Sunday, March 13, 2011
Food and Memory
Oddly enough, the essays took me down a path of short, once-forgotten-but-suddenly-remembered times associated with food, that is, if sweets count as food.
The first home I can remember living in, a duplex in a subdivision of duplexes called Azalea Gardens, off the Jefferson Highway in suburban New Orleans. Our duplex disappeared years ago to make way for a drugstore parking lot. We lived there from the time I was 2 to when I was 4 going on 5. Next door was a retired couple, Mr. and Mrs. Milner. My older brother and I were their surrogate grandchildren. I don’t know how my brother fared, but Mr. Milner would slip me a Kraft vanilla fudge candy square almost every day. I loved Mr. Milner.
A few years later, daily recess at John Clancy Elementary School meant lining up ion the cafeteria to get my ice cream for three cents. The ice cream varied, but it was usually one of three things: a fudgcicle, a polar bar (chocolate covered vanilla ice cream on a stick) or a dreamcicle, which tasted organgey and peachy and sherbety.
One winter’s day in second grade (if New Orleans really had winters), it snowed about half an inch. The next morning, my father took me outside and made snow ice cream. I was amazed.
A few years after that, I’d be walking with my grandmother to Kelley Memorial Baptist Church in Shreveport for the Sunday afternoon ice cream social. Everyone brought homemade ice cream. The adults would talk and fan themselves in the summer heat while the children ran and played in the big open field behind the church.
Every Christmas, my grandmother would mail a sizeable sample of her divinity fudge to us in New Orleans. My parents loved it. I didn’t. It was probably the only thing I didn’t like that was associated with my grandmother.
The pre- and early teen years – 12, 13 and 14 – were the King Cake party years. Today you can find King Cakes just about everywhere during the Mardi Gras season, but then it was all New Orleans. It was an official “boys and girls” party, heavily supervised by mothers, with the boys generally lined up on one side of someone’s living room and the girls on the other, with lots of eyes darting and averting, glances being stolen, and feet shuffling (the boys did the feet shuffling). Soon out would come the King Cake, more like a coffee cake or bread, and pieces served. Whoever’s piece contained the plastic baby became the king or queen to host the next party.
In high school, if you went to a formal dance or a prom, you had to finish the evening at Café du Monde or Morning Call in the French Quarter for café au lait and beignets, or French doughnuts. I think it was a law. High school kids in tuxedos and formal dresses would throng the two places.
One non-sweet memory: In college, certain Saturday nights were designated “Hymel’s Nights” (pronounced E-mel’s). It was particularly for those of us who would find ourselves dateless. We’d pile into cars, and drive south from Baton Rouge down to Hymel’s Restaurant on the River Road near Gonzales. The place was rather cavernous and of plain décor – picnic tables strung together and covered in newspaper. The waitresses would dump mounds of boiled shrimp and crawfish on the tables, and stop by every so often to wad up the newspapers filled with empty shells. The accompaniment for the seafood was beer. Hymel’s specialized in a 32-ounce glass of beer. Fraternity boys specialized in chug-a-lug contests. A jukebox played country western and Cajun music.
It’s odd, but these little stories are, to me, what the spirit of food can often be about – not the formal traditions and special occasions, but rather the normal times of living and growing up.
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Photograph: Cameron Young eating his first piece of King Cake, by Stephanie Young. Note the Mardi Gras beads around his neck.