November 19, 2022
“Great food is like great sex. The more you have the more you want.” GAEL GREENE
“The road to hell is paved with leeks and potatoes” JULIE POWELL
Just so with writing.
It’s been five months since our debut issue, and I’m delighted we received a warm welcome from the literary community. We are so grateful to our readers and writers—thank you! Since we opened for our first submissions a little over a year ago, I’ve noticed more emphasis on how writers incorporate food into their narratives. Several new literary magazines with a food focus have emerged, there’s more recognition of personal essays in food magazines like Saveur, bon appétit, Better Homes & Gardens, Southern Living, Food52, The Bitter Southerner, and Garden & Gun—to mention only a few. Everywhere I look, there’s a new special issue or contest devoted to food experiences.
RUBY’s second issue features twenty stunning writers and their flash fiction, flash creative nonfiction, flash hybrid prose, and themed essays on Covid-19. This issue includes an updated version of our online contributor’s cookbook, the Culinaria, with Issue Two’s creative, provocative, and inspirational writer-recipes. Don’t overlook them. The layout of our online cookbook is evolving to accommodate the number of recipes—linking up recipes with author’s works, additional pages and sections—and we want to publish a cookbook next year. I can’t go any further without thanking our staff. I am immeasurably grateful for their assistance in producing this issue. Special thanks go to assistant editor Amy Barnes, associate editor Jessie Payne, and editor John Buhrmann. This issue would not have happened without them.
RUBY enjoys exposure in The Writer, the U.S.’s oldest magazine devoted to writers and publishing. Melissa Hart interviewed me to feature RUBY for their November/December double issue’s literary spotlight. I couldn’t be more excited. Also, a few months ago RUBY joined as a new member of CLMP, the Community Of Literary Magazines and Presses, maintaining our commitment to ethics in independent publishing.
The food writing world mourns two brilliant lights this past month, Gael Green and Julie Powell. Trailblazing food writer, critic, and memoirist Gael Green died at age 88 on November 1. Julie Powell, aged 49 years, influential food blogger and writer whose fascination with Julia Child was featured in the film, Julie &Julia, died suddenly in her home on October 26 from what appears to be complications of Covid. Amanda Hesser, a founder of Food52, writes that Powell “upended food writing.” Our condolences extend to these extraordinary women’s loved ones.
As Twitter burns and we writers mourn the community and connections we’ve built there, I cling to hope that it will somehow sustain—and I’ve joined the flash Discord server and am looking at other alternatives. Meanwhile, find RUBY and me on Facebook and Instagram and always at our online home.
I hope you enjoy Issue Two. We do.
With much love,
The ground beneath me shakes. Something inside me really hurts. I can’t sit or stand so I float away –at least inside my head. It doesn’t work, because I can still hear my own sobs mingling with Baba’s; his apologies dislocating the silence.
The cake flashed behind my eyes, filling my head. Baba’s still holding his belt, still looking apologetic after the beating. Pain blooms under my dress, behind my clavicle, all the way to the vaccine mark on my upper arm. I’m hurting and it’s not supposed to hurt because it’s my birthday, because I’m in my favorite white dress with baby blue ribbons, because there’s balloons and streamers and special birthday plates, and…cake.
I look again at the cake, and feel in my deepest of hearts that I might not get to steal a bite or lick the frosting like I tried to a while ago.
Mama rushes in and out of our tiny kitchen with our staple Egyptian dishes like Mousakkah and Molokhiyasoup, then follows with Tabouleh and Fattoush salads she adapted from our Lebanese neighbors, and then comes out this time with the roasted leg of lamb with saffron Biryani rice underneath—- a notorious dish Mama painstakingly learned to cook after we moved to Dubai— adding more to an impossibly crowded dining table.
I rub against red skin and for a split-second our eyes meet. She looks pretty satisfied with her achievement.
I run off when I hear the trilling ring of our doorbell, but Baba beats me to it. I try to focus on the beautifully wrapped birthday gifts I’ll get as guests start pouring in with their children. Uncle Hany and his wife Tante Nashwa arrive first, then her brother Uncle Tamer, then Uncle Mohammed Nayal and his wife Tante Amal— Mama’s best friend at the time. I have to handshake each and every one of them, except for Uncle Tamer who wraps me up in a bear hug and actually remembers to tell me happy birthday and ask after my sleeping baby sister.
Uncle Tamer has a stripling-thin face that speaks volumes of exhaustion and a sense of longing of some sort. His sister Tante Nashwa used to say that he felt everything larger than life, that to him living far away from home was as much grueling as it was a relief. It seems adults can’t really figure out what they feel. I don’t want to grow up into that.
There’s a total of thirteen uncles and tantes other than the children in the house. Some trail after Baba into our modest living room and most prefer to sit around the dining table enjoying the influx of aromas. Of course, only few of them were actually my uncles, as in Baba’s brothers, but back then I was taught to call any man who wasn’t my father either Ammo or Uncle, and any woman who wasn’t my mother, Tante.
The children, some the same age as I, others older decide to play the only game they feel comfortable playing in crowded places. So, I hide and they seek. I hide in my parent’s bedroom where my sister’s sound asleep. I feel a little angry then because she’s missing my birthday.
At the age of five, I try to perfect being invisible for my parents’ sake. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
It’s a calculated risk when I decide to hide under the dining table close to my birthday cake. I face a myriad of boots, flats, slippers and pointy heels. I make sure to keep my distance from Mama’s studded slippers. I hear them discuss the recent spike in gold prices, shared recipes and concerns about the ongoing Gulf war. Tante Amal starts and leads most of the conversations. She’s the journalist, the intellectual and the prettiest woman in the room with fair skin, hazel brown eyes and that 70’s Farrah Fawcett hairdo. When the tantes agree with whatever Tante Amal says and one of the Uncles praises her insights, Mama starts tapping her feet, something she does whenever she’s angry or anxious. Adults puzzle me most of time. Eventually, my parents call out for everyone to gather round the table and start singing the Happy Birthday Song.
When it’s all over and everyone’s gone and all leftover food is stored in the fridge, I tiptoe to the kitchen in the hopes of having some of my cake. I didn’t have any during the party because there were too many guests. I take one big bite and my stomach’s on fire. I spit the bits left in my mouth. The Birthday’s gone out of it. The cake no longer tastes like cake.
Birthday Cake is the first story in my upcoming memoir in flash collection. The decision to start writing a memoir focusing on remembering the traumas that took place around food was no easy decision. I’ve been chronically ill the past couple of years. When traditional and alternative medicine failed to provide treatments, professionals simply blamed it on food, specifically on gluten and sugar and nightshades, and lectins and fructose in fruits, and lactose in milk, aflatoxins in peanuts, strains of mold in coffee, and so forth. I decided to give hypnotherapy a shot and after having visited or rather summoned that black box called childhood, I realized food issues were always triggered by trauma. I became an overweight adolescent right after puberty which was the precursor to womanhood and womanhood in my culture was always something to be ashamed of. When my father died, grief took over for many years, I lost all the weight I had built up to protect myself. When I got pregnant, the weight crept back slowly. When I was subjected to trauma, again, in my mid-thirties I lost the weight and lost myself with it. The events and observations in Birthday Cake took place when I was five years old. I think that’s the age when children start losing their superpowers, their invincibility, and ultimately their true self. Creating a timeline that follows through all those life-changing food-centered focal points helped me understand my attachment patterns and my coping mechanisms. I was also able to clearly see what psychoanalyst Carl Jung called “the shadow.” Everything I repressed or rejected manifested in some way or another in my life. So, whenever I feel pain or anxiety, I try to analyze the message. Foods, herbs, and spices are now advisors, healers, and good friends that help me reach that place of self-actualization.
Riham Adly is a flash fiction writer from Giza, Egypt. She is a Pushcart and Best of the Net nominee. In 2020 her flash made it into the Best of the Net anthology. Riham won the Makan Award in 2013 and won second prize in the Strands International Flash Fiction Competition in 2022. Her fiction has appeared in over 50 online journals such as Litro Magazine, Lost Balloon, The Flash Flood, Bending Genres, The Citron Review, The Sunlight Press, Flash Fiction Magazine, Menacing Hedge, Flash Frontier, Flash Back, Ellipsis Zine, Okay Donkey, and New Flash Fiction Review among others. . Riham’s collection “Love is Make-Believe” was released in Nov 2021 by Clarendon Press. She is the first African, Arab woman to have a flash fiction collection published in English.
Take Only What You Need
“What about this jar of baker’s yeast? It’s going to expire in a month, and who knows when we’ll be back.”
“Jenn, take only what you need. Remember there’s limited space in the car.”
I placed the jar back on the shelf. It seemed easily replaceable at the time.
When my fiancé and I suddenly decided to leave our Manhattan apartment on Friday, March 13, 2020, we made a pact to pack only the essentials.
A global pandemic has a funny way of drawing out thoughts of what is really needed. Food. Family. Access to the wilderness.
So after hearing rumors of a citywide lockdown, we left our urban apartment for my parent’s rural residence, a place where all three were in abundance—at least until we started to run low on fresh food.
With both my parents considered part of the “vulnerable population,” we made another pact to avoid public places, but their small town had limited options for curbside grocery pickup. We had brought a stash of canned goods and frozen meals from the city, but as the weeks went by, produce soon ran out.
One Saturday, my fiancé and I finally decided to get out of the house and seek respite in the woods. We sketched out a ten-mile hike that would take us along the next segment of the trail we had started two years earlier, during a very different kind of Spring Break than the forced one we find ourselves in today.
Though I had left behind the baker’s yeast, our essential items had thankfully included my compass and hiking boots. We tossed two facemasks in a daypack—were we preparing for a hike or a bank heist?—and we were almost ready. We just needed enough snacks to fuel us along the way.
At the bottom of the quarantine food bin, we found some turkey jerky and an almost- empty bag of granola. I added “granola” to a list on the also almost-empty fridge, where we kept track of all the foods we hoped to find one day. Our cravings ranged from the fanciful, like pomegranates, to the worryingly quotidian essentials, like onions for the family soup pot.
“When we get back, Mom,” I promised, “I’ll call a few more places and see if they’re delivering yet, and if they have what we need.”
Our route had us park one car at a distant access point in a field of tall weeds, and the other, where we started our journey, in an abandoned parking lot next to a McDonald’s. The fastest food in the world was suddenly useless.
We left the golden arches towering overhead and headed eastward on cracked, tilted sidewalk slabs, which soon gave way to a nameless backcountry road. Without a car in sight, and just the occasional onlooker peeking out from behind a curtain, we felt very much like apocalypse surveyors, venturing out to see what was left.
But the woods and the mountains were as they had always been. It was a relief to step into a world that, unlike New York City, looked and felt the same “pre-“ and “post-”…whatever this is.
Wandering along next to the sun-dappled forest floor, we saw verdant shoots of the first plants of spring. The world underneath was just waking up from its dormant season, still mostly marked by the crinkled brown leaves that had survived one more winter.
I double-checked the notes on the back of the official map.
“Water is available from the faucet on the front of Tom McGrath’s house, on the south side of the road,” I read aloud. “Then turn north.”
We identified Tom McGrath’s house, but we didn’t use the spout. No human contact.
A black pickup truck came rumbling around a corner. It slowed as it approached us then stopped just a few feet away. Tom, maybe?
After stepping back to a safe distance, we exchanged a few words with an older man leaning too far out the window. I felt an urge to rush our conversation, stay back, run, hide— even though I’d normally high-five a guy offering an open spigot to thirsty adventurers.
We quickly waved good-bye to Tom, the last human we saw on our hike, and turned onto an old wooded lane that headed up through a rocky area.
One more week, the notes warned, and this segment would be turned over to hunters. Though I’ve always preferred the woods quiet and reserved for hikers, I started to envy those with the ability to hunt for food. Every few hundred feet, we spotted platforms perched up in the trees, waiting for the next wave of hungry humans to arrive.
With our gaze focused on the treetops, at some point we lost sight of the blazes. We continued our trek upward and missed a turn “through scrubby woods and fields.” My fiancé finally spotted a streak of color on a trunk in the distance—at long last! But as we approached, we found ourselves facing a long row of trees, each marked with a large red “X,” and we suddenly felt very lost.
We didn’t need the trail notes to translate. Do not go here. You are not allowed.
The day we decided to leave the city, two cops stood guard outside an apartment a few doors down from mine.
“Coronavirus,” one said, stopping a woman who tried to enter. No one was being let into the building, or out.
We needed to leave because, under these conditions, home no longer felt like home.
A slight panic crept into our peaceful hike at the prospect of an unexpected detour. This was not on the map. We didn’t pack enough food for extra mileage. There were just a few hours of sun left.
Wishing we had more to energize us, we shared the last handful of granola and headed westward along the line of foreboding trees.
To pass the time, my fiancé fantasized about what he would have ordered from McDonald’s. A Big Mac. Buns. Burger. Special Sauce. Lettuce. Cheese. Pickles. Onions. A menu from another lifetime.
By the time we found the trail again, our feet felt heavy and our gait had slowed. The sun slid closer to the horizon as we descended into a wooded valley. My fiancé stopped suddenly.
“Just a little further,” I urged. “Just a couple more miles.” “What’s that smell?”
At first, I thought his olfactory system had found its equivalent of a mealtime mirage. But when I stopped and sniffed, I caught a whiff of something sharp and pungent. “Strange. It smells like onions.”
The scent stirred up the memory of a conversation from a month earlier.
“I left,” I told a friend after the city skyline had long disappeared in the rearview mirror. “And I don’t know when I’m going back.”
“Well if you’re looking for something to do up there, I hear people go crazy for ramp season this time of year.”
“I think these are ramps.” “What are ramps?”
I didn’t answer him, just tossed aside my pack and knelt down on the soft ground.
