Culinary Comfort Amidst the Curiosity

The Accidental Midwesterner

My mom cooked everyday. For breakfast, for dinner, for company–everyday, bookending the hours she spent at a full-time job, earning the dollars she and my father would need to send their only son to his small private school only three miles down the road but a universe away from those public schools indigent to the neighborhood streets where I grew up. I never had a problem with the neighborhood kids, and neither did my parents it seemed. Our house was small but the front yard arguably the largest in the neighborhood, the gathering place for no-pads football and pickup whiffle ball games, the plastic air-streamed balls routinely launched not only over the fence but over the neighbor’s house onto four-lane Mastin Lake Road. I guess this wasn’t enough to assuage the fear of what could happen to their undersized, underweight little boy. Those schools, their brick-and-block walls, were the jungle and their child a hapless fawn.

I digress; that’s not what this piece is about. But it does reflect the sheltered nature, or perhaps a parental longing, of a child to break from the cycle of familial norms, to channel talents in a new direction. There wasn’t time for the next generation to bother himself with the tasks of his elders, those daily labors of his ancestors. He should be different–educated, artistic, creative, though with a love of Auburn football for cultural grounding. He wouldn’t need to cook, for money would replace that skill, and if not, fast food would suffice. I don’t know if that’s what they thought–they generally despised most fast food, with my father only putting up with McDonald’s so I could play on its ubiquitous and elaborate playgrounds–but as time goes by it seems to fall in line with the themes of the 1980s. Cheaper, faster, time saver. Also devoid of soul, connection, and substance.

“Food is more than just sustenance; it is the zygote of memories, of place.”

I was a child of the American South–of Southern parentage, of upbringing, of cultural and religious trappings–but in the main I was born into Reagan’s America: mass consumption, mass marketing, uninhibited excess, and homogenous thinking. It was MTV and Rambo and Rocky and Quarter Pounders with cheese, or possibly chicken parts breaded, sold, and dunked into a sauce laden with enough sugar to kill a lab rat and make addicts of the rest of us. And it was effective; when, upon a trip back from my grandparents’ home outside Birmingham my parents decided to stop into a local catfish hole-in-the-wall for dinner, a prior swing through the McDonald’s across the street was an obligation. The waitress at the fish place just smiled and let me devour those heavenly fries. Though I’m certain no outside food was allowed, her manners came more from a higher power than any arbitrary policy.

Food is more than just sustenance; it is the zygote of memories, of place. Water and shelter may accompany it alongside the basic hierarchy of needs, but it so often grounds a person’s origin story as much as where they were born or the house in which they grew up. It is the spark of fiery dinner table debates, from where to go on family vacation to the politics of local government. Its ingredients tie us to a land, whereas being American binds us only in ideal.

But many of us will abandon those lands for other, sometimes more diverse places, opposite in culture, topography, and resources. It will challenge us and change us, and in this change we will develop a new palate based upon new flavors, and new memories and anchors will take hold. I have felt those tectonic shifts, how travels to lands foreign and domestic have opened my mind, expanded the joy of culinary exploration, and how Chicago–my new home–has forced me to rethink how little I know and how much I have left to learn. This is how it should be, in this constantly connected and ever-shrinking world, that the most basic of needs can teach us about others and, ideally, about ourselves. However, it will never truly erase our nostalgic past, and in those moments of homesick we will still seek out that food that comforts us, that made us, that explains us.