March 10, 2010

What I've been working on

instead of writing blog entries. Here's a short piece, a first draft just finished today...

Bad Food

They stand in my cupboard hidden among the cans like terrorists. The front row of staples is also, a show. Butter Beans, Baked Beans, Garbanzo Beans and Three Beans; a column of White Meat Tuna fish packed in Spring Water alongside a battalion of Tomatoes: diced, concentrated, whole and peeled, some with basil, some low sodium and two jars of pasta sauce named Sockarooni made originally it says on the label by Paul Newman. Nudge a jar aside and out peeps a can of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle. Another false front. A gallant colonel protecting his superiors. Push him aside and two cans of Chef Boyardee Beefaroni stand exposed, their bright red and white labels glowing shameful and naked in the bright kitchen light.

I hide them like refugees, from food fascists like the man in front of me at Key Foods lasering judgment from his eyes at my 24 pack of Coke, Oscar Mayer bologna, and the Entenmanns powdered mini donut holes stuffed behind a mountain of organic lettuce and antibiotic-Rbst-free, organic whole milk. My food trousers down, I want to sputter, My husband doesn’t drink coffee or even tea! His one vice is Coca-Cola, he needs the caffeine – he grew up in Texas! With the donuts I want to challenge him, Where do you get fresh donuts anymore anyway? I’ve researched this. The only places that make decent fresh donuts anymore are in Greenpoint and in the city. The kids wanted them anyway, a reward for – Oops, didn’t mean to go down this road. The only thing more loaded than Food these days in Brooklyn was Parenting and a big no these days was to reward good behavior with food, esp. junk food.

With the bologna I have less excuse. So I bring out a big gun. The Race card. I wouldn’t mention my husband and I had secret white trash night where we actually pulled down the shades and fried bologna sandwiches, mine with American cheese. After the kids were asleep of course. Instead I’d say in my best progressive liberal voice, a hint of lecturing mixed with sympathy at what you don’t know, how I grew up in the inner city and spent much of my time behind a corner store counter tending the register from 7 o’clock in the morning and my mother who was widowed would make the most delicious breakfast, two soft slices of buttered white bread pan-toasted to the point of crisp giving way to hot, buttery chewiness underneath. Thin slices of bologna quickly fried in the same pan, their crispy edges small bits of crunch under melting white American cheese, placed between the slices of hot bread and then back in the pan; pressed for a moment with the spatula on one side, then the other, before being tucked into a perfect pocket of waxed paper and foil and thrust into my hands, Eat when hot! Eat it now! Eat it now!

I’d take my first bite, watch the sun climb through our store windows, and the rush of salty-crisp pork and thick melted cheese against the fleet buttery chunks of crisp-soft bread would waken me, give me the first real experience of the day. Some strong, good coffee from a thermos, a few swallows of orange juice, and I felt great.

But obviously I can’t say this to the Key Foods guy so instead I look at his food rolling toward the cashier on the belt: Four organic Cornish hens, one pint of organic heavy cream, and a half dozen brown free roaming, Omega-3 rich, organic eggs. No doubt this man bought his foods locally. Probably was able to source his meals fresh like the Parisian he was in his mind, buying fresh bread, cheese and meat for the day, every day, with little in his freezer and certainly not much processed. He was playing his part perfectly, and was so secure he could stare at my cart agape, not even bothering to hide his disgust, and looking straight into my face to make sure I got his message.

The irony is I am an organic gardener. Or was, until we moved back to the East Coast, to Brooklyn from Los Angeles. I was eight months pregnant with our first and it was time we acted on our plans to settle back in the east permanently to be near our families, and plant roots as a family. In LA, I’d felt suffocated by the culture, the unchanging sun, the relentless focus on diet and exercise and most of all the pervasive dominance of THE INDUSTRY in every aspect of life. I ached for the variety of people in New York, how I could meet ten different kinds of people and have ten totally different conversations, simply by stepping out onto the sidewalk or sitting in a bar. I preferred my neighbors depressed but authentic rather than blithe. But I loved our home, a sweet, Spanish-style house from the 1920’s, once owned by Esther Williams. The dining room opened up through wide doors onto a wisteria-covered patio, and here we enjoyed dinner parties and late night grills by our kidney shaped pool.

