Digesting Memories: Of Food and Family

I discovered sugar at the age of six, in the farmhouse kitchen of my great-grandparents, in the processed form of peanut butter and peaches.  Peanut butter, as in: Skippy, creamy, homogenized with oil.  Peaches, as in: Libby’s, canned, cling, in high fructose corn syrup. 

My mother had lived in that rickety old house in Silverton, Oregon, when I was a toddler, before her grandparents bought the property.  But it hardly looked the same.  My great-grandfather Victor had most of it torn down and remodeled, right before having the stroke that would confine him to a wheelchair, where he sat smiling a Cheshire-cat smile, smoking cigars and blowing smoke rings, bearing a startling resemblance to Vincent Gardenia in Moonstruck.  Meanwhile my great-grandmother’s hair went white as Cascade Mountain snow.  The last time I saw her she was watching The Price is Right, and had no idea who I was.  Alzheimer’s had all but erased most of her personality.  

That house was the first one I ever lived in, but my memories are scant because I was so young. My great-grandparents no doubt made many memories there, in the last home they would make together.  Then, due to my great-grandfather’s escalating medical needs, the two of them had to be put into separate senior care homes…after living together for 70 years.  They both faded, losing their will to live.  That was one of the first times my heart ever broke.           

Born in Syria to missionary parents in 1900, grandpa Victor had a penchant for Santa Fe brand cigars, jokes, and magic tricks.  In the 30’s he started a business called Keystone Amusement, leasing jukeboxes to taverns and diners around northwestern Oregon.  When I was a boy, boxes of heavy old 78 records were stored in the chicken coop behind the house, their thick edges collecting dust and the acrid smell of chicken manure, alongside stacks of even more boxes containing 45-speed records. 

That’s where I was at the precise moment when I discovered processed sugar.  One minute I was standing in the chicken coop marveling at the sheer antique physicality of all those records; the next, I was at my grandmother’s kitchen counter, spoon in hand, unattended for the moment.  

Particular moments tattoo themselves onto our sense memory.  This, for me, was one of those, inseparable from the fact that my own house was destitute of sugar, managed as it was by my radically health-conscious mother.  I would spend a good deal of my childhood searching for it elsewhere.  Searching, as in: on the hunt, in quest of, scavenging, pedaling to a produce market at a country-road intersection, where I exchanged allowance money – not for fruit grown by a local farmer – but for a candy bar and a can of orange Crush.

Sugar is poison as far as our bodies are concerned.  I wish I could say I’ve become a shining example of restraint and evolution, but the only thing I’d be using my soapbox for is as a stool to help me reach the chocolate stashed on the top shelf.  Even with the knowledge of food-science research (and preceding centuries of tribal wisdom), I struggle to transcend squirrel status.  The need for natural sugar is hard-wired into our biology, but an addiction to its toxic processed forms rivals the most addictive drugs.  (Dopamine and euphoria?  Yes please.)  In the archipelago of habitual behavior, sometimes we island-hop, other times we get stranded. 

I grew up vegetarian and lactose intolerant, an only child with a single-parent mom.  A raw food advocate and holistic living practitioner, my mother juiced wheatgrass, sprouted sprouts, fermented probiotics, and worked wonders as an organic gardener.  Every house I grew up in had a wood stove and no television; ours was a reading household.  I’d spend hours reading, picking glumly at my garden-fresh salads, their vibrance and nutritional value lost on me, my food-obsessed brain eagerly awaiting my next stay at grandma’s house.  Grandma’s: where I could count on the fridge being well-stocked with an abundance of meat, and the unchanging placement of a crystal bowl filled with M and M’s near the record cabinet.

My grandma Ruth had everything my child’s mind deemed to be most important in life: Dr. Seuss books, a pool table, stacks of 45-speed records (hand-me-downs from grandpa Victor’s jukebox business), TV, and sweets.  She would fry kielbasa for breakfast, give me liverwurst for lunch, and braise pot roast for dinner.  Then I’d collapse onto the carpeted floor in front of the TV, my scrawny bag of flesh tuckered out from digesting so much animal protein in such a short amount of time.  I’m not certain just how aware my mom was of this carnivorous debauchery, but I suspect she knew and allowed it to continue with a certain amount of trepidation.

Ruth would cook an enormous Sunday breakfast that included bacon and hot chocolate before returning me to my mother’s organic palace of enzymes and nutrients.  I loved my mom, but I harbored resentment around feeling forced to grow up differently.  I couldn’t understand why she made me eat differently than everyone else: my friends at school, our neighbors, the rest of the family.  Everyone else’s refusal to eat the way my mom did undermined my faith in it.  One summer I went to spend a week with my dad; my mom wrote out a long list of everything I wasn’t allowed to eat and told me to give it to him when I arrived.  We weren’t even out of the airport before he wadded up the paper and chucked it in a nearby trashcan.  Before long, we were digging into chili-dogs and hot-fudge sundaes. 

Growing up with such limited food options has definitely had its effects on my eating habits over the years, and is no doubt a big part of why I became a chef.  As a boy, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I answered “food taster”, which was no surprise considering everything I longed to taste.  One Christmas we somehow ended up with one of those round holiday tins of chocolate-walnut fudge you wish your relative wouldn’t have sent, and one afternoon I found myself home alone with it.  I regret to admit I ate the entire tin – every last piece – all the while telling myself mom wouldn’t notice.  Later, sick as a dog, I puked on a shrub just outside our back door, the plant’s inability to grow back serving as a powerful reminder of my first lesson in glut and excess.

I’ve learned a lot about the uses of food since then.  Food as survival, occupation, entertainment; as distraction, medicine, addiction.  My mom employed the healing powers of wheatgrass and raw food in an effort to battle breast cancer, but even she occasionally succumbed to the craving for a hamburger and fries, straddling the fence between living to eat and eating to live.  She passed at 42, at home in a hospital bed hooked up to a morphine drip.  By the time I would begin taking care of myself with any measure of self-respect, I would be close to that age myself.  Cancer came knocking on Grandma Ruth’s door too, in her kidneys.  Seeing that the remainder of her life would require dialysis in order to sustain it, she answered that knock by exercising her right – as an Oregon resident – to perform assisted suicide.  A few weeks later, a Death with Dignity doctor stood in her kitchen dissolving a tablet into what would be her last dirty martini.

I dip in and out of memory like an icy swimming hole in July: some days it’s welcome refreshment, other days it’s shocking.   

There have been so many costs – visible and invisible – wrapped up in my food choices over the years, and in the ways the United States goes about producing its food.  Everything in life has a price that has nothing to do with money.  It may be that our small day-to-day decisions are the real currency of our lives.  Those small decisions, it turns out, are anything but small, adding up to be the total sum of nothing less than how we have lived our life.  Life is paradoxical, though, and human behavior is often contradictory: sometimes we eat emotionally, sometimes intentionally, sometimes in reaction to social pressure, or perhaps we are caught up in a societal myth that’s been perpetuated for too long.  Sometimes it’s a health-related choice and our personal survival is staked on how we eat; sometimes old habits die so hard we never get out from under them, mired in cycles of misguided behavior, bogged down in old trauma that’s been avoided and never tended to, or in beliefs about ourselves that just aren’t true.   

In the United States our ideas of what “healthy” food is are largely in reaction to advertising, and our notions are corroded by an outdated system that puts the profit of the machine before the health of the people.  Our Food and Drug Administration makes claims that are the product of incestuous corporate handshakes and competing profit margins.  Understanding this helps resolve our confusion around why “food” and “drugs” are part of the same administration to begin with.  (Milk…it does a body good.  Beef…it’s what’s for dinner.  Got Milk?)  A more honest ad campaign might be Sick from too much milk? We’ve got the drug you need. 

As if that weren’t enough, we have the challenge of living in a society where most people are addicted to processed food and sugar.  We are conditioned to see processed food as normal; its normalisation is thoroughly embroidered throughout the patchwork quilt of our culture.  Not to mention how impossible it seems to remove sugar from one’s diet, when one discovers it has been added to practically everything.    

Entitlement, too, is embedded in the collective American psyche.  We’ve been led to believe we should be able to go out and buy almost any ingredient at any time of year, and that we are somehow getting the short end of the stick if we can’t get whatever we want, whenever we want it.  American chefs and cooks are instilled with a fear of ever running out of anything, in order to meet this absurd demand and social expectation.  The American food and hospitality industry generates a ponderous, shameful amount of food waste in order to meet this expectation.  I know – I’ve watched it happen for 25 years.  If we want to create healthy change for ourselves and the planet, we will need to abandon the societal myth of food choice entitlement, stop defining the main course as meat, collectively see animals as sentient beings, drastically overhaul the ways we produce food, and rethink our insistence of assigning economic value to everything under the sun.  As with climate change, if we don’t change our food systems, we’ll only be hastening our own demise.  We already are.  Drought, famine, climate refugees: it’s all here, now. 

The earth is over 4 billion years old, and will be around for millions more unless there’s a random astronomical event that destroys it.  Humans?  Like so many other species, we will have come and gone.

These days it feels like I’m completing a circle, honoring my mom with every plant-based meal I prepare.  What better dedication to the wisdom she laid before me at life’s beginning, then to pick it up with my own two hands and carry it forward.  Once upon a time, her choices seemed so unconventional; I resented them in my youth, desperately wanting to be “normal”.  Now, I see in them the natural solution to so many problems, and the conventional keeps revealing itself to be nothing short of madness.  Now, when I stick my nose in a jar of Skippy all I smell is rancid oil, homogenized and filled out with a few peanuts.     

It is indeed a jungle out there.  Ever since navigating a bomb crater of alcoholism in my twenties, life has been sliced cleanly in two, youth irrevocably divided from age.  Sometimes I fantasize about going back in time and being a kid again, when ignorance still held a measure of bliss, but I wouldn’t be escaping anything, because there I’d be, standing again at that kitchen counter, spoon in hand, convinced I’d stumbled into an undiscovered epicurean paradise.  Better to be here now, just trying to live as well as I can with what time I am given, though some days can feel like I’ve just been transported to the adult world by a time machine, the mud of my rainy Oregon country childhood still caught in the tracks of my shoes.    

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