Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Food Takes You Back

Our professor gave us a prompt from Brian Kiteley who currently teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Denver.  It's called Bacon in Egypt.  This is it: "Think of the experience of missing a food from home when you are traveling for a long while. What happens when you actually eat this food? This exercise is about food and about homesickness. Put that at the center of your fragment of a narrative. Travel is about leaving behind the world you know and experiencing, if only temporarily, the sense of exile, even though you know you will return. Travelers almost always return."  The idea is if you are in a country where pork is not allowed, all you can think about is bacon. 

I should sell Kitely's books to thank him: I Know Many Songs, but I Cannot Sing about Egypt, The 3 AM Ephiphany writing exercises, and The River Gods a story that is about place.

Here is my response tweaked to contribute to the stories I am writing.  Elizabeth is Betsy, all grown up.  She will go to her home place and write the stories of its people.

[Back to Chickahatchie County, Tennessee]

I decided that I’d get the bends if I fly. Return should be slower than that. I need to readjust to the atmosphere. So I’m driving up 35 through Texas, and it occurs to me why I live here rather than any other state. It’s just so big. I remember driving through six countries from the Lowlands of Belgium and the Netherlands to languid Italy in the same time it will take me to get out of Texas, even though from San Antonio, I have a head start. And the scenery was better then—Brussels, Luxembourg, Esch-sur-Alzette, Strasbourg, Endigen am Kaiserstuhl, Basel, The Alps, Lake Como, Verona, to Venice. In fair Verona. Now that’s a parallel best left for the later hours when I am closer to Chickahatchie County. And it takes a long time to get there from here. I’m not even in Austin yet.

The food was better on that European trip. Different. No, better. Brisket is good, but how can I get anything decent on the interstate? Truth be told, the rest stops on the A4 were no great thing either. But since I was in no hurry back then, I got off the highway often and ate at great little gasthauses and caf├ęs along the way. Truth be told, I am in no hurry now and would really rather not be going at all. I feel compelled, not pulled, as if something is shoving me out of Texas and away from decent guacamole and carnitas, forget menudo. There won’t be any in Bourne.

Bourne. Bourne where I was born. I never even say that name in my head any more. Always call it Chickahatchie County, when I call it at all. Just being on the way is changing me. I don’t want to be that person, that girl up the tree. My giant white oak was the best rest stop I ever had. And the food. Grandy would put down plywood onto saw horses for tables under the tree for homecoming or picnic dinners—family reunions. Family. Reunions. Now there’s something better left for later, as well. The food, though. Pecan and chess pie for holidays. Homecoming meant pimento-cheese sandwiches, fried chicken, potato salad, and deviled eggs. Every time someone set down a platter or dish, the wood would sag a bit. I always worried for the food. Brunswick stew cooked up in a big iron cauldron over a wood fire under my tree. Grandy stroking and stirring and scraping with a boat paddle he used just for stew. People would come from all around on a Brunswick stew day, bringing Mason jars and appetites. Nobody ever went hungry at Grandy and Memma’s house. Bourne, back then, saw too many hungry people though.

Hands from the fields, mornings spent picking cotton, dragging heavy canvas bags strapped over their shoulders back to the trailer for weigh in, cast their eyes at the back porch door a ways off where they would sit at noon with a plate of dumplings or cornbread and field peas. Cheap farm food but plenty of it. I wonder now if that was the only meal of the day for some of them. No. Truth be told, I know it was. Poor Blacks wanted to work at our farm. Grandy was known as a good employer, not a cheat on weights, with a fair cook for a farm wife who wouldn’t begrudge a black hand another piece of cornbread, even if she only served up the fragrant fried chicken to her family. Nothing like grease to carry a smell.

I got my first whipping from Memma over fried chicken. Not one to think, I had carried my fried chicken leg out toward the end of the porch where Grandy sat with the hands. Having finished his lunch in gulps, Grandy sat discussing who would be needed for the next day’s picking and where and when. Memma had come out with a bowl of butter beans ready to ladle seconds or thirds to anyone. When she saw me, her three-year-old black church shoes, now work shoes scuffed and turned down at the sides, had skidded on the porch boards.

Hyeah, Jim. That was all she had said as she had handed the bowl to Grandy and snatched me up by my chicken-leg-grasping right arm.

I got a whipping with a wooden kitchen spoon, all the time Memma hissing sotto voce in my ear about how me waving that chicken leg around out there in front of those hands was just the living end. Didn’t I have any sense of decency? What in the world was I thinking? Every time I eat fried chicken now, I think of that. And I can’t even hold the leg of a chicken without thinking about hungry people and choking a little. A lot of what I learned with Grandy and Memma is overlaid with the smell of sausage frying or the taste of home-churned yellow butter on one of Grandy’s biscuits. I don’t really crave anything from that time except maybe Brunswick stew, which no one can ever make again. The knack for that died with Grandy. I don’t crave any food of Bourne.

No. That’s not true. The idea of a buttered biscuit has brought one thing to mind as I slide past the exits for Onion Creek and Slaughter Lane. Sweet sorghum molasses. Thick, acidy sweet. Rich fragrant ropes of it coming out of a jar slower than the summer between third and fourth grades. I would hold a knife like Grandy showed me, and when there was just a little too much sorghum on the plate of busted-open biscuits, I would cut the flow off like slicing meat. It was that thick. I never wanted it heated up in a saucepan like Memma did hers. I liked to see it melt in with the golden butter right on the china plate. You can’t get butter like that anymore. That died with Grandy’s cows. And I haven’t tasted sorghum molasses in 30 years, even though I’ve seen it at farm stands up in the Texas Hill Country. Sorghum molasses comes from one place for me. Chickahatchie County. It’s cooked up in a big cauldron like Grandy’s. And this is the most important thing about sorghum molasses. It has to be from the juice of sorghum cane ground on a mill by the slow steady paces of a Tennessee mule, walking in circles, going nowhere his own self, but coming up with something really special for his trouble.


Already, this exercise has been changed around, tweaked, and poured through a filter to fit into the longer story of Chickahatchie.  It's really starting to be a cohesive group of various parts for me.