I’d managed a kitchen garden to one side full of heirloom lettuce and carrots, tomatoes and peppers, had containers of all manner of herb, dill and parsley, cilantro and basil, three or four kinds of mint for the cocktails I’d meant to infuse but used mostly for cooking Thai or fresh squeezed lemonade. Eventually I learned to cultivate my own seeds, and began researching city restrictions on keeping backyard hens. From seed to table I called it, my motto for daily living, poring over chicken catalogues late at night. My late-night fantasy? One dairy cow, half a dozen Heirloom hens, no rooster, one or two miniature goats and a share in local cows and poultry, freshly and humanely slaughtered for my walk-in temperature controlled freezer. Oh, and a root cellar. And wide-open planks for shelves covering an entire wall of my Mexican-tiled kitchen for the large glass jars of all my different grains, beans and rice. I’m becoming a master of grain, mixing texture and nutrition and what will simply keep daily in our family’s rice cooker.

But the judgment? The judgment on this guy’s face or the woman my husband ran into on a late night run to McDonald’s brow-beaten by his pregnant wife who needed her first Big Mac in five years or else she was going to die. I’d never think you were the kind, she’d said. My husband had slunk away feeling the giant yellow M on the plastic food bag burning into him, blaring his location at every step. This I could do without. The feeling that judgment laces together the current national discourse on food, pulling us away from the glorious potential of thoughtful discussion. Instead I’d recommend a nice slice of humility, of using one’s enlightenment not simply to feel virtuous, or as I often suspect, to be even more a master of your own universe, but as a precipice to another, one made up of other people’s lives, your neighbors and your country. How food connects us all this way and what a wonderful opportunity to find new ways to relate. To help. To alleviate suffering. Be gentle I want to say. For every bite of pesticide-free and humanely raised Cornish hen, a ration of genetically engineered and processed soy meal is landing in a starving country now. And saving someone’s life. End of lecture.

Or, almost. Because obviously food is a sensitive issue. A vulnerability in ourselves that can invite both shame and goodness. It’s why so many suffer from disorders regarding food, either eating or not eating in the privacy of their lives. It is also exactly why it is a cornerstone of religion, why fasting and feasting and marking of pure and impure foods are essential, because food is a kind of daily transubstantiation. Bread becomes Meaning in an ordinary act.

The Beefaroni in my pantry nods to the Red Hot Chips crouching behind the boxes of granola on my refrigerator. I usually get these when the mood or PMS strikes, at the deli near the Projects six blocks from my gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood, but this time I scored a bag at the corner Rite Aid, across from Trader Joe’s. I got in line with my bag of chips, behind MacLaren strollers and hipster customers, and felt the security guard, a large black man with red-rimmed eyes fighting to stay awake by his post, looking at me. I catch him reading the label on the bag of chips in my hand and startled he looks into my face. I nod. He nods back, and grins, giving me a silent high-five. Only black and Latin people love Red Hot potato chips, along with Pork Rinds and Slim Jims. And me, I want to add. They remind me where I’m from.

I’d proudly open two cans of Beefaroni with our new automatic opener and make dinner for my little sister and brother. We’re home from school but mom won’t be back until well past nighttime from the store. Since dad died she runs it with a single helper, a kid she hired in the neighborhood to do the heavy jobs. I heat the Beefaroni on the stove and serve it with garlic bread I learned to make on my own. Slices of bread with bits of butter to melt on it evenly in the toaster oven and sprinkled generously with garlic powder. Soft steamed broccoli with cheddar cheese melted in the microwave, I make sure my siblings eat a full portion. They are six and seven, and I take enormous pride in making a meal for them. American-style. Just like I’d read about all my young life.

posted at 12:52 PM by jenn

Filed under: general


03/13/10 12:24 PM

So much of what you wrote resonates with me. I think I will always remember how proud I was when I made ramen for the very first time to make my sister and myself dinner while the parents were at work.

Will cross my fingers that you get a book deal-- Would love to read more of your amazing writing. =)


07/04/10 04:26 PM

love this jen. and i get it. don't crave the big mac but i can throw down some hot tamalies or lemonheads like it's nobody's business.

Add your thoughts: