As we close out 2013, I’ve been thinking a lot about memories, how some stay and some go, how some come back to us in the strangest ways. A few days ago, I was back home in southern Missouri and my grandfather stopped by to visit. He is 92 (I think?) and sometimes he is himself, sometimes he isn’t. But even on a good day, he’s hit that stage where he repeats himself, his mind settling in on a memory that he needs to retell over and over. I have seen this before in older relatives who talked seemingly in circles, frustrating their listeners, but I understand that it’s part of closing out a life, of pulling together those threads. My grandfather was telling stories about his friends when he was young, about a dangerous boat outing at Table Rock, about a woman he dated who went on to marry an abusive man who maimed her face nearly beyond recognition, about my grandmother and the day she found out she’d been disinherited in her father’s will. The night before, my father had fried catfish–his specialty–and my boys happily gobbled up the golden strips of cornmeal dusted fish, chasing it with biscuits popped out of a can and flipped in the same oil so that they taste almost like a New Orleans beignet. I didn’t grow up with my father’s fish fries because, back then, the memory of the summer he worked on the catfish farm–pulling the fish up out of the water, skinning one slick creature after another–was still too fresh in his mind and he was glad for the beef that was more plentiful, thanks to my grandparents’ farm. Time passed, of course, and the memory seems to have faded for him of that hot and miserable summer, of the money he surely didn’t keep for himself, but handed over to his mother and father to help keep the family afloat. Now, we enjoy that catfish (and I promise you, there is no better fried fish around than my dad’s) and he teaches my sons how to light the cooker outside, how to throw the match on the oil to see if it will flame up, a sign that the oil is hot enough. While my mother makes the slaw or the beans inside, he takes the boys and shows them how to measure out the cornmeal, eye-balling it, and add a little salt, but nothing more. This is a simple dish and too much of anything will surely ruin it. The boys make the runs of hot fish into the house, delivering it in a banged up cake pan and my mother takes it and puts it on a platter and covers it with foil to keep warm until every last piece is done.
So many memories begin and end with food and today I found a poem that seemed to speak to this reality in a way that is worth your time. (It is, I should note, a rare thing for me to find a poem I really love, one that makes perfect sense. When I find such a rare animal, I like to pay tribute to it.) I found this one in *Gravy*, the publication of the Southern Foodways Alliance, an organizations I have written about here before. The poem is by Sandra Beasley. Enjoy and blessings on you and yours as we cross into this new year, this 2014.
My father will never enjoy
the heavy, sunrise sweetness
of a golden tomato dashed with oil,
layered in basil. As with spinach,
as with olives, he tastes only
of salt his Texan mother
unleashed from a can
a half-century ago, feeding
four children on a budget.
We talk little of this:
the foods our parents
cook to mush, pepper to ash,
flavors forever rendered to chore;
that this too was a form of love.
What I remember is how,
during a snowstorm that stranded
our school bus, I hiked
to my grandmother’s instead.
And she made me not chicken soup from scratch,
or a braise of bacon and cabbage,
but rather a tray of tater-tots
straight from freezer to oven.
They goldened like July.
We ate them with our fingers
while we played Scrabble, waiting
until it was safe to take me home.