments knew us by sight.

My early years were not gourmet.

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