After clawing deep into the heavy clay soil, I managed to free a single ramp. I wiped away the outer layer of translucent white slime then held up its scallion-like structure.
We looked around and realized we were standing in the middle of a dense sea of wavy green ramp-tops as far as the eye could see.
I grabbed the nearest tree and came in for a hug. Human contact has become verboten, but I felt the urge to embrace another living being in gratitude.
My fiancé, ignoring my literal tree-hugging tendencies, started digging knuckle-deep through the rich black topsoil, attempting to wrest the thick roots free. He first tried pulling the ramps from the top as if they would slip, carrot-like, straight out of the earth, but he came away with just a tuft of leafy green tops.
I laughed and joined him again on my knees, scraping away at the soil with my nails.
This was the kind of meal we needed to work for.
In the end, we only grabbed a handful, even though my fiancé wanted to take more. “Take only what you need,” I reminded him. We curbed our harvest due to the required effort, and out of respect for native, wild plants.
But I stuck my nose, dog-like, into that bouquet of ramps every few steps the rest of the hike, reminded with each spicy fresh inhale that the world out there is infinitely more abundant than the convenient yet fragile one we humans have created.
When we returned to my parent’s house, I made a large, steaming pot of ramp soup. And after a day in the woods, for the first time since we left New York City, I felt like we had more than enough.
On our unplanned detour, part of a much larger detour that has surfaced in every community on the planet, we found the small miracle of food that’s not rolled out of a can, or dried in a paper bag, or going stale on an apartment shelf, but living fresh in the damp earth.
In moments like these, we are grateful that the pandemic pushed us out of our stale apartment lives and into someplace wild, even if we’ve often felt lost along the way. Otherwise, we would have never understood the joy of discovering an oasis of untouched onions in a crumbling, modern world.
The backcountry gave us exactly what we needed, when we needed it most.
Raw, earth-fresh food has often appeared as a lifeline to me. During a summer I spent working brutally long hours at an office job, I found myself caring for my balcony garden tomatoes after I returned home each night, often well after midnight. Sticking my hands in the soil and smelling the blessed freshness of newly watered tomato plants was my home-grown antidote to staring at a computer screen for over fourteen hours a day. A few minutes spent caring for a patch of nature brought me relief when my work lifestyle did not allow me enough minutes to care for myself.
Years after my deliverance through tomato gardening, I experienced an elemental return to soil and food during the pandemic. I abandoned the deserted supermarket aisles for foraging and backyard gardening. I found that the act of eating food straight from a cultivated garden plot or scavenged from a dark, wild place made me feel most at peace. In both my eating and my writing, I seek to unearth stories by bridging two worlds: the wild and the domestic. Moving frequently between these spaces led me to an unexpected career in agriculture-based services. The joy I feel from being on this path surfaces often in my work.
Jenn Balch was raised in a rural area south of Buffalo, NY but now intermittently calls New York City home. After spending her early career on Wall Street with a focus on regenerative agriculture, she recently left office life for good to start a custom goat grazing business. During her time as a student at Cornell University, she studied creative writing and French. She has published essays under her maiden name (Jen Werbitsky) in the Stone Canoe, Pidgeonholes, and Stoneboat.
In New Orleans she is a knobby-kneed girl in a white dress with a Peter Pan collar. Her mother clasps her hand tightly as they walk down St. Charles Avenue. The roots of the giant oaks have grown through the sidewalks and the concrete is so buckled and broken that she walks with her head down for fear of falling. Her mother hisses “Posture!” and strengthens her grip. On the other side of town, in the Marigny, grand-mère is making gratin dauphinois to go with a beef stew. There might also be leek and onion tarts, if grand-mère is able, and a lemon custard for dessert. They will eat the meal after Mass, the windows open to the calls of fish crows perched around the city. Her mother will use words like “slimming” and “unflattering” and will move the food around her plate while grand-mère will tsk and pile more onto the plates. They could attend church there in the Marigny, which would save them the trek across town, but the services are in French and Latin. Not English. “It’s bad enough to be Catholic,” her mother says.
In Dallas she is a weak-kneed bride in a calf-length ballerina dress with a plain, round collar. The dress is white and her waistline is a triumphant marvel. She is still, despite much practice, unfamiliar with the rhythms of the Methodist church where they will be married. The Pastor has assured her that she will do fine, though her mother remains skeptical. Her groom is a Birdwell, of the Dallas Birdwells, who import European art and antiques and own a large cattle ranch outside of town. After the wedding, he will join his father in the family business. Before that, at the reception, he will drink too much. She will spend the greater part of her reception walking the ballroom with her mother-in-law, who will introduce her to the family’s associates and acquaintances. She will desperately want a plate of steak au poivre enjoyed by the guests, but will make do with a bite of wedding cake fed to her by her husband. On the tables, crystal goblets will catch the light of chandeliers overhead. She will catch the sparkles in her peripheral vision as she smiles and nods. The china and silver are from her mother-in-law’s collection. The Birdwells are collectors of fine and beautiful things.
In San Francisco she has the beginnings of arthritic knees and is a divorcee in jeans and a sweater. She can feel the ache at its sharpest when the cold damp fog rolls in from the bay, but she will never not love that silky shroud, the way it hugs the city and softens its edges. She goes by her maiden name with its original French pronunciation, not the Anglicized version preferred by her mother. No one will care, including her daughter, who sits across from her at a cafe they love and giggles and trills about classes and boys and the passing ephemera of a young woman’s life. The cafe will serve a lemon tart and the crust will be a perfect balance of butter and salt, the lemon filling almost but not quite as good as her grand-mère’s lemon custard, which she will diligently try to recreate with much enjoyment and limited success. On Sundays she will hike with her dog and sometimes a friend. At Point Reyes, they will watch peregrine falcons soar above seagrass hills, tule elk grazing below. She will attend cooking school, because she can.
“Sa Vie” isn’t about my mother, but it could be. She came from a long line of Louisiana women, and was the first in her family raised to speak English as her primary language. Her cousins tell stories of being punished in school if they were caught speaking French. The angst expressed by the mother in the story was very real for many in my family; there was immense pressure to anglicize their names, speech, anything that kept them from being “American”.
Food serves as both tether and commentary. We are introduced to the main character in “Sa Vie” when she is a young girl, surrounded by the dishes favored by her grandmother, recipes passed down through generations of women. These are her roots, something her mother views as a hurdle to be overcome. When we meet our girl next, she is a bride marrying into an “all-American” family of cattle ranchers. The French food she was taught to reject is fashionable and a source of painful irony at her own wedding. Finally, we meet her in middle age, enjoying a meal with her daughter. She is freed from the expectations of others and has become her own person; an American woman with a French name and a life of her choosing.
Like many families in New Orleans, and greater south Louisiana, my family heritage is a mix of French, Spanish, African, and Indigenous peoples. In choosing a recipe to share, I decided on a cake that we enjoy often in my house: Gâteau espagnol aux amandes et à l’orange. As with the French Quarter in New Orleans, the architecture is Spanish and the name is French.
Kristin Bonilla’s work appears in Best Microfiction 2022 and has been nominated for Best Small Fictions, Best of the Net, and the Wigleaf Top 50 Longlist. She is an associate flash fiction editor at jmww and lives in Houston, TX. Follow her @kbonilla and read more at http://www.kristinbonilla.com.
An (Un)Common Year
“The year your mother passed,” Dad began.
I don’t like that word, “passed”. When he used it, the implication was that her death was a natural thing instead of a sudden and traumatic accident that jarred everything about how our family was living. Now we had that reality in a different form. Time didn’t agree with weather. Degrees didn’t listen to dates. Instead of an unnatural death, we spoke of an unnatural spring.
He continued, “We were in the field already.”
His short statement conjured sensations of dust prickled on sun-kissed skin and squinting eyes. Out of time, not yet, but in time, not really. We waited on seeds who would never shed their coats in the cold ground. I chose my winter jacket and braced for more wind.
“It’s not right. I guess we’ll never have a traditional spring again,” Dad remarked. “Should be a real spring day. Winds from the southwest. Look what Mother Earth does to her own.”
Days were still marked by huddled shoulders when it should have been my back bent in the garden rows. The only digging was my dog’s burrowing into mouse holes. Dried grass swept behind his churning back and forth. My dog paused, cycling the air from within the opening through his nostrils. He read his progress and allowed his body to collapse. Progress was what brought us here.
And our own? It’s hard not to consider ‘what if’ we’d had a different kind of spring thirty years ago. My mother’s life traded for seeds in fields. But, what would I trade now for mothers to recognize what this means for their children, a different kind of spring.
“It’s like it wants to rot,” Dad yelled his observation across the yard.
“The broccoli?” I confirmed.
“Can we do anything?”
I hadn’t looked since I didn’t want to look again. Hadn’t mentioned it but had been worried by the ring of yellowing brown and hollow center that had formed where I had cut the first, vibrant green heads from the plant. We had started broccoli plants from seed, and they had caught the seedlings we had purchased in their plastic pack of six. Something was wrong. I had simply avoided acknowledging it until my dad voiced the same words.
Rain. Hot. Vapor. Stench. Drip. Mud. Is it the weather? Or the climate?
“Farmers are getting exactly what they wanted. Rain. Heat.” He was talking about weather and climate of the political kind. “Except they’re both extreme.”
Drizzle. Boom. Thump. Straight down, but unyielding. Rain. Storms. Was it the climate?
“The cauliflower isn’t doing anything either. It just sprouts more leaves that twirl together and then outward. The purple inside is pretty though.” Dad sprayed the stalks and covered the plants with a net. He began to walk towards me.
“Must be the weather. Cold weather crops. They just don’t like it.”
“No peas either.”
“Nope. Hail got those. I knew the second planting was a gamble. Farmers will have a good crop. But, prices are low. Made their choice and they’ll make it again.”
Globalization. Black. Media myopy. Hyper detail. White. Spew. Spray. Vapor. Clouds. Gray.
“I can’t tell if we smell wet or poop.” My feet slapped up the back steps, but I heard his words. “Imagine a rainforest, everything living and dying at an accelerated rate.”
The screen door slammed. “Don’t let the flies in.” Dad followed close behind.
“No one ever does it, but somehow it gets done my grandmother used to say.”
It was supposed to be better.
Predictions. Forecasts. Are not sure things. Only plans.
I wrinkled my nose over my salad. The few bits of budded broccoli barely show up in the waves of kale. “This stinks.” My dog panted at my feet.
Dad turned the television on searching for the news. The lead story would be COVID-19, political discord, or both. No broccoli, but I was luckier than many, preserving food. I was cooking food. I was sharing food. I was having to combine old food with the new, I hadn’t finished everything in time for new harvest. I blamed COVID-19 for this too. I hadn’t been packing lunches for the office so I wasn’t eating some snacks as often when bags of chips and buttered toast were a few steps away. No trip to see family. No fair. No fun work outfits. Rivers through fields. “This summer suc-” I bit my tongue.
The last week of July, I walked down our storm ravaged road, a tree carnivore’s dream. The garden and the recipes plunked up and down in my head. My eyes flitted back to the broken bark and dried leaves that now looked like animal fur matted in the grass.
“Hmm. I loved those trees, but they were where they didn’t belong. Funny how we didn’t lose the garden,” Dad said as we came up the driveway.
Dad was right. For as much as I adored the shade and beauty of the fallen trees, we needed the garden more. Video phone calls. Still paid to work. Donations to charity. Fun cards in the mail. Frozen kale and fresh peas. Stored carrots and dug parsnips. Dried apples and juicy rhubarb. New green tomatoes and old black raspberry jam. Things were still coexisting in different ways, in the ways that mattered.
Dad had always mentioned the wind. Always. Mentioned it because it was annoying, because it reduced television channels, because it was weather, and that was always something for Americans to talk about.
After our summer storm damage, it was more than talk, it was worry. He worried because the wind had ripped trees from the ground, because it destroyed the chimney and other aspects of the roof, and yes, it bumped the antenna that permanently disturbed the television channels. Ironically, I had been happier with those southern facing channels, especially Telemundo.
In November the branches thrashed again. Carved out, like the trees who offended the lives we’re supposed to have and the tools that get us there. Of course, the electric lines can’t move, the road can’t narrow, business of business can’t be bothered. So, the trees were cut to bend the other way.
“Maybe we’re okay. Except for the connector line through my woods.” He stared at the once upon a time orchard. He shook his head and looked forward out the north window again. “Their support is gone. Trimmed. What the tree service took, those sideways branches, the shorter ones. There’s nothing to lean on.”
Dad had always followed, listened, repeated the radio, the television, the people he met at the gas station or the grocery store. Mentioned the talking, the viewpoints, because it was unfathomable, unthinkable, just unlikely that they didn’t know history, world history, his history, any history. Repeated the talking, because it made him feel strong, made him feel smart, made him feel energized in the processed sugar way that only discontent can.
These past months, his questions had become more real and less designed to elicit reactions. Any questions jutting outward were knives turned onto himself, unsheathed like the pages of the history books he loved, and now he wondered if he could forgive, for lying to him. Intentionally, I climbed the stairs to my room, more comfortable with the silence. His emotions filled the space so what was I to do with mine without the air to voice them?
Dad had counted the days since four years ago. First in months and then in years, because it was disgusting, because it was unimaginable, because counting was the only kind of waiting we could do.
Election night I woke up every couple of hours. I didn’t even know why. I heard my dog’s stomach gurgle before I felt the bubble and tumble and roil of my own. Simply by proximity, without intent, I affected him. But any illness was better than COVID, or so the news cycle gusted. In the morning, we walked the barely lit road. On the edge of my least favorite intersection, I raised my head and read the speed limit sign. 45. Wind gusts. 45. President. 45.
