The story - FamilyEducation

The story

November 15,2011
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

On Monday I got to record a short bit about my grandmother's olive bread--for a segment on food memories that will air on The Story next week. It was fun to do, and even though I didn't get to say everything I wanted to say about my grandmother (it was about food, after all), it meant a lot to me to talk about her--even briefly--over the air. When I stop and think about it, it seems a little strange, this notion of food memories, or of having food memories. Yet I think very few people could say that they don't have any, or that their childhoods weren't shaped, or marked, or punctuated in even the smallest way, by some memory of food, and the person, or people cooking it. 

My food memories are good, and rich, and as comforting to me as an embrace--especially the memories I have of my grandmother, busy in her kitchen. I hope the food memories I create in my kitchen, for my children, are good and rich, too. When we first saw our house, while it was still on the market, and while we weren't even technically supposed to be looking, I fell in love with the kitchen. It is in sore need of updating, but it was, as they say in realtor lingo, those "bones" I liked--the long, well-lit space, the fact that it is joined at one end to the family room, and the other end to the office. There is no doubt at all that our kitchen is the heart of our home, just as my parents' kitchen was--and still is--the heart of my childhood home, and my grandmother's tiny but utilitarian kitchen was the heart of her home.

A few years ago, when I started teaching at my college, I asked my students to write about their own food memories. It was around Thanksgiving time, and we had been talking about food and cooking and traditions. They seemed energized by the topic. When it came time for them to hand in their papers, I looked forward to reading them, and I wasn't disappointed. I could feel my students' homesickness rise up off of the page as they described a grandmother's pie, or a mama's cooked chicken and mashed potatoes. One student, however, turned in very little on his paper. When I began to read his story, my eyes welled up with tears, because his food memories were not of plates groaning with cooked chicken and sweet potato pies. He remembered, simply, very, very white bread with pancake syrup spread on top.

Syrup sandwiches, he called them. And he ate too many of them as a child, because there just wasn't much else to eat.

I still think a lot about that student, even though it's probably been a good seven years since I taught him in that class. Food memories can come from simple places--a loaf of homemade bread, or a soup recipe that's been handed on down the line. But I think, too, what a privilege it is to even have those food memories in the first place; to be lucky enough to fill my refrigerator with fresh vegetables, and my fruit bowls with apples and pears; to recreate the breads and dishes from my grandmother's kitchen, and my mother's kitchen, and weave new magic in my own.