Published on March 28th, 2023 | by Jen Schneider1
On Cravings: Foods I Used to Love
They were Philadelphia natives born on foreign soil. Too young to remember their origins. Too old not to care. Are we almost home, I’d often ask, as the rickety four-door sedan weaved through and around potholes and back streets. You’re already there, they’d say. Immigrants to a city of brotherly love. Fleeing hate. Firm in resolve. Ripe for relief. Believers in hard work and worn hands. Both in and of love – expertly and exquisitely home baked.
He worked a fish store on the north side of the city. His daily uniform a cotton tee with deeply rooted underarm stains and a canvas overcoat with hand-embroidered initials. Both baked of starch (corn and potato) and stitching (blanket and cross). Pomp and circumstance. Pride and creation. Attire as important as demeanor. Produce and plating as critical as the present tense and persistent ponderings. A smile his constant companion, along with the neighborhood regulars and a dose of daily deliveries. Box trucks, street patrol, and hunger an ongoing melody.
We’d pick him up at closing time. The El Train often no more reliable (or comfortable) than an off-key refrain. His hands always slimy. His nail beds full of grime – fish scales, onion rings, orange rinds. Mostly, the blessings of time. All smells deeply ingrained. Sweet while sour. Fun while foul. Her hands never left the wheel. Her right foot hovered over the gas pedal. As he slipped into the back seat, I would inhale, then embrace his torso. Fingers interlocked. Safety in close quarters. They never wanted for anything other than the same. I never understood the work. Or the worry. An apple a day keeps the doctor away, I’d study then repeat. Dated encyclopedias (from A to Z) a source of both recipes and reasoning. Mark-ups forever depleting.
Now, flavors linger like memories and Mr. Softee trucks. Soft winds waltz up and down the avenue. Through northeast corridors. Over boulevards. Subtle breezes. Unexpected sneezes. Small packs of Kleenex in front right pockets. The truth always taunts, she’d say. Her travels through rough waters to later birth a baby while he was overseas (a sailor with no ability to swim) never far from memory. Locked front gates. Tired screened doors. Tires in need of fresh air. Daily deliveries of milk and eggs on back left porches. War rages (and wages) in recollections even as territories turn friendly. Silhouettes walk behind lace curtains. Cars run on slow engines. Waiting for residents to emerge through screen doors and engage. Vignettes in (and of) all corners. Casual goodbyes. Hearty hellos. Stew, then simmer. Ultimate blows. From bedside to graveside, cravings altered. Through thick and thin, she’d often whisper. If only consommé (beef and chicken) didn’t mean the end. His shop had been stocked with hearty fare. Stews and casseroles. Even the fish filet came with a side of slaw and a two-liter Root Beer.
Though they spoke little of their upbringing, I knew it wasn’t a peaches-and-cream dream. Money was tight. Fish sightings far and few between. Vaccines and offspring mingled out of step. Polio claimed prime time sights and dished new plights. A sister abruptly disabled. Parents ultimately unable to balance life’s many weights. Oatmeal an easy way to deflate. As they (and their rarely perused wine collection) aged, I’d sip soup (a carousel of split pea, vegetable barley, chicken matzo ball) most Thursdays. Just after eight. Card night. Time to place bets against the universe and all its might. They’d pull out a special table. Hexagonal in shape. I’d sit in the room’s back corner. Just beneath the rain lamp. All oil beads alive. In full grass skirt vibes. I’d slurp, always careful not to burp – though the elder at the head of the table often did – and consume stories freshly baked. I had a special seat. I’d sit cross-legged, with Lego bricks at my feet, and listen while they dealt cards and shared memories late into the night. Neither miles nor oceans of many yards diluted the intense flavor of freedom to talk beyond the ears of guards.
Ultimately, new destinations planted seeds that took root. Seasons changed as flavors fumbled like fingers under blankets at dawn. Unsure of time, place, and setting. Familiar melodies mingled then muddied. Visits turned from shared daily plights to monthly highlights. The transistor radio continued to stream Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. The cookie jar (Chips Ahoy) remained off limits until dark. Silence periodically punctuated with high-pitched laughter, football toss growls, and poker-faced hands. Years later, amidst houses of cards and flushes in asymmetrical form, their memory persists. Some days clear like the atmosphere. Others more muddled. Recollections drip like cups of Folgers. His back hunched. Her heart faltered. The past blends with the present. Soiled fingers place keys in locks. The car engine idles. Three. Two. One. A body approaches. Another turns. Breaths pulse. It’s no longer them. I crave their attendance. Ties of perfect blue satin knots. Oxfords fully buttoned. Hair expertly teased. Florsheim lace-ups. Boysenberry lip cream. Reebok walkers. Polyester slacks – beige, navy, and Kelly green. Orange Tic Tacs in left front pockets. Hems neatly tucked. Breath and air – never plucked.
Blood pulsed in veins. Vanity conspired with time and mirrors in 3D. Daily, I covet their presence and their pantry. Promises of forever amidst beds (handstitched quilts) and babies (with their name) still unmade. Chocolate kisses at dusk. Starlight mints on cloudy nights. Lemonade scented hugs. Blackberry flavored whispers. I stock and stack. Curate and recreate. Shopping totes and Insta-carts. Foods both canned and produce, frozen and fresh, they (and I) used to love. In random (un-alphabetical) ordered.
Tomatoes. He was a tough consumer. Well trained by customers with their own tics. Tactics and trails persist in foreign lands. He had little tolerance for restraint. Preferred to punctuate silence with proclamations of over-priced and off prime produce. His tell – a voice that grew louder as his hearing diminished. All meals more a wait and see. Courses less frequently choreographed with more inappropriate comedy. Mostly, a daily prayer for a smooth finish. All checks made.
Bologna. Bologna (Oscar Meyer) on white (Wonder) was a favorite. Honey mustard on one slice. Spicy relish on another. Two outer slabs with a dab of mayo. Awful, I know. And just as delicious. Preservatives not yet widely produced. Ziplocked five days a week. Consumption ceased when a co-worked packed her own bologna on Wonder. The rest of the crew wondered why. He processed the taunt. Tasered the tease. No need to release.
Seven-Layer Dip. A collage of day jobs. A collection of spiced selections curated over time. Many from soils unknown. Crab dip. Horseradish. Maraschino cherries. A curious blend of sweet and sour. A blend of perspectives that smelled persistently funny (also persistently mine).
Salmon Cakes with a side of Mac and Cheese. They’d share scoops of hand-kneaded patties and noodles (softly boiled) while they’d meet to watch birds, Days of Our Lives, and shoot the breeze. With As the World Turns on the television, one unexpectedly took sick. Her tastes unexpectedly turned, and her temperament flared. We all knew something had to be wrong. Houses of cards fell along with vitals.
Mashed Potatoes. In the hurting home (rehab, as it was also known), mounds of mashed were a daily delivery. Menus of limp muscles and deflated energy. The Price is Right would stream amidst background mayhem and mystery (also misery).
Hearty-Man Meals. The local market ran sales and he’d run. A soul in rubber soles sought to stake a claim on fake steak, then balk. Salisbury meat and gravy. Sides of green beans. Cinnamon apple delight. Swanson oven timed and over talked.
Chocolate Shakes. Ensure was delivered by a chap in a brown suit. The truck came three times a week. I wondered why we couldn’t stockpile. More trays. Fewer days. Extra miles. Fewer reminders.
Entenmann’s Devils Food Cake. Iced and sliced. From metal racks to Formica stacks. The square carton a regular at the dinner table. Moist and mostly fresh. Consumed well before “Sell By” dates loomed. Serving sizes perpetually out of alignment with well endowed portions. Lips layered in cranberry gloss smacked. Dollops of icing on noses tracked.
Charlie’s Chips. Deliveries arrived with a regularity I grew to anticipate. The circular tins stocked and stacked, their roots at my feet. Chocolate morsels. Sweet when on the truck. Ruffled feathers. Delays inevitable. Doorbells out of tune with traffic and the weather.
Beer. I never knew that day in the hospital would be our last. No time to embrace. To hug her head, her torso, her waist. Cotton socks on cold toes. Bowls of cold soup on nightstands. Untouched. Travel plans changed. The van left. All cells out of range. The photo showed her smiling. Dentures aligned. Ruby red lipstick. To a casual observer everything looked divine. She had a beer bottle in one hand — raised in a toast. A final image clicked to roast.
Soft pretzels. A man with no place to call home had a dozen. Our car idled. We had no change. Also, no bills. He spit at us. Just like that. Sprays of salt. Blankets of frustration. We stalled then fueled under the weight of confusions. I ran home, grabbed a bill and trotted back up the hill. He was nowhere to be found. His bag of stale pretzels on the ground.
Grits. Once a marker of a morning well made. Bowls fully stocked. He’d ultimately order them when blue. There was always a solid clue. A curious blend of nostalgia and a reminder of the sometimes-lingering haunts of a place once called home.
Melons. A lesson in geometry. Cubed and balled. Symmetrical and not. A palette of pastel hues. A centerpiece lot. I was allergic as the melon made my ears itch (sometimes twitch). They knew, but prioritized vitamins in economical lots.
Ultimately, a bowl of Alphabet soup. Now, syllables simmer as letters form strands as infinite as the ABCs. Applesauce. Artichokes. Borscht. Bitter herbs on Seder plates. Bake sales. Cantaloupe. Crepes. Dried oats. Danish Butter Cookies. Dime store discounts. Elephant Ears. Fountain sodas. Fresh fruit. Fresher fish – filet of flounder most days. Grits. Hard Hats. Happiness in healthy helpings. Until the shadow of the letters turned. Raspberry sauce solidified. Pretzels twisted. Potatoes mashed. Fingers floundered. Shiva platters proliferated. Stories of war. Surgery scars. Phantom pain. Ghosts of foreign lands. The memories as strong as his coffee and her Sanka. Even so, I can no longer recall the last time I consumed their favorite soup. Along with my daily allotment of calories, I crave them (and the foods we used to love). Life at its best, home baked of love and longing. Quintessentially bittersweet.