The TV blare met me at the door. “It’s close, should have expected. But I’d rather be ahead than behind.”
“I’m still disappointed, bec-” I started.
Bellicose rants. Insidious whispers. Elections and storms. Pollsters and meteorologists, neither must be right to do their jobs. Neither must pick up the pieces. Neither must apologize because everyone knows we can’t possibly get what everyone wants, except the real issue is what we don’t bother wanting for each other. Somehow, we still thought the goal was winning.
I didn’t know how to save seeds, but I knew how to save paper. Every winter, I reorganized this paper. Broad and sweeping but never changing, environmental messages first appeared on 3rd grade science folders pleaded to save the elephants and whales. Without support from the system, these gigantic requests were battered and beaten down until they existed only as my Peace Corps volunteer phrases. “Reuse plastic bags. Say no to straws.” Their impact slipped away slowly like the gray water running into the lake. Global became local. Local became personal.
In winter all farmers appear the same, but we’re not actively farming. The land was rented. My dad no longer needed to organize the papers his father did. It’s agricultural land though there’s not much culture to it, a family farm property to live amid large scale chicken operations, revving gravel trucks and lumbering agricultural machinery in constant motion around me. We’re here but not here. A lesser identity. Small print like the warning written on chemicals, but not as small as the particles acidifying the air that stings your nose on a windy day. I barely could see one. I couldn’t see the other. Both, somehow tried to claim, they were never here.
What are we growing? What are we saving? I had wondered this before.
“What will they plant in our field?” my dad tried to remember. His memory was more complete when it came to garden seed catalogues stacked up as of January 1. I replied using periods but considered question marks.
Forced indoors in the winter, my dad watched hours of television. My dad spent two days describing a documentary about the passion, dedication, and work of a young environmental activist, but in two months the chemicals would return to our back 40. I would have to avoid the field a few days after spraying. A color rose from deep earth, roots, hurt and wounded. I would convince myself it was fine until I passed early dandelions scathed in the ditch. Food. Medicine. Welcomes. Color. Survivors. Dandelions were metaphors for the universe, the sun and moon and most importantly stars dispersed in seed form across both light and dark sky, blue and black sky.
Black and blue. Bruises spread. Reminders of pain and healing. As a child, I once connected a final dandelion to the memory of my mother. My dad would have said a final dandelion in April was absurd. Soon perhaps I would not be able to find the edge between the bright green of cemetery grass and modified corn, both replacing golden transformed the driest turned under shade of brown.
Outside the wind exhaled bleak winter screams and cuts sunlit swaths against the Century Farm sign flipping and flopping, unhinged. In black and white print, it reminded those that read English we were here. After all they’re the only ones who needed words to remind them. The human cultures that were preferred. The animal cultures that were spread. The plant cultures that were burned and turned under year after year. They didn’t need letters stamped when bruises would do. So many words unheard. I returned to my papers, selecting handfuls for the burn pile.
Once upon a time when I didn’t want to be assigned to the kitchen because I was the girl, I said, “Of course I can cook. I can read.”
Even for this note, I initially tried to find another author to answer this question. I remembered a quote from grad school that eloquently utilized the metaphor of tongues, describing an inability to taste in a language that was not your own. I searched but couldn’t find it. I remembered a book I read just after returning home to Wisconsin after ten years in Guatemala. Its description of the trajectory of food and food labels had caused the sad realization that my plan to learn to cook from the plastic recipe box my mother had assembled would be nothing more than combinations of processed name brands. I couldn’t find those words either.
The realization that I had to let go of these authors’ words, instead responding in my own is in fact my author’s note. Whether we write or not, food is an individual intersection of many stories and the stories of many. While agriculture seeks to subdue, control is an illusion. Food in my writing is confusion and connection. Food is lacking and gaining something simultaneously. Food is a complicated question and a simple answer. Food is all the things I don’t know and all the things I want to learn that I had never imagined in my nanna’s kitchen. Food is creativity inspired gratitude comprised of what I already had and what was given to me, like the recipe included in RUBY’s Culinaria.
Erin Conway’s work has been published in the Midwest Review, The Sonder Review, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Cleaning up Glitter, Kind Writers, the Write Launch, Tiny Seed Journal, Wingless Dreamer, Plants & Poetry Journal, Swimming with Elephants, and Vine Leaves Literary Journal. Erin’s work was a finalist in the Adelaide 2017 Literary Awards and the New Millennium Flash Fiction Contest 2016. She is a The Hopper 2019 Pushcart Prize nominee in fiction. Find Erin online at www.erinconway.com
My Mother’s Sunday Lunch& Eating with my Mother in her Ovarian Cancer Kitchen
My Mother’s Sunday Lunch
I assume my mother had all those doctor’s appointments recently for something to do with the global pandemic. We’re in a bubble together, so each Sunday morning I insist she does an Antigen test before I visit. I examine the one-line result perched on the kitchen island before I remove my mask. Today, she has invited me to stay for lunch. She serves up…
Whatever spirits are in the cupboard
A bowl of mistrust with a topping of doubt
An assiette of symptoms denied with a scattering of untruths
Slices of medical appointments seasoned with shrugs and laugh offs
Ovarian medallions infested by turmeric
Regurgitated vol au vents accompanied by a dash of bloody sauce
Painful boneless cysts served al dente
Thin wedges of heartburn with a dollop of raw heartache
Accusation of ‘why didn’t you tell me earlier?’
Plea of ‘because I didn’t want to worry you’
A thimbleful of anger
A large measure of regret
A half-pint of denial stirred with reality A precious stint of time
Eating with my Mother in her Ovarian Cancer Kitchen
I refuse an aperitif, though she sips a dry Martini, straight up, unshaken.
Nibbling the Appetisers:
I dive straight into the bowl of swirling mistrust. I poke the doubts, debunk the lies and finally she acknowledges the truth of her doctor’s appointments.
Chomping the Entrées:
The medallions infested with turmeric stick in my throat. Though the menu says they’re boneless, my mother masticates on the cysts, rendering them whole. I snub the offer of a dash of blood on the regurgitated vol au vent, but my raw heartache overwhelms me and I rush to the bathroom. I lick my salty tears and they taste good.
Lingering over the Desserts:
The accusations fly back and forth over the plates of why-didn’t-you trifle and the because-i-didn’t Eton mess.
And We Both Down a Large Digestif:
Neither of us want to leave each other to be at home alone. I hold her hand and she begins to pat it gently like she did when I was bullied at school for having no Dad. We talk around the rim of her diagnosis and I worry as to how long our digestifs will last, even if we sip them oh so slowly.
Kathryn Crowley has ‘rewired’ from her primary school principal role in Dublin and now writes and teaches short fiction and memoir. She has published two collections, Sweaters and Small Stuff (2014) and Room for One More (2016). Her writing has been included in the anthologies 25 Miles From Here (Pure Slush Books) and A Pint and A Haircut: True Irish Stories (Londubh Books). She blogs at www.kathryncrowley.com
The way I remember it, you died the night the astronauts first landed on the moon. We watched on Aunt Charlie’s big TV. I dipped crackers into the pecan-crusted cheese ball, making craters, when you fell to the floor. Red and blue lights took you away, and Mom, Stuart and I followed in the paneled station wagon. I wondered if you met the astronauts on your way to heaven. If you saw them plant the flag. If their waves from the black-and-white TV in the ER waiting room were for you.
But your obituary tells me you were gone before that. You were 40. I was six. I was learning to count but there were so many hospital trips, I couldn’t count high enough yet. We sat on the cold vinyl seats of the station wagon, parked outside, while you leaned out the third-floor window of the big brick building. We held up finger-painted pictures of trees, stockings, angels. Merry Christmas! The wind ripped one of the signs from Stuart’s tiny fingers. It floated up and I thought maybe it would reach you before it nosedived into a snowbank. We waved goodbye. We had to set out the sugar cookies we’d iced earlier that day with Mom. Santa was coming.
Or maybe the day of the moon landing was when Stuart got scratched by Aunt Charlie’s old hound dog. I hovered near the food table when Mom yelled Hurry! My eyes scanned the smorgasbord of snacks—the cheese ball, Mom’s special-occasion crab dip—then I ran to jump into the back seat. But Mom was already there, Stuart’s head in her lap. I rode in the front next to Aunt Charlie, vinyl burning my thighs. Mom bought me a bag of Fritos from the vending machine. I sucked on each corn chip, savoring the saltiness on my tongue, to pass time. When the astronauts landed, the nurses came out from behind their desk to watch the waiting room TV and cheered. One of them handed me a red and white sucker. I thought of the astronauts eating hydrated food, while licking sweet strawberry stickiness from my lips. Later, when Mom came to retrieve me, carrying a sleeping Stuart in her arms, the doctor said, Lucky he didn’t lose an eye. Later, people said the moon landing was a hoax.
Or did the red and blue flashing lights pick you up at home on a different day altogether? A white stretcher flies down the hall. Mom lies a sleeping Stuart on my bed and shuts the door. Strange men’s voices. One, two, three, lift. Or am I remembering Christmas Eve? I peek through a slitted door. You sneak past with an armload of presents. A sliver of moonlight shines in my window, outside there’s new-fallen snow, your voice in my head from the bedtime story you read. On Christmas morning, Mom wakes up early to get the turkey in the oven. I’m her Little Helper. I squeeze the baster bulb and dribble juices over the bird. Were you asleep in bed? Later, did we pull my stocking from the mantle and find my favorite treat, that you nicknamed me after? We would have split it, the marshmallow filling oozing onto our fingers as we broke it in half. You would have said, It’s as big as your head, MoonPie, tussling my hair.
Or is it during a double feature at the drive-in, during the second movie, when Stuart and I are supposed to be asleep? But I always prop my pillow to watch between the bucket seats, ready to close my eyes if Mom looks back. Are the lights just from other cars? We make popcorn at home, the kernels banging against the lid of the pan on the stove as it puffs. Stuart and I dig handfuls from the big plastic bag as we drive, our fingers glazed with butter. Mom shoves napkins at us, but our tongues do the job. We wash the popcorn down with swigs of orange Tang Mom mixed in a scrubbed-out glass milk bottle and brought with us. Before the movie, we run to the playground under the giant screen, wearing our pajamas. Did you push me on the swing, so high my stomach did a flip-flop? Did you say, one, two, three, whee? I try to look behind me, but I can’t see. I look up, to the ribbony clouds and star-spangled sky. The moon is full. Some say it’s made of cheese. Some say it has a face. I can see it. But as hard as I look, I can’t see yours.
In the 1970s, when our mom hosted card club, my brother and I thought we hit the food lottery. We’d make a plate from the spread before being relegated to the rec room so Mom could talk to grown-ups for once. We’d eat our heaping helpings of crab dip and cheese ball and wash it down with pop (I grew up in Pittsburgh, so it was pop, not soda). I inherited my mom’s recipes, and I was surprised by how unappetizing the appetizers I loved as a kid look now, filled with ingredients like imitation crab, Jell-O, loads of Miracle Whip. At the time, I also loved La Choy Chop Suey from a can, which tells you something about my palate then. One of my family’s current favorite appetizers is Salmon Rillettes, which my son, who’s a great cook, modified from a Bon Appétit recipe. It’s more sophisticated than the imitation crab dip of my childhood, which, like my story, wasn’t exactly the way I remember it. But I savor the memories, nonetheless.
Lisa Ferranti’s fiction has been a Top 25 finalist in a Glimmer Train Family Matters contest, twice short-listed for the Bath Flash Fiction Award, and a Reflex Fiction contest finalist (nominated for The Best Small Fictions 2019). Her stories have appeared in Gordon Square Review, New Flash Fiction Review, Emerge Literary Journal, Lost Balloon, and elsewhere, and has twice been on the Wigleaf Top 50 Longlist (2019 and 2021). She works in marketing and lives near Akron, Ohio with her family.
In the grip of fish
Then it is back up into the attic to eat up my fish, and I hope Morgana, my sister, doesn’t tell our spiny parents, suspended between being alive and somewhere else, it’s from them I get my haddock smell and my trinkets made of coal, Your house is lovely, people say, but it’s not, it’s an invisible world, it’s a number scrawled on a ten-yen note, or dollars or pounds, it’s PEACE IN 1944 stenciled on the spice-cake and taking care that everyone gets the same portion, yet, those who climb aboard to gawk hardly notice that they too are fading out, body part by body part in no special order, and some visitors trip over spinning wheels that could use a damn coat of paint, and that really hurts my heart because I have been conditioned to think that the slightest misstep is proof of original sin, like the unintended scalding of milk, and now Morgana and I will never again see our dear brothers and sisters, the ones who have left me, each in their turn, they are just five featureless dots in a silver frame, despite which there’s a plate put out for each of them and because we have lost our way with those people back at the struggling farm, my sister and I are aligned in our animal love, nevertheless let us start planning out how to turn the tables against those thieving do-gooders who want to spoil and make us feel bad about how we like to pass the hours, needlepointing daisies and Peace in 2022, and who are they to say that these endeavors are childish compared to their proselytizing, just because they do not like to hear our heady ping pong playing, nor does their crowing predict that their marching and strafing will lead anywhere close to an overall ceasefire (it won’t), so some of us stay more secret and secretive than others.
I’m inspired by so many things, including food. But also art. One of the inspirations for this piece in RUBY is the painting by Leonora Carrington, The Kitchen Garden by the Eyot(it’s in the San Francisco MOMA). This work helped me to get started on a set of pieces, including “In the grip of fish,” connected by a setting and narrator. Images of food and domestic life are important toKitchen Gardenand I love Carrington’s surrealism. Her painting helped me to find a way to say something about my character and to think about how times and memories often have an overlapping quality that reflects different ages.
Valerie Fox has published in Juked, Reflex, Ellipsis Zine, The Cafe Irreal, Cleaver, NFFR, Hanging Loose, and other journals.She won the The Phare’s 2022 WriteWords competition (for flash). A story she wrote is included in The Group of Seven Reimagined: Contemporary Stories on Historic Canadian Paintings. Her stories have been in the Best Small Fictions and Best Microfictions anthology series. Poetry books include The Rorschach Factory (Straw Gate Books) and Insomniatic (PS Books). Find Valerie at https://sites.google.com/site/texturepress/home/texture-press-writers/valerie-fox
Dinner with RBG
You’re not sure why you’re in Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s home or how Martin, her husband, has come back to life, but the food smells fantastic. RBG’s kitchen walls are patched together with plaster lathe and exposed red bricks. The tiles, appliances, oven, sink, and refrigerator, all from the fifties, are a perfect shade of carnation pink. A steamy mixture of mushrooms and onions simmering in butter curls up your nose. You peek in the dining room where a chandelier bounces light off the crystal water goblets and friends await their hosts.
You see an empty chair, sit, and listen to soft conversations about immigration, grandchildren, and human rights. Bubbly is poured into champagne flutes. Platters of turkey and brisket are carried to the table. Out of place and underdressed, you leave the room to the sound of clinking glasses.
In the living room, a violin sonata plays from speakers on walnut stands. You find comfort on a low sofa, nestled against handwoven pillows patterned in magenta, turquoise, and orange yarns. Paintings and prints that cover the steel gray walls are not what you expected. Above the sofa are three Rothko prints and on either side of the fireplace are stone totems by Louise Bourgeois. RBG has taste in art and you can relate. “There you are,” she says like you’re a discovery. “I adore Louise too,” you say. But she’s busy, and with a forefinger in the air.
“Hold that thought. I’ll be right back.”
She returns and hands off a yellow plastic tray with a meal especially for you. Set on your lap, is savory brisket and roast potatoes reminiscent of what your aunt prepared for holidays. RBG sits on a wingback chair beside the sofa. “How is Fanny?” Ruth asks. “She gave Martin this recipe years ago. Tell her Ruthie sends her love.” “She’s well,” you say somewhat distracted by murmurs and laughter coming from the dining room. RBG points at the tray; tells you to go ahead, eat, enjoy.
You remember you’re a vegetarian, but don’t want to be rude. An aroma of onions and wine floods your senses. Almost unwieldy in hand with a large silver knife and fork you cut the tender meat. Each piece tastes better than the first bite. You feel a tinge bad for the cow, but every last morsel disappears. Bread sops up the gravy; the moist bits melt in your mouth. You’ve joined the Clean Plate Club at Justice Ginsburg’s house. She smiles and rises to grab you a toy from the treasure chest.
In the kitchen, at a picnic, in the garden, or at a celebration, I’ve had indelible food experiences. I can close my eyes, smell, and taste them all again and again.
Sweet chestnuts, roasted on the edge of the fireplace grate, a lesson from my father.
Nana’s kitchen, forever a cloud of butter.
First pomegranate seeds, almost too beautiful to eat.
A roast turkey sandwich, (white bread, mayo lettuce) the day after Thanksgiving at a friend’s house in middle school.
Olives, anchovies, and hot peppers on a toothpick with beer.
Spicey sweet potato peanut butter soup with coconut milk around the fire pit on a snowy night.
Warm sweet handfuls of Mom’s first attempt at wine nut sponge cake that fell out of the inverted pan onto the kitchen table.
The flavors, textures, and aromas of what I eat leave an imprint. Even if it’s only a candy bar or a microwaved taco, it finds a place in my stories.
Jo Goren has illustrated, raised two children, dairy goats, and honeybees. Her writing has appeared in The Ilanot Review, Literary Mama, Blink-Ink, Tiny Molecules and in Best Small Fiction 2022. You can find her @drawing4dollars.
I pull my bread, sourdough, from the yellow metal breadbox—yours, also sourdough, from the freezer. I place your slice in the toaster to the left with four different settings, on “frozen,” mine in the toaster to its right with a single handle push. I lay out two pans for two different kinds of sausage, and beside one kind (for which the label does not list “wheat”), I also add an egg over vegetable oil.
Over medium: The egg is flipped and the yolk is only slightly runny.
You always make fun of how I crack it—gentle taps around the egg’s circumference with the inner membrane slowly making its way across my too-soft fingertips, as if to peel and not break open. You like your eggs over medium. I never knew what that meant—Mom cooked scrambled or “flat” eggs, the former mixed on the pan with milk and butter, the latter mixed in a bowl and simply left be on the pan for a few minutes to form a yellow crepe. She does the same now with pancake mix when I visit her kitchen with the copper sink in Finleyville, batter to pull from skillet in layers of skin.
She visits us in Bellingham and sits at our kitchen table confessing tales of the past—Dad and the divorce, the lawsuits after he lost his job at the school/was wrongfully fired/I’ll never truly know if he was wrongfully fired because I was so little back then and my instinct was always to defend him because that’s what you do for your dad, the lawsuits he won anyway. This is the first time you hear the echo in my mother’s voice: He just always knew how to get what he wanted.
Visitation meetups at the giant Paul Bunyan statue outside the tire place, giant Las Vegas tote bags gifted to me and my siblings the Christmas after she married our stepdad, Jim, bags held all the favorite clothes we brought for the weekend and eventually crunched to nothing in the dryer.
Scrambled: The egg is beaten and heated, stirred gently.
I am quiet as she reveals these things, remembering how, when she picked us up and my brother or sister started dissing on Dad, I insisted that everyone shut up. I always wanted to say he was doing his best, but I wasn’t on either side; when Dad started up the god-your-mother-is-just-so- rant, I responded with a similar request for neutrality. For once, I just wanted everyone to be quiet.
Maybe I should have seen it coming that we would end up this way. You only ever meeting half of the family, you wondering what my father looks like outside of that single blurry image on my phone where he’s posing with cardboard Edward in the Twilight-themed visitor’s center in Forks, and me wondering after the years, too.
I make everyone scrambled eggs with New Woman cheese and sprinkled Fontina, updates to Mom’s recipe, no milk. By my hand, the eggs solidify, freckling where the cheese hits its crisping point. I still prepare them in tub-scoops of butter just like Mom does.
She’s just relieved I can cook a little. Her worry is easy.
Over easy: The egg is flipped and the yolk is still runny.
When your mom visits us, I swirl the eggs in vegetable oil and rely on garlic powder for the taste. You remind me that she doesn’t eat cheese while I am in the middle of cooking; I never got it out in the first place. Your family eats every egg with molten insides, but your mom says these are the best she’s ever had.
You like your eggs over medium, not over easy. Each time I perform this ritual I must restrain myself from solidifying these spilling gold rays into hot sun, and half of the time, I do anyway—too often stepping away to fill our Brita filter or wash raspberries in the new mesh strainer from the dollar store or to set some dirty dish to the side of the sink like putting it there is an alternative way of cleaning it, too often returning to a callused sphere of yellow.
Sunny side up: The egg is fried with the yolk up and is not flipped.
Dad used to talk about sunny side up eggs, but he never made them. I could only imagine how they might warm on a skillet when we visited the kitchen of his father’s house, my eyes always zeroing in on that old diner booth which mounted the home phone among newspapers and old photos that scrambled more than they told. I wonder if that’s where they ate breakfast as a family. Did he grow up there? Or was that home a stranger to his childhood self?
Dad’s hands were always better at carrying the eggs inside from the gas station and handing them off to me, still in their cardboard carton, than they were at cracking them.
When I get your breakfast right, using the metal spatula with the pale blue handle and the windowpane openings you like, I scoop it as if to turn the egg on its side in sleep, let white wrap over yolk like bedcovers on every millimeter of skin. I lift it up and out of the pan, each second a risk, and onto your plate, setting it beside the first egg I accidentally hardened, this one hot water, trying my best not to pop it, to layer it on your gluten free toast with strawberry jam and gouda and sausage and turkey bacon even though the sour smell sometimes makes me sick, and eggs too, actually, since I ate so many of them for a year or two of my life back in that green house you’ve never been to, twice-daily sizzling scrambled egg sandwiches on wheat bread and orange American wax slices beside the piled silver sink, when I made the eggs with oil trying to figure out how my mother served them when she still lived in the same house, before the divorce, before the questions of how on earth did that man get custody. All those sandwiches sweated onto my lap as I watched the full DVD cases of Seinfeld Dad got from FYE on a bulky TV in that stuffy bedroom, my skin always peeling with sunburn or December.
Sometimes we eat in front of our big TV, the one from your old rich coworker at your old job that he gave you for free, watching The Good Doctor and 9-1-1 on with our breakfast in our laps on a Sunday morning. Oil for your eggs, butter for mine, and no sweat.
I have always had a complicated relationship with food; I’ve carried the “picky eater” label all my life. Textures are something I have to navigate. Most of my childhood, my family was on food stamps. We usually ate easy frozen meals. I remember, after my parents divorced, going grocery shopping with my dad, brother, and sister on the third of every month, except Sundays, when the food card reloaded—these trips were never budgeted, meaning that we carried home the entire monthly amount worth of food in most trips and then watched as it dwindled in the following weeks. The second half of the month was a fend-for-yourself type of situation, scrounging for coins in couch cushions and jacket pockets to purchase the basics from the Liberty gas station down the road: bread, eggs, American cheese. I made egg sandwiches for every meal. But I was frustrated, often, with how my fend-for-myself eggs turned out: oily, dripping through the bread with all the character of a wet sponge. They weren’t fluffy or comforting, like my mom’s. For a long time, I didn’t get around to asking the difference. After all, how much can you alter the recipe of scrambled eggs?
When I finally did ask during one visit, I learned she used butter instead of olive oil to prepare the pan. This everyday detail was monumental to me. Food, like family, comes up in my writing in this same way: becoming more important when it is not guaranteed.
Sophie Hall writes about homes and fears, especially where the two overlap. Her poetry and creative nonfiction have appeared in Jeopardy Magazine, The Nasiona, and The Helix, and she was awarded a fellowship for the 2022 Bucknell Seminar for Undergraduate Poets. Also a postcard collector, frog parent, and lover of orchids, these days, Sophie is most dedicated to her dream journal. You can find her on Instagram @sophieuhmanda.
I’ve been walking north along the coast. Past nuclear power plants straddling fault lines and fields of strawberries, bright rubies shining in the drought. West is the ocean. South is complicated, requiring identification. East is back where I came from.
As the sun dips behind the steepled peaks of an island, it’s clear I can’t go any further.
A whiff of fried dough makes my stomach sing in its baritone voice. I follow my nose through a maze of Skee-ball games and dunk tanks, which appear before me like a mirage, all singing out in degenerative ecstasy. Merging to form an angsty cacophony of chaotic turbulence.
I find the funnel cake stand, sticky and stinking. Grease stains make yellow spider webs across the metallic surfaces. They could be beautiful if they were anywhere else. The man working resembles the stand. He’s tall, shakes in the wind, and is grimy. He wipes his hands on his shirt, leaving yellow stains in the shape of God’s face. I can’t help but keep putting meaning into everything. Building it up like a child stacking a block tower, just to knock it down with a violent crash. I’ve been destroying everything more and more quickly in the last weeks. It used to take me months, sometimes even a year to work my way through a boyfriend or girlfriend or town or job. I kept at art school for six months before realizing how pathetic it was. Sad spoiled kids sitting around, jacking each other off. Aaron, with his taut freckled back, was under me for four months. I’d trace the patterns on his shoulder blades, creating constellations from the chaos. Making him shiver as my fingernails laced together unspeakable messages. We told each other; I love you. Overusing the word to keep the momentum going. We put all our weight onto this word. Pressed down on it until it burst. Filled all its ambiguity with what we wanted. What was missing from life. Expecting so much from it and each other. But I knew we couldn’t fuck each other into infinity. Eventually we’d have to leave the sarcophagus we’d built around our bed. The rent always comes due. And it may as well have been me to burn it down. Somebody has to be the bad guy. Otherwise, Aaron might have dragged it out. Come up with more and more ways to keep us connected that we couldn’t stand.
“I’ll take 3,” I say.
The man grunts and dips the dough into the fryer.
“What do you tell people you do?” I ask.
“I tell girls that I’m a chef.” He smiles through a maze of wobbly teeth. “What do you do?”
“I change my answer every day.”
He siphons powdered sugar over the tangles of crispy dough. “Don’t worry too much about answers,” he says, pushing the bag across the counter. “In my experience they aren’t worth as much as you’d think.”
I take my treats, the grease already sweating through the bag, and let the rest of me follow my feet. They always find the beach. It’s been like that since I was young. I consider taking off my shoes, but don’t want to clean the doughy sand from between my toes. Rocks organize themselves in uneven clans. I perch on one and eat half a funnel cake. It’s crispy, then soft, and piping hot in my mouth. My nostalgia was bigger than my stomach, however. The sweetness doesn’t rekindle the wonder I remember. And I chuck the remaining dough at the wildlife clamoring around. The birds and beasts scoop up the scraps and retreat.
We kept moving West. As a country. Digging up the earth as we went. Running as fast as we could. Until we reached here. This coast. As spectacular as heaven. And then we didn’t know what to do. We’d reached a place unbelievably beautiful, and it still couldn’t satisfy us. Still couldn’t fill any of the holes. And we had nowhere else to go. Had reached the limits of our dreams. Couldn’t imagine any farther. Were forced to deal with what we had. Which wasn’t enough. Despite being perfect.
The sun starts sinking beneath the horizon, cascading down in unnamable colors. The sky looks on fire. I sip on the sunset, feeling solemn.
Maybe north really is the answer. Perhaps there’s something worth discovering frozen in the snow up there. At the very least it’ll be a long journey.
I arch myself into a crescent, rise from my rock and turn my back on the shoreline. Forcing my head to push the rest of me forward. Ignoring the ocean lapping at my feet. Calling me home.
Food is the clearest manifestation of the porous boundary between our exterior and interior. It shows how environment is simultaneously distinct and inextricably intwined with self. It is our first need and foundational to writing setting because it is not simply a sensory detail but shows how humans interact with the world around them. We are not singular and separate from the world we occupy, but in a constantly evolving relationship with it. Food is one of the most tangible ways we see this occurring. Simply put, a human cannot exist without food, and neither can a good character.
Michael Harper is a MFA candidate at the University of Idaho. Previously he taught kindergarten. His most recent work has appeared in or is forthcoming in Hobart, Taint Taint Taint Magazine, Manzano Mountain Review, Variant Literature Journal, Grey Sparrow Journal, Litro Magazine, and Decomp Journal.
Common Pumpkin Bisque
Pumpkins are everywhere in the fall. A seasonal symbol of change. A favorite pie. A decorative element to ward off evils. A temporary carriage to the ball.
Beginning with a whole, small pumpkin makes the difference. Extra love is required, expended in the form of time and risk. It takes hours to select, bake, scoop and blend, much longer if you grow it yourself. One must wield a large, sharp knife early in the process to turn this dense, durable squash into an airy puree. One must trust that all who taste will enjoy.
Remove the stem by cutting around it in a polygon as you would to carve a jack-o-lantern. Cut the pumpkin in half vertically, following the natural exterior ridges. Scoop out and separate from fiber. Save and bake for snacks later. Scrape out remaining fiber with spoon. Place skin side up on a cookie sheet covered with oil. An old cookie sheet that has been engaged in service for many years is preferable. Bake at 425 degrees Fahrenheit for 20-30 minutes, or until a knife easily slides through the skin and into pumpkin meat. Remove, set aside to cool.
I made this soup on and off at Thanksgiving for decades. It began one fall when I was a young professional with a steady paycheck and no plans for the holiday weekend. I had read that the French aristocrats took to eating soup during the French revolution as a way to align themselves with the proletariat and avoid beheading. I liked the idea of aligning with aristocrats who aligned with the common people. It elevated my own background, like the soup, from humble to grand as long as the effort is put into it. What better way to share than to transform something simple into a delicious gift of time and risk.
That first year, I wanted to get out of the city. I needed some trees and a friend.
Sauté a medium yellow onion, chopped in one-quarter cup of unsalted butter until onions are almost transparent. Add half a teaspoon each of cumin, cayenne, salt, and red pepper flakes. Gently stir until spices bloom and the onion is translucent. Set aside.
“Sue! I just rented a cabin where Ty Cobbs grew up in Georgia near the Appalachian Trail. Want to meet there for Thanksgiving? I already paid and booked it.” Sue didn’t have plans. It was a half-day’s drive for each of us, and our days off overlapped.
I’d taken the blender in case there wasn’t one at the cabin. Good decision. When she arrived on Thanksgiving, I’d completed most of the preparations. I wanted to treat her to understated elegance. Once she arrived, we bundled up for a long hike, fallen leaves under every step.
Remove the skin and place cooled pumpkin into a blender. Discard skin to compost or save for the next batch of stock. Add cooled onion and spices to pumpkin with approximately 3 cups of vegetable stock, preferably homemade. Puree until smooth.
Back at the cabin, while she made a fire, I finished the soup and baked the loaves I’d kneaded and shaped and left to rise. We had a simple meal of crusty bread and soup for Thanksgiving dinner. She loved it. I proudly shared that it was from scratch.
“Why didn’t you just use canned pumpkin?”
I shrugged, embarrassed by her question and newly self-conscious that I’d put so much into it. “I like it like this.” was the only reply I could offer. Maybe the love and care weren’t visible, lost in the simplicity. Maybe she was right. I’d made too much of a fuss. It’s just soup. I should have bought a meal in the nearest mountain town.
Another year, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving everyone had plans for the next day. My building neighbor worked in a busy clinic while completing her Master’s degree. Her family was arriving for Thanksgiving the following morning.
“Hey, Jenna, it’s me. I just made some soup. Want to stop by for dinner tonight?” I knew I’d get her voicemail.
Put the thick pumpkin puree back in the saucepan and slowly reheat on low. Add one cup of heavy cream and one teaspoon of honey, preferably from your own hives, stirring slowly until warm and well mixed. Do not boil.
She texted right back. “Can’t answer phone. Dinner sounds amazing. 6:30?”
She arrived directly from work wearing a great outfit as usual. We talked bosses, grad school, and books. She loved the soup.
“It’s all from scratch,” I replied to her praise, without volunteering how much time I’d spent preparing it or how carefully I’d chosen the ingredients.
Add half a teaspoon of champagne vinegar. Stir to mix. Let simmer on low until warm. Serve in simple bowls with a single spoon and homemade bread. For extra flair, drizzle with cream, olive oil, and sprinkle just a few small flakes of Maldon salt.
“Did you actually start with a pumpkin?” She was surprised by the effort. Disappointed, again, I questioned myself. Perhaps I should have used canned pumpkin and bought the bread. Where I saw a grand gesture, she just saw a bowl of soup with a neighbor after a long day of work.
What did the common French people in the 18th century think of lords and ladies taking up and altering their habits? How long did it take people living in forest cottages to see that their ways had become fashionable? Although it wasn’t really the same. Simple was fashionable, as long as it also remained a disguised display of access to choices, finery.
I liked the idea of aligning with aristocrats who aligned with the common people. But I am just a commoner acting like an aristocrat acting like a commoner. In the end, I’m the same as I started. We can assume the French proletariat in the 18th century could see right through it, most of the aristocrats were beheaded in the end despite their efforts.
Seasonal change, for some, is a time to let things go. It’s a time for loss and release, for hibernation. In small and big ways, tradition and repetition through change help us survive the dark times of winter and life. It helps us realign our inner selves with the outer world.
I’m not close with either of these women anymore. We’ve let each other go through changes and seasons. I wonder if they ever came to understand why I made the soup from scratch, from a whole pumpkin, and offered it to them. We have spread out among other people and jobs and places. We have honored the requirements of change, and these days I watch more closely where my efforts are placed.
The first spoonful is always the best. It’s creamy and rich. The spice comes after, warming and unexpected. But each taste always invites another. A bowl is fully nourishing in the moment, but not quite enough to be a single source of satisfaction in the long term.
Our place in the social web and how that is expressed has long interested me. From an intimately personal take on what a meal means to the larger political social structure, we are often caught by disappointment, misunderstanding, and mis-measuring expectations. This story began its fermentation in a writing workshop using recipe and food as a medium in an effort to explore how we sometimes keep trying despite plodding toward an inevitable, obscured outcome.
Sarah is a pilot for a major US-based airline with formal education in aviation, fine art, and cross-cultural psychology. She studied painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and earned a Master’s degree in Educational Psychology from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She has lived in four countries and nine states making and leaving friends with every move. She has been mom to several fur babies over the years, and has hiked hundreds of miles. When not writing or flying she tends her garden and prepares deceivingly simple meals.
Ice Cream, Alone and with Others
“Diana tried to explain what it was like, but I guess ice cream is one of those things that are beyond imagination.” —L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables “In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.” —Wallace Stevens, “The Emperor of Ice Cream”
In an alley off Nevsky Prospekt, I catch her, all crisp in cream and pale canary. A woman who could be my mother if my mother were blond, if my mother had lived through a siege and five decades of dictators. She’s standing in shadows, her gaze fixed on the wall in front of her, covered in graffiti. And she’s eating an ice cream cone, a treat on her break or a workday indulgence before she heads home, her big bites exposing the steep slope of her front teeth. It’s probably one of the 30-ruble cones from the carts near Kazan Cathedral, crème brûlée as is the flavor of the moment. I’ve had a few myself with the other students at the conference, giddy but a little guilty to pay pocket change for what for others must be an hour’s wage. She continues to devour the cone, and I detect no joy, only the haste to get the calories down. And just what is she thinking? This is St. Petersburg, 2003, in a moment before Soviet nostalgia and Putin’s rage would make glastnost seem quaint and old-fashioned. I wonder if her life has meant sending her sons off to some campaign in Kabul or Grozny, maybe a cell in a high rise in Cupchino, with rare visits from a sister. A half century after a blockade starved nearly a million, women in the former Stalingrad continue to outnumber men and then some. The memories are still raw and fresh. But when you travel in poor countries, it’s all too easy to invent the disappointments of the locals. Likely, she’s happily married or happy to be independent and dressed smartly, recently promoted to manager, her children waiting for her at home. What I know is that she has seen things I can only imagine, tanks stationed at palaces, churches converted to morgues, lines of mothers begging at shops for the last bottle of milk. She deserves all the ice cream she desires.
Late June, 1989, Piazza Navona, Rome. Mere steps from the spot where St. Agnes was burned to death, or beheaded rather, the flames no match for her faith. My college glee club is fresh from our final European concert, and we’re rowdy in our white ties and tails. A Roman newspaper called us what our tour guide translated as “the most important men’s singing group in North America,” an exaggeration to be sure, but the crowd was slim, if appreciative, standing to clap after our rousing spirituals and sea shanties. We’re ravenous and proud. The gelato shop is small, just a vestibule in an archway, but the line snakes across the cobbles. Years later, I can’t find it on Google Maps. And I can’t remember who paid for what surely was beyond my budget. Nearer to the counter, I see the lithe, hirsute young clerks using palette knives to draw the gelato up onto flat, wide-mouthed cones. Artists without a doubt. I ask them what flavor I should get. “The truffle, you must,” they say, in their full-lipped English, and I don’t question it, picturing pigs rooting up fungus with their snouts, though I get them to put chocolate on one side, darker than anything I’ve eaten. Unsweetened whipped cream as a final flourish, a shock to my American taste buds. Two women in one bend of the line beg me to tell them if it’s worth it. British tourists. Sequins on their shirts. I’m half their age, my bowl cut and giant wireframes nothing anyone would flirt with. But the spirit is high, and in my tux and patent leathers, I could be Fred Astaire. I hold out the cone for them to taste, and they take lavish licks, appropriately groaning. I smile and head out into the plaza to see where Agnes died.
I’m old now and in Vancouver, having failed, again, to find someone to leave the country with. “Is anyone going with you?” my mother asked in her pitying way, imagining my peril. I exit the Uber on Quebec Street at Earnest Ice Cream, a rehabbed warehouse scoop shop with a name and a scrubbed interior that betray its decadent offerings. Outside, it’s a party. Every online search for “best ice cream” leads to this address. I’m likely the oldest in line, everyone a repeat customer, UBC students and summer tech interns in tank tops and peasant skirts. No one can help me decide what to get, and they seem a little annoyed, though polite enough with my attempts at chitchat. They don’t care that I’ve been to the top of Grouse Mountain or biked Stanley Park. The Asian woman in front of me has been to Indiana, and she blinks when I say that I live there. Like everyone around us, she is simply waiting for the moment when she will arrive at the cashier and announce her order completely on whim yet with conviction: espresso flake, cardamom sugar cookie crumble, vegan watermelon mojito. Such choices give the crowd an air of immortality. There is no possibility of disappointment, a photo snapped, fifty likes before they’ve made it home. The older I get in my travels, the more I suspect I might never be back, and I hedge my bets. I go with raspberry and salted chocolate, and I’m not sad I didn’t venture farther. It’s the kind of dense, smooth ice cream you get from cows that are fed rose petals and heirloom alfalfa. Flavors truer than what they’re imitating. I hover among the youth, catching bits of conversation, jokes about Americans, stupid enough to do this or that, rumors about Deadpool 2, which is being filmed downtown. After a few minutes, I feel my age, realize my otherness in polo and khakis. So I walk the two kilometers of quiet streets past sleeping cruise ships, under the skyline’s glistening, futuristic domes, to my illegal AirBnB where I collapse into bed.
Pandemic nights, I crave something sweet late into the unstructured hours. Cookies are for afternoons, fruit nothing that will send you smiling off to sleep. Only ice cream will do. I don’t keep much around, a pint of good vanilla in case someone stops over with a pie, the extra leftover after a party. Too often it’s covered with hoarfrost before I chuck it in the garbage. I buy ice cream because a household should have it, the way my grandmother bought wine. She kept a bottle of Mogan David, Concord grape, in the icebox until it would turn to vinegar, but she offered a glass to any visitor who knocked on the door. It’s not that I have any problem eating bowls upon bowls among friends. It’s just that, of all foods, ice cream seems a communal one, whose flavor is intensified by the visual and auditory exuberance of those you’re sharing it with. Birthday parties, barn raisings, summer socials. “I scream, you scream, we all scream. . .” A month and more from eating with anyone but myself, it doesn’t quite seem the same. And having just arrived at 50 the month before gyms closed, I am newly conscious of how each extra bite threatens my beltline. So I get a little condiment cup meant for ketchup or salad dressing, and I find one of the small dashers I use for doling out cookie dough. Somehow, the comical overfilling of something meant for a Lilliputian makes it seem less like I am depriving myself, less like I am eating it alone. A couple of swipes with a spoon small enough for a baby, and the deed is done, I am satisfied of a longing, and I can lie to myself that the world might one day return to its old ways.
The assignment is something about soft-serve, how local shops are making it new. Flavors beyond chocolate and swirl, parfaits glass rimmed with pop rocks or crushed pretzels. My editor thinks it’s a trend. But my research isn’t going well. I’ve already been to a coffee house for gamers where the flavors were dairy-free mixed berry and vanilla, neither delicious. Other places add sprinkles or put it on brownies, nothing novel. But this mom-and-pop beyond the suburbs promises tangerine and pistachio, a monthly sundae with berries from a local orchard. It’s the week before my first vaccination, that slowly retreating hope, and I’ve driven nearly an hour from the city, stalling in confused snarls around traffic circles. I’m cranky. Inside, a woman in an apron gabs into her phone. I walk in to the jangle of a bell, not seeing a mask in sight, despite a warning on the door. Little in this town seems even to acknowledge a pandemic, though I’ve memorized the county maps, know which hospitals are filling. For years, I’ve been an apologist for small town Indiana, its diners and tchotchke shops, telling myself the kind woman who rang me up at an antique mall surely isn’t lording her white privilege or uttering a slur for me under her tongue. Now, it’s all too clear where loyalties lie. I stand at the glass case and look around for a sign with the soft-serve flavors. I don’t even see the machine. “Oh, we had one,” the woman says, “but it kept getting jammed, so Marge sold it.” She looks at me with genuine regret, insists I pick whatever I want on the house. Food, the last great leveler, offers its olive branch. I want to leave, already drafting the email to my editor in my head. Yet I relent to a scoop, which she doubles. In my car, I sit eating the ice cream I have not paid for, butter pecan with hard, slightly musty nuts, my door open to the warm breeze of an early March day. Streams of SUVs rush to bedroom subdivisions, progress unimpeded, and I know I will not write about it, except to tell you there are sorrows even ice cream cannot drive off, though I hope there is someone to share yours with every time you eat it.
Because we lived over an hour from the nearest city, my parents would haul us all around the countryside of Southern Illinois and Indiana in our blond Olds station wagon to fetch the latest seasonal treat. Strawberries we’d crouch for hours to pick, peaches we’d let soften on the back porch until they became cobblers and preserves, melons we’d happen upon in the middle of nowhere, stacked like cannonballs on the flatbed of some farmer’s truck. Nearly every Sunday we would drive on the old U.S. highways my dad favored over the newly built interstates to stately hotels and country diners, roadhouses famous for their catfish, ice cream stands said to churn their own butter pecan. The miles never seemed to matter.
It was these yearnings for the fresh and delicious that were our aesthetics and our expression. After the Catholic hymns we warbled every weekend, the flower gardens we tended until the weeds got the better of them, it was food that we most fussed about into something approaching an art. Nothing fancy and yet always “the best I ever ate,” whether we would say it again the next night. Celebration meals we’d work on all week only to devour in minutes, exhausted as much by the enjoyment as the labor. So it is in writing poetry that I travel the byways of the mind for the tastiest, most satisfying phrases that yet linger a little longer on the tongue. The miles never matter.
A senior lecturer in creative writing at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis, Terry Kirts is the author of To the Refrigerator Gods, published by Seven Kitchens Press in 2010. His poetry and essays have appeared in Alimentum, Another Chicago Magazine, Boog City, Gastronomica, Green Mountains Review, Porridge, and Presence, and the anthologies Food Poems, St. Peter’s B-list, and others. His culinary articles reviews appear widely, and he is a dining critic for Indianapolis Monthly (https://www.indianapolismonthly.com/author/terry-kirts).
this is some of me: the trial and error of virtually bundling myself
i try to hold it all together but it gets away from me reorganizing itself myself in different ways on different days fitting me into this accumulation of virtual bundles feels frightful and glaring naked and boxy not enough and all too much at once boxy as in nesting blocks that are empty when you take them apart boxy as in cramped restricted in tone square in shape like the rubik's cube, meticulously covered in stickers
i gave my cousin a rubik's cube with vegetables on it. unless you get it just right the veggies remain fragmented all mixed up not, what they truly are so the cube is organized and reorganized until the veggies once again become images of what they are but if you’ve never seen, smelled, or tasted a carrot, you really don’t know a carrot. it's just an image you’ve pieced together yet even a carrot when dissected turns out to be a carrot thru and thru now when the sum of your existence holds the fluidity of air and the value of null how do you show someone else? this is some of me.
Food has played many roles in my life. When I was young and food was scarce, that scarcity only added to the joy I experienced eating day-old donuts in a driveway out of a large black trash bag with my siblings. There have been other times in my life when the abundance of food available to me was overwhelming. How do you reconcile having everything you need when others don’t?
As an ethical vegan who has had various additional food restrictions since childhood, food has been a key ingredient in most of my fondest memories. Food is connection, friendship, and bonding. Yet, like my financial status, the limitations on my diet have also created boundaries, insecurity, and uncomfortable scenarios.
As a parent, I learned that food is one of the first ways that children assert their power. We revisit that power as adults. We restrict food to shape our bodies, or we indulge in it to let food soothe and comfort our soles. Our living, breathing reality is dependent on the intake of food, yet food also plays a significant factor in our sense of well-being and belonging. People shape their own perceptions of food, and food shapes others perceptions of us. It is at the core of our existence, yet our internal relationship with food does not always match others perceptions or expectations. In “this is some of me” I explore a similar theme as I dissect the challenges of others’ perceptions and expectations in my relationship to gender.
aspen kobie is a parent, a former educator, and a student in their final year at
Champlain College studying Professional Writing. They identify as trans
nonbinary and their writing explores themes of food, nature, gender, sexuality, mental health and belonging. In their free time, aspen enjoys hanging out with their two daughters, daydreaming, admiring clouds, and being in the presence of water, moss, lichen and birds. They have been published in VTDigger and are currently working on a YA fiction novel.
The Fat of the Matter
There are days that linger on my tongue – a bittersweet tang of nostalgia, of once-a-year mornings where wafts of brine and meat coaxed me from the sugar plums dancing in my head, where my body drifted down the stairs of its own accord, lured by the promise of something magical, something delicious.
Sleepily, I stumbled into the kitchen, the icy tile jolting me awake to discover my father captaining the stove, one hand clutching a cup of coffee and the other flipping sizzling slabs of bacon. He wore a floppy Santa hat shoved back from his sweaty brow. Beneath his bushy mustache, a cigarette dangled precariously from his lower lip, threatening to topple into the pan. He stood shirtless and stalwart, never wincing as popping grease bullets hit his chest like shrapnel.
At the table, my brother and I ignored my mother’s half-hearted contribution of runny scrambled eggs and charred toast with its globs of butter oozing into blackened crevices. Instead, we shoved mounds of still steaming bacon in our greedy mouths, scalding our tongues in our haste. But my father ate nothing, just sat back and nursed his mug of coffee, the black tar pumping through his veins, fueling him like gasoline, watching us. Because it was not the bacon he wanted.
It was the fat.
After we scarfed our food, my father poured the leftover grease into a porcelain mug, the usual worry etched in his brow easing into something like eagerness as dregs of brown bits swirled in the congealing oil. For this one day of the year, he gave himself over to cooking the one recipe he learned long ago, one his mother taught him, one that remained hidden and never shared. For this one day, there were no business calls, no shutting himself in his office, no hurried hugs, or preoccupied attention. For this one day, my workaholic father’s stoic facade dropped, and I glimpsed his unguarded personality peeking out like the half-opened presents scattered across our living room floor.
I hovered in the kitchen, transfixed by the stories he revealed as he cooked, unknown morsels of his childhood that I devoured like the bacon, of his brothers, his sisters, his father and mother, family I had hardly known. His hands conveyed meaning in ways his words could not, in the agitated way he diced the onions and his eyes bulged from unshed tears, the way his beefy hands pulverized the stale white bread into helpless crumbs, the way he smashed together pork, veal, and ground beef, milk, eggs, fresh thyme, and oregano into a rough mixture.
But then he stilled, closed his and breathed in, his frenetic energy ebbing as he stood over the bowl, and then he scooped out small handfuls, lovingly rolling them into perfect spheres. When they were all lined in neat rows on a platter, he grasped the porcelain mug and spooned a hunk of fat into a heated frying pan. The coagulated glob landed with a soft thud and melted like snow, rereleasing its brackish scent. One by one, he dropped the raw orbs into the hissing pan, searing them, infusing them with hints of his mother.
As twilight approached, early and soft, we gathered at the table for dinner. My father, depleted of words, grew quiet as he took the first bite. His inscrutable expression returned. We ate in silence, savoring the ghostly flavors of those who were not there to celebrate with us and never would never be.
Connie Millard is a working mom of three who once made it to final callbacks for the television show, Worst Cooks in America. After much perseverance, she now spends her time writing in between stirring risotto. She has an MFA from Lindenwood University and is Pushcart Prize nominee whose work has appeared in Ghost Parachute, Bending Genres, and Dark Recesses Press among others. You can find her at conniemillardwriter.com.
Stay & Bonne Maman
Mostly, I live in mild terror and tell myself not to get my hopes up too high. Do not eat unpasteurized cheese. No running, no scalding baths (not taking any chances). Take the vitamins. Drink lots of water and remain calm, positive. I know better than to tell anyone this time, but somehow the cat knows and is avoiding me.
There are two and I am small, so my pelvis prematurely cleaves apart. I’m not surprised, my body has a history of punishing me. Bed rest. This gives me lots of extra time to worry. I track kick counts three times a day while staring up at the popcorn ceiling. I think about their siblings – just pictures stored away in a box now. Please give me a chance. Just stay. When I walk (to the fridge, to the bathroom) it’s like I’m on eggshells. No jostling! No sudden movements! Then I think, I am the eggshell.
Ultrasounds every week. Fetal dopplers, as well. “One is here,” I say to the girl strapping me in. “The other one here.” I know their habits and worry I’m getting too attached. The room fills with two amplified heartbeats. It sounds like we are running with horses, and although I don’t like horses, this is my favorite part of the week. I close my eyes and picture three hearts beating inside my hostile body. Three blips on a radar, signaling each other: stay, stay, stay.
They decide to stick around, after all. They kick and hiccup and roll around, turning my stomach into waves. Through my skin I can touch a head, a heel. We are so close, I tell the waves.
David Bowie dies, but it doesn’t register as omen. That same day the ultrasound shows a problem. Stupid, I think. To let myself get attached, to let myself get comfortable. A doctor enters, tells me to pack a bag and go straight to the hospital. They need to stay put for at least another week. I get steroid shots and stay up all night watching a show about tree houses (they have cable there). I sit on the hard bed and eat ice chips from a dispenser in the hallway. I hear words like “viable,” and “NICU,” and “emergency cesarean.” I look out the third story window. I do crosswords, I crochet a hat. All the time willing, stay, stay, stay.
Her ashes are in a jelly jar on my dresser. Probably one she emptied herself, scraping cherry preserves across white toast. Washed and stored in her cupboard, waiting to hold buttons or screws. Instead now, it contains twelve ounces of what is left of her.
Her handwriting was beautiful, looping cursive. Memorable. When she died, I was desperate to find her handwriting. Or maybe it was her hands I wanted to remember. One hand holding a cigarette, the other hand moving across the paper, across a calendar square, writing a list. Notes in the margins of cookbooks, a score sheet from a game of Boggle, a recipe card. A postcard: “The stars are so BIG here.” A tree-shaped gift tag: “To Nicky.” Hoarding scraps, surrounding myself with a flurry of morbid snowflakes. She would say, “Stop being so sentimental.”
I think of her hand in the jelly jar. The cheerful red gingham lid, the sun catching off a tiny shard of bone or body. I think I should find a better container. She would say, “Spend your money on something fun.”
And sometimes I do spend my money on something fun, but not without a pang of midwestern blue-collar guilt.
“Summer toes,” she called it, painting her nails with an age-appropriate shade. “Summer toes,” I whisper to myself as I apply the guilty polish. She’s laughing now. “You used to call it poll-nailish.” And I laugh too, even though I don’t remember and I have heard this a thousand times.
I put on a pair of her earrings. “Go out,” she says. “You might have fun.” I feel her hand on my back, half hug/half push.
I feel her hand in mine, on that last day. The fall must have been worse than they thought, I see all her fingernails are broken. She left them jagged like that all morning and this is how I know things are really bad. “Talk to her, she might be able to hear you,” the nurse says. I don’t have that kind of courage, so I file all her fingernails smooth instead. Better, I think. I won’t let you go out like that, I think. And also: Why are you leaving me? What will I do without you?
I open the jelly jar and peer in, looking for . . . what? A hand. An answer. It really is just dust and I slap the lid back on, worried a gust of wind or a sneeze will send it off and I will have nothing. Where are you? Come back. I’m lost.
“Stop wasting your time. Stop grieving. Put me down.”
What is food, but memories? The longing for a comfort food, the smell of barbeque in summer. The routine of tradition. The heft of your grandmother’s Pyrex mixing bowl. Even packaging: the feel of a candy wrapper, a familiar jelly jar. The sound of cereal hitting the bottom of a bowl is childhood Saturdays. Cursive scrawled across a fading recipe card is a whisper from someone you miss. What do you crave when you are sick, heartbroken, pregnant? What is food, but memories? And who are we? Just memories held together by flesh and bone.
Heidi Nieling is a fiber artist living in southern Minnesota with her husband and two six-year-olds. Her flash CNF, “Chicken Legs,” was recently published in Vast Chasm Magazine, and her story, “The Hand of God,” was awarded first place in OxMag’s Golden Ox Flash Prose Contest. Heidi can be found on Instagram @heidi_nieling
Today, I’m at Breakfast Joint—cafe wedged between haggard Portuguese cottages—on a Goan street spilling with second-hand, gaudily re-painted cars, cheap scooters. Breezy tropical winter, exuding the warmth of friendships, and that hot chocolate I can die for.
Now, if this place is mashed in with a riot of colors, musical honks, and fried fish aroma, it must’ve taken a skewed genius to plan a wedding here, and to parachute me in its midst. Oh, the ingenuity of some friends!
Yesterday was Friday in Panji, but I swear I’m not drunk on the morning. My fuchsia satin gown trails as I walk after the bride, who drifts between grimy chairs, purple hydrangeas in hand. Mooka’s chosen princely-silver for her wedding ensemble, and I’m sure she isn’t drunk either, for look at her firm, steady steps! Jaye! You’re one lucky guy! Of course, Jaye is of species that charm their way into places, expend bountiful luck, and bravo, have yet more luck to spare. Yesterday I was hooked to this specimen, but alas, I’m not this morning.
Mooka and I, find Jaye gawking at the buffet spread to his right. All Breakfast Joint specialties laid out—red chili mayonnaise and cheese sandwich, prawn Malabari and chicken in butter sauce. Is he starving like me? Yesterday I could’ve seen Jaye like this, loved him more for it, and gobbled him whole, but I swear I won’t this morn.
Mooka’s family is towering around him like bars on a gilded cage. He lookstiny—Gulliver-in-Giant-Land. Argh! I feel lumpy in my throat. Yesterday, I’d pity him enough to run to his rescue, but I swear it means nothing this morn.
Mooka and Jaye’s seventeen guests huddle and hunch, holiday morning too-early-out-of-bed, music and gossip fail to distract, for everyone’s waiting for dishes to be laid out on the tables and permission to crowd around food. High-point of all our race’s gatherings is the feast. We talk for weeks—of not what happened, or who married whom, or what someone wore, but food. Chicken roasted or grilled, marinated perfectly or not, if the fries were over-salted, or the veggies, undercooked?
‘Ridiculous!’ says someone within earshot. I don’t turn to see. Damning voice must be of lady who saw me pillion-ride on Jaye’s bike every evening after work, pinching bottoms, hands all over. Until Mooka turned out smarter. ‘Ridiculous!’ I repeat, under my breath.
There ain’t any priests, but Mooka’s brother. ‘I’m the priest’, George proclaims in our local parson’s fabricated voice, and borrowed cassock exuding authority. He’s master conjurer at our local fair, thin-lipped and head of matted hair. I’m sure, he taught Mooka how to hypnotize one sitting-duck-in-placid-pool named Jaye. Yesterday I would’ve flirted with George, tricked him to teach me some, but this morn I simply don’t care.
George mutters some hocus-pocus. We act solemn. One has to. This—is—finality! Jaye unfurls fingers. Mooka has the ring in her hand, but it slips and rolls on carpet, down the steps—clink, clink, clink—down, down where we came by, out onto the bustling street. Jaye stands wide-eyed. Out of her spell? Escaped enchantment? Yes! I can see that.
Run away, Jaye! But Mooka begins to cry. Howl. Shout. In a flash, Jaye lunges, and darts out the door. Two pregnant minutes, then ring is restored to where it belongs.
Candy-faced-man nearest to me leaps from his chair, gathers me before I faint. Grey eyes behind wide-rimmed glasses study my face, my curls. Precariously positioned still, he takes time to explore sequins on my dress. I gauge his mouth, measure his jawline, picture my fingers running through his mop. I think I kinda like the smell of his breath too—it’s Breakfast Joint’s scrambled eggs.
Yesterdays, agreed weren’t mine. But I swear I’m in love this morn.
As an Indian, and that too hailing from the food-loving eastern region, articulating the aroma, taste and colors of food happens organically in my writing. Food is an obsession in these parts, and I find my stories populated with mothers and grandmothers in kitchens fondly simmering curries, and the family gathering for elaborate meals served lovingly and consumed with flourish. I believe the delicately-positioned paragraphs about food in my work have their roots in the way my large family congregated every summer and bonded over food, and how food was and still is part of most conversations, even those with strangers on buses and trains.
For this piece, I heavily relied on my memories of a trip to Goa with my parents when I was very young. The state of Goa has a unique, enchanting blend of sea, sun and food that embraces you the moment you arrive. I particularly remember the prawn Malabari we had there. Malabar is a region in South-Western India, famous for its distinct culinary varieties. The use of coconut oil and assorted spices ensure that Malabari food makes a lasting impression, and the prawns are fresh from the sea. My mouth waters as I imagine it even now. Needless to mention, I can imagine something has to be really important for one to ignore a wedding feast with prawn Malabari on the menu. One wouldn’t miss it, except, perhaps, if it’s a case of love.
Mandira Pattnaik is a writer, poet and columnist from India. Her prose appears/is forthcoming in AAWW, The Penn Review, Miracle Monocle, Timber, The McNeese Review, Watershed Review, Passages North, Best Small Fictions Anthology 2021, and Contrary Magazine, among other places. Her writing has received nominations for the Pushcart Prize 2021 and 2022, Best of the Net, and Best Microfiction 2021 & 2022. More at mandirapattnaik.com On Twitter
Saturdays & Filling
His twelve-hour, six-day week hoisting crates of powdered eggs, fifty-pound sacks of flour, blocks of butter, mixing batter in huge tubs, rolling out pie crusts, braiding stollen, grating hazelnuts, slicing apples, lifting laden pans into giant ovens, retrieving them bright with heat and yeasty fragrance, beating confectioner’s sugar and cream, piping faultless pink roses, precise green leaves—our father, his twelve-hour, six-day week over, his Pall Mall breath leavened with Schmidt’s, set on our kitchen table the white box filled with all that hadn’t sold that day: cinnamon buns enameled with molasses, doughnuts oozing blackberry jam, blueberry and sweet cheese Danish, butter cake, crisped froth of butter and sugar.
This labor. These offerings.
Thanksgiving morning, nails bitten to stubs, his thick fingers minced onions fine as glass slivers with a small, sharp knife, chopped celery into pale green cubes, parsley into deep green flecks. Then he pushed everything from the cutting board into the deep, blue bowl filled with hunks of stale bread softened with milk. “Ready, Schatz,” he said. Our mother nodded, stepped from the stove where she sautéed giblets for gravy, brought celery seed, salt, white pepper, Maggi, rubbed sage, and melted butter to the table. He sipped his beer, rolled up his flannel sleeves, kneaded it all into what we all called “filling.”
These pieces honor my dad’s considerable baking and prep skills. But whenever he was on dinner duty, he made his signature “army eggs”—eggs scrambled with chopped up hotdogs, raw green pepper, and onion. Need I say more? Fortunately, my mom was both marvelous baker and cook extraordinaire for our family of eight. My favorite meal was a frequent Friday night supper: German semolina dumpling soup followed by preserved peaches ladled atop rich German waffles.
I make my immigrant mom’s waffles every Christmas morning; my daughter and her husband do now, too. These waffles are so luscious, they need no butter or syrup or jam, but feel free to indulge! I prefer mine with berries and fresh fruit in summer. Stewed peaches or apricots in winter. For a hearty dinner, serve with your favorite soup.
Mary Rohrer-Dann, author of Taking the Long Way Home, (Kelsay Books 2021), and La Scaffetta (Tempest Productions) also has work in Flash Boulevard, Indiana Review, The Raven’s Perch, Potato Soup Journal, Orca, Clackamas Review, Philadelphia Stories, Ekphrastic Review, Panoply. A “graduated” educator, she paints, hikes, gardens, and volunteers at Rising Hope Therapeutic Stables, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and Ridgelines Language Arts. She did not inherit her parents’ baking genes, but can cook.
Banging Pots and Pans
An American in South Lebanon
My fiancé’s mother looks me up and down, purses her lips, walks away, slippers tch-tch-ing. I hear her mutter, You send your sons off to study in America and this is what happens.
“Don’t worry,” my fiancé whispers, waggling his unibrow, “Once she gets to know you, she’ll love you.”
“Inshallah,” I say. Though I appreciate his optimism and the ‘stache with a gap in the middle, like the inverse of the unibrow, I know his mother has his sassy cousin with the green eyes in mind for him. I’m not the right ethnicity, right religion. I don’t even have a religion for that matter. And we’re living in sin. She’s told everyone we’re married. She’ll have no scandal in her household. As a nurse-midwife she’s used to being in charge—has no patience for nonsense. I can see there’ll be no time for jet-lag or romance. Until we get our own place I’d best roll up my sleeves and start figuring things out.
Open the jar of freshly ground dark coffee beans and breathe in the earthy aroma singing with the brightness of ground cardamom. Boil water in the long-handled pot whose lid looks like a beret with a wooden knob. Remove from the heat. Tip in five generous teaspoonfuls. Not too much. Not too little. Hold over the flame and lift up when the foam rises. Lower it back down until the foam rises again. Repeat until it settles but there’s still a skim of foam on top. Pour.
6:30 Saturday Morning
Every pot and pan in the house has come alive and is banging about in the kitchen. She’s up, and now everyone else is too. My fiancé kicks at the sheet. It’s August and heat and humidity cling to us though the sun has barely crept above the Mediterranean whose sweet, briny breath reaches across the few blocks to his mother’s building to greet us. I start to get up. “Stay,” he says hopefully, looping his slippery, sweat-slicked arms around my waist. “Don’t let her guilt-trip you.”
I kiss his smooth chest that tastes as salty as the sea. Yesterday I overheard her telling him, “This is all wrong. All wrong.”
“I have to at least try to win her over,” I say slipping from his damp embrace. He gives up, rolls onto his back. The pots and pans are sounding more like war drums now.
By the time I wash and dress she’s sitting with a huge metal platter on her lap, house dress hiked up above her chubby knees. The platter is piled with zucchini and eggplant. She fixes her dark, intelligent eyes on mine, beaming a silent warning, but she lets me kiss her on both cheeks.
Stuffed Kuusa and Baytinjan
Always pick the smallest. Wash and cut off the tops. Core carefully to remove most of the pulp without poking through the delicate skin. And, yalla, don’t dilly-dally—there’s much to be done. Save the first cork-like cored bit from each one to seal in the filling. Mix ground beef or lamb, rice, and seven-spice mix in a large bowl. Stuff the mixture loosely into the vegetables. “Cork” them and place in a large pot. Boil in tomato sauce and broth seasoned with salt and a little more spice mix. They should be slightly firm but always tender.
Morning Coffee Break
I’ve memorized the routine after a few days: when the neighbors in the building come for coffee mid-morning—while there’s still a cooling breeze out on the balcony—it’s ok to greet them in a house dress. The coffee is served on the inlaid Syrian tray, with tiny spoons for sugar and handle-less cups that fit snugly in your palm—the everyday ones with the red and green fern-and-flower design. If there’s a special guest, you should dress nicely, offer the coffee in gold-patterned demitasse cups, stir in the sugar for them. If a male visitor arrives, she’ll put on her head scarf before he enters. If a woman comes to her clinic in labor, she’ll go downstairs to get her settled, give her something to take the edge off. She’ll instruct the husband to go wait in the waiting area and not tell her how to do her job.
On such days she’ll tell me Be a good girl and get breakfast ready, frown when she says good girl, as if she’s sure I won’t be. I’m transported back to kindergarten.
Roll out the dough into rounds. Stir fresh olive oil into the wild thyme-sumac-sesame-seed blend. Spread onto some of the dough. The others take a little oil and Akawi cheese. Cover them with a cloth and run them down to the bread bakery. They’ll bring them back nicely baked. Serve with strong, sweet black tea and a plate of tiny cucumbers, mountain tomatoes, scallions, mint, olives and radishes.
A Place of Our Own
It’s just over a month when we find an apartment in Beirut. It feels like a lifetime and we’re not even married yet. At the door she sets down three grocery sacks for us to take with us. Oranges from her brother’s grove. Cherries. Loquats. Watermelon. A tray of kibbeh, a pan of fragrantly garlicky chicken and potatoes. A large jug of tart yogurt.
She kisses her son’s cheeks. “Congratulations on the new flat. Don’t stay away long, naughty boy.”
We’ll be living only an hour from her but there’s a sadness in her eyes as if we’re venturing far, far away. She turns to me with a mischievous half-smile, pinches my arm. I jump and she says, “One day when you have children of your own, you’ll understand. Take good care of my boy. And you,” she says pointing a knobbed finger at her son, “take care of her too.”
Not many things excite me as much as discovering, planning, cooking, and eating great food, especially when it’s intertwined with storytelling. When I moved to Lebanon with my husband-to-be, I was determined to master Lebanese cuisine—and to win over his family, especially my future mother-in-law. With time and patience, both eventually came. I fell in love with the robust, generous approach to life and food in Lebanon. I watched, absorbed, learned the subtleties, sorcery and passion that give the cuisine its magic. Stuffed squash in goat’s milk yogurt? Local fish with lemony tahini sauce and smoky baba ghanouj? Yes, please! I relished meal planning, trips to the fishmonger and butcher, the souk with its sensual aromas, spices, flavors and colors. In the joyous ruckus of the steamy kitchen, I grew closer to my new family while creating sublime meals together.
Awhile back, Banging Pots and Pans began as a messy draft in a workshop with the wonderful Ann Hood, who once said—regarding my unpublished novel, Roots of The Banyan Tree—a story can never have too much food. Exactly! Nothing brings a scene or story alive more than the smells, textures, tastes, and cultural contexts of food and I try to knead these into my writing whenever possible. Recently I revisited Banging Pots and Pans, introducing a new structure where the narrative engaged in back-and-forth banter with the “instructions.” It was a revelation. The story had found its groove—and now its perfect home in RUBY.
Kathryn Silver-Hajo’s work appears, or is forthcoming, in Atticus Review, Bending Genres, Citron Review, Cleaver Magazine, Craft Literary, Emerge Literary, Fictive Dream, Flash Boulevard, Litro Magazine, MacQueen’s Quinterly, New World Writing, New York Times-Tiny Love Stories, Pithead Chapel, Rusted Radishes: Beirut Literary and Art Journal, The Ekphrastic Review,and other lovely places. Kathryn is a reader for Fractured Lit. Her debut flash collection, Wolfsong, is due out in
May 2023 from ELJ Editions and her novel, Roots of the Banyan Tree is
forthcoming in fall 2023 from Juventud Press. Kathryn lives in Providence, Rhode
Island with her husband and sassy, curly-tailed pup, Kaya. More
at: https://www.kathrynsilverhajo.com/ and on Twitter and Instagram.
With all the Other Lonely-Hearts of South Grand
We are drinking a pitcher of caipirinha and eating paella and red snapper on this perfect mid-80s June night. Gary, the server, tells us that the regular behind us, a man in his late 70s or early 80s with wisps of cotton-candy hair and Einstein eyebrows, comes every week, and orders a solitary beef pastel for $2.95 and completes the crosswords he carries in a white plastic take-out bag. After his meal, he falls asleep as the sun sets in muted Lisa Frank-colors. The servers know not to disturb him, to let the man sleep in peace.
Meanwhile, my friend and I discuss what it was like to grow into strong women with absent fathers and how we strive to show our children a different type of parent, a mother who listens, who sees, who affirms her child’s perspective, who loves unconditionally, no matter what. She gives me hope that I might find forgiveness in my heart for my mother, whose track record with toxic men made me want to become a nun, but instead I’m the opposite of that: a single, divorced mother having dinner with another single, divorced mother, who’s an incredible entrepreneur and has the weight of the world on her shoulders.
She tells me about an estimate she’s received for a $20,000 air conditioner replacement at her bakery. We discuss whisper networks of finding repair people and contractors who will complete the work fairly. During our meal, my four-year-old daughter calls right before bedtime at her father’s house, and my sweet friend tells my sweet and chatty child that she is beautiful and we’re going to eat cookies studded with fancy French chocolate and have a tea party in a garden full of dahlias, gladiolas, and roses.
And suddenly I miss my own mother, whom I’ve texted three unanswered words: “I love you.” But the faint, heavenly smell of nearby jasmine doesn’t care about my heartache. Breathe it all in, the flowers demand.
Meanwhile, one table away, Mohammad from East Africa tells us he has lived in St. Louis for over 20 years. He regales us with silly stories about Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. He calls the other server “his wife,” and tells us not to say anything and then winks like the lightning bugs that make Midwestern summers magical, mythical, bearable.
We are suspended in love and friendship and cachaça, sugar, and lime, and I am home, with all the other lonely-hearts of South Grand.
Michaella Thornton’s writing often explores levity, lust, love, and letting go. Her work has appeared in Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Fractured Lit, Hobart After Dark, (mac)ro(mic), New South, Reckon Review, Southeast Review, among other fine publications. In 2021, her prose was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and Best Microfiction. You can find her procrastinating and dreaming @kellathornton on Twitter or read more of her work at
Elinor Ann Walker
Cornbread, Cast Iron Skillets, and Confessions
Cast iron. Iron clad. Such skillets have rules, and opinions about them seem rarely debatable. The same would seem to apply to cornbread. Debate and rules, however, tend toward the binary and fixed, and in Covid times, what’s required is flexibility. I offer my own opinions with a grain of salt, as it were, although I would never add sugar to cornbread. Many people do like a little sweetness to the crumb. Corn itself is sweet enough, I say, but then, I don’t add whole corn kernels to my cornbread, either. American Thanksgivings bring out such arguments (and others). Like all important considerations, cornbread requires context. For example, I’ve been known to make a quick bread with Jiffy mix, canned corn, chopped jalapeño peppers, and shredded Monterey Jack cheese (or Pepper Jack!) in a nine-inch glass baking pan to accompany chili on a snow day, with variations thereof to suit black-eyed pea soup on New Year’s. Would I add those ingredients to Thanksgiving cornbread? No—but context, again, influences such choices because cornbread in that role finds its destiny in dressing—for us, anyway.
Thanksgiving raises that other question: dressing or stuffing? Where I grew up in Alabama, we didn’t stuff the bird. The “stuffing” was baked separately—and called “dressing”. Dressing also can take different forms: yellow squash dressing (a.k.a., squash casserole), oyster dressing, even chicken dressing, which process entails a whole bird being cooked, its carcass used then to make chicken broth, and all added back to the cornbread with some aromatics for baking (frankly, a meal unto itself). I no longer live in Alabama (which is more than fine with me), but I still make cornbread dressing like my grandmother used to make, except not exactly. Have I ever made stuffing—or a dressing—with more unconventional ingredients? Yes. Chestnuts? Yes. Did we have to boil and peel them? Yes. Did we do that again? No.
In fact, I’d argue that experimentation, rather than following the recipe that’s been in the family since time immemorial, offers the path toward authenticity and satisfaction. When the roads do lead back home, then the journey means more, or something like that. That’s why, during the worst of the global pandemic in 2020 when we missed our usual Thanksgiving gathering with our chosen family—friends of almost-30 years who are originally from Massachusetts, i.e., not the south—what we all missed most was the cornbread dressing (which we make) and the pies (which they do). Collectively, this family and ours have created a menu-mashup of dishes that we’ve been serving since the first time we celebrated Thanksgiving together in 2010, more than 10 years after all the children were born and even longer since becoming reacquainted in the 90s. Somewhat traditional cornbread dressing, made from cast iron skillet-cooked cornbread, is always part of our feast.
Anyone who has any southern relatives has probably inherited, or found oneself in possession of, a cast iron skillet. For one thing, such skillets are heavy even when empty. That means that elderly kin often tire of hauling them, blazing hot and full of food, from stove top to oven and back again. Inevitably, someone in a kitchen has a realization: they no longer wrestle with their skillets, at which time they offer them to someone younger while praising a lightweight, non-stick vessel that they’ve just bought at Target that may also even be dishwasher safe. (We should take the skillets if offered.) My mother kept hers with brown paper bags between them so they wouldn’t scrape against each other (and those paper bags were oil-absorbent—more on that later). Cast iron’s significant heft also explains in part why the same relatives were so fit. I have a whole collection because I’m really lucky and come from a long line of strong women.
Inheriting a first cast iron skillet while in one’s 20s or 30s may also coincide with having housemates whose histories did not accommodate mine. Those same housemates, albeit well-meaning, might have immersed this precious cast iron skillet in a sink full of soapy water over night. On the one hand, it’s a miracle if a housemate ever does the dishes! On the other hand, . . . anathema! Such skillets build up a patina over time, a curated oiled surface that’s soft and smooth to the touch. That shining layer is why paper bags work well to separate the skillets in a cabinet or pantry. The “seasoning” is magic and prolonged exposure to soap and water its enemy. Plenty of resources are available via Google now, however, that offer instructions to rehabilitate cast iron lovingly with plenty of grease and a little attention. All is not lost. If only history could be revised and restored as easily. Telling the stories still matters; there’s more than one way to make good cornbread and keep a skillet functional.
I remember the first time I posted a photograph sometime during my earliest days on Facebook of my oldest cast iron skillet (No. 8) filled with beautifully browned cornbread. So many questions ensued—and not just questions! Bold assertions declared that the “only right way to make cornbread is to . . . .” For example, some people use shortening. Others demand lard or bacon grease. One recipe calls for vegetable oil. Purists use stone-ground cornmeal; some use cornmeal and flour. One of my favorite recipes includes self-rising cornmeal—but I prefer yellow to white—and some say that certain brands are superior. The narratives vie for attention. My Facebook post revealed that the skillet itself symbolized a tribe to which some belonged more than others. These identifiers are not themselves “bad” or “good,” but I’ve become more aware of potential risks, not just from Covid itself, but from the ways we forget that our individual choices do affect community and the judgment that ensues. I know. It’s just cornbread. I can repeat that for emphasis: it’s just cornbread.
I used to have a cornbread recipe written by my now-deceased father in his lovely, even, cursive handwriting. I’m not sure how we lost it, but fortunately I’d taken a picture of it with my phone. I look at the photograph every Thanksgiving. It’s funny how precious handwritten notes become after someone’s death, not least because so few people actually write on paper now. The recipe includes my father’s handwriting and mine—where I’ve amended to add an egg. He made edits, too, noting that my mother used buttermilk rather than milk, that she reduced the amount of oil. When I make cornbread, I loosely follow this recipe, restoring the full amount of fat, using buttermilk from a local farm if I can get it, including the egg, relying on (gasp) self-rising (yellow) cornmeal. That’s the cornbread I make several days before the holiday, so it has a chance to dry out, along with a pan full of biscuits, to serve as basis for the cornbread dressing.
I have a laminated copy of my paternal grandmother’s handwritten dressing recipe, too, which is epistolary in tone because addressed to my mother in an actual letter, and which my mother passed down to me. (My father was very particular about his dressing, and he wanted it the way he’d grown up eating it—and that is a whole, other story.) My paternal grandparents grew a lot of their own food, relying on hunting for much of their meat (usually venison), and, on occasion, butchering a hog. That recipe, then, really is “from scratch,” calling for a whole chicken (which may or may not have been scratching around in the yard earlier in the day) to be boiled for the stock that’s used to soften at least day-old bread. My grandmother’s measurements are approximate, calling for “just enough” broth to moisten cornbread and biscuits that are mixed with finely chopped onion and celery, butter, and eggs. In the letter, she gives improvisational advice: the butter amount depends upon how rich the stock is, flour can be used to thicken the mixture if there’s not enough cornbread, and sweet milk or water added if not enough broth. All ingredients come together in a dish that’s then baked until set in the center. The dressing is later served with gravy made from turkey pan drippings and a light roux made from butter, flour, and some reserved chicken stock. One year, I followed the recipe, all the steps, no shortcuts (well, I didn’t wring the neck of my own chicken, but otherwise)—and then we promptly forgot the delicious, golden elixir of stock that I’d stored in the garage refrigerator and used a carton of low-sodium broth instead. So it goes . . .
These days, for the dressing, I’m more apt to buy a rotisserie chicken, use canned cream of chicken soup, maybe some stock if I have it, or the cartoned stuff, chop up some onion and celery, shake a bunch of onion powder over everything, and throw all that in with the crumbled corn bread and biscuits, some melted butter, and a couple of eggs. We’ve learned to eyeball the amount of broth required to yield a dressing that’s not too runny or too dry. It’s always delicious, no matter the shortcuts, but best with homemade stock preferably made not only with chicken bones but also with some smoked turkey legs if available. Those smoked turkey legs depart from tradition, but releasing the self from traditions without shame can be . . . well . . . liberating.
The reason a cast iron skillet is perfect for cornbread is ultimately its ability to withstand very high heat to render a perfect crust. The skillet itself should be well-greased and pre-heated. Leftover bacon grease—the clearest part, not the burned bits—is an ideal medium for oiling the skillet itself (and has a high smoking point, another boon). The skillet should be pre-heated in an at least 450-degree oven until very, very hot while the other ingredients are mixed. After the cornbread ingredients are combined according to the recipe of choice, the hot skillet needs to be removed carefully from the oven and the batter poured quickly in, sizzling at the touch, then the skillet returned back to the oven for the prescribed time. After baking, again carefully because of heat, the skillet is removed from the oven to cool on a rack, then the cornbread dumped gently out to reveal its perfect crust. N.B., a person will touch that searing handle without an oven mitt only once, probably, in haste one day or another, having missed hearing the oven timer or been distracted by someone talking. That moment may require loud, profane utterances. Maybe not from previous generations of southern grandmothers. I’m old enough to be a grandmother now. I can speak only for myself.
One lesson of cornbread and cast iron skillets is that like so many things that we grow up learning or inherit eventually, nostalgia plays a role. We remember people we love when we cook. We remember people we’ve lost when we sit at table. These days, always mindful of new Covid variants, we remember that sitting around a table with people we love in the present is not something to be taken for granted. We should use the recipe that yields the cornbread that tastes the best to us today. We should choose dressing—or stuffing—or both. Even traditional recipes, after all, tell stories that are improvisational; we can preserve their spirit of love while we continue to revise them. We can eschew the dichotomies of either/or. When the time comes, we can pass the skillets down to younger friends or our children so that others can know their heft and feel strength of their own making. And we can tell them, as my paternal grandmother closed her letter to my mother, “Don’t be discouraged if your dressing isn’t as good as you think it should be. Mine doesn’t always turn out just right.”
I don’t think much about cooking or eating when I write because I become pretty oblivious to time and my surroundings—but I do think about stories when I page through a cookbook. I’ve always enjoyed reading recipes and exploring old collections, even those that rely entirely too much on incongruous ingredients combined in odd gelatinous concoctions. Church and social group cookbooks are artifacts of time, as are those sold as fundraisers for high school sports teams or drama clubs. Some include photographs, not just of food, but of places where feasting occurs, the brightly lit home of So-and-so for the annual New Year’s Eve party, the farm table with crisp white tablecloth under a tent for the 4th of July picnic hosted every year by the local co-op. Each cookbook tells a story, has a cast of characters, makes a case for community.
Similarly, I treasure the handwritten recipes that have found their way into our kitchen. I know I could find variations and reasonable facsimiles thereof that would yield results that would taste much the same, so it’s not necessarily that the recipes contain top-secret ingredients or magical methods. Rather, the familiarity of the script and the evidence that someone loved us enough to write out the ingredients and steps offer tangible solace, especially when the person is no longer alive. That kind of comfort is hard to put into language. Certain foods “speak” those memories, and handwritten recipes provide the words that bridge the realms.
Elinor Ann Walker’s recent work is featured or forthcoming in Nimrod International Journal, The Rappahannock Review, Plant-Human Quarterly, Black Bough Poetry, Northwest Review, Wordpeace, Pidgeonholes, and Whale Road Review. A Best Microfiction and Best of the Net nominee, she lives with her husband and two dogs, is the mother of two young adult sons, and prefers to write outside. Find her online at https://elinorannwalker.com