I am eating a King Kong Maple Bacon Cronut in my daughters honor as she is graduating next week with a Master’s Degree in Nutrition and Different Stuff. Jenna is a constant source of wisdom about food and life and has taught me some amazing things, not the least of which is how to smile with my eyes while eating with my mouth without slobbering…well, I’m getting better anyway.
In his book, A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”
Dickens captures how I feel when I eat kale for lunch and New York Super Fudge Chunk ice cream for dinner…one is everything before us and one is nothing before us, one is heaven and the other is not.
I’m not saying which is which, but for now, I’m headed directly to…well, Nashville, to see my daughter Jenna who is graduating from David Lipscomb University with a Master’s Degree in Exercise and Nutrition Science which is just an expensive piece of paper that allows her to condemn my indulgent visit to the 12 South neighborhood in Nashville where this can be found: a King Kong Maple Bacon Cronut at Five Daughters Bakery followed by a sweet walk around the corner to get a dip of Jeni’s Brown Butter Almond Brittle ice cream.
I’m a recovering food junkie who grew up watching Captain Kangaroo when the Captain was only 25 but looked 65, as I munched Lucky Charms & Captain Crunch cereal and drank the milk tossing aside the spoon after the cereal was gone. I tossed back the sweet colored milk with the gusto of a nomad drinking oasis water.
Now I’m grown up…sort of. My Captain Crunch residual milk is fancier now and I fool myself into believing it’s good for me. How do I rationalize my indulgent food excursions for cronuts and ice cream? As my wife is fond of saying, “It must be worth it.” And I would add to that, “It must be memorable.”
What makes food worth it and memorable?
Jenna, you may already know this but your Mom grew up poor. By that I mean, she never saw the inside of a restaurant until she went on a date in high school. I’m exaggerating a bit, but the Mason’s were hard-working blue-collar in a good way, the way that makes you a better person, a more grateful person, one who knows what the initials T.G.I.F. stand for. They stand for payday. Thank the Lord, it’s payday. The thrill of payday was the smell of groceries and fresh deli cold cuts and pickles and cheese on italian rolls.
There is a great tradition of simple food and simple hardship in your family. Your Great grandfather Taylor once was tossed into jail near Wichita, Kansas while working on a wheat harvesting crew in a pre-Miranda round-up of nomadic workers. Your Pop-pop made concrete blocks, Mom-mom worked an assembly line for Johnson & Johnson, but they all in their own time and place lived with vigor and passion preferring a brown bag of plums and a lunch pail with a ham sandwich to French pastries and Filet Mignon.
Simple food sometimes brings the most joy. Pop-pop and Mom-mom kept a clandestine prune juice jar filled with cold ice tea in the fridge to keep away the thirsty children. It was their secret drink kept safe by a prune label. And on Sunday nights at the drive-in movies, it was buck night for a car load, and your Mom would walk past the concession stand and smell popcorn and hot pretzels knowing it was unattainably expensive and return to the car and a brown paper bag filled with plums and carrot sticks. You probably remember the Red Top and Green Top roadside vegetable stands, but the Garden State was not all garden. We ate hoagies from the Wawa and the Ocean City boardwalk featured Kohr’s ice cream, Johnson’s caramel popcorn, and Shriver’s salt water taffy and fudge.
When we travelled, we often indulged in gas station carnival food, which originated from my youth, in a nutritional wasteland of highways and interstates as five road weary kids walked into a gas station and my Dad paid a whopping dime a bottle for the sweet elixir which we drew from, if we were lucky, the cold dark metal case with the lettering RC Cola. RC cola owned Nehi which meant grape Nehi and a purple tongue for me.
We drank not only from the well of soda pop, but also from the well of pop art, as the name Nehi, pronounced knee-high, was embellished in the world of advertising by a picture of a woman in a skirt high enough to show the leg up to the knee, to illustrate the correct pronunciation of the company name, Nehi.
A more provocative, version of the logo—one showing a single, thigh-high disembodied leg without a skirt—was referenced in Jean Shepherd’s story “My Old Man and the Lascivious Special Award That Heralded the Birth of Pop Art”, as well as in the film A Christmas Story. Shepherd’s now-famous Leg Lamp was derived from this Nehi logo.
Sometimes, we play with our food, or we throw it, like the time at Osage Christian Camp when someone yelled, “Food fight,” and peas, carrots, bread, and meatloaf rained down like manna from the rafters onto the unwashed who became even more unwashed. Or, in your case Jenna, we sleep on our food, like the time you fell asleep at Nammy’s table and head-bobbed down into a peaceful slumbering pillow of roast beef, potatoes and gravy.
Memorable food doesn’t always mean good tasting food. For instance, I’ve never been any good at eating organs, hearts, brains, gizzards…but liver is the worst…which is why the Germans call it liverwurst. Only the Germans could engineer a sausage made from an organ that removes toxins like alcohol, to cleverly cloak intoxication. This is why Germans give their dessert names like Streuselkuchen so you’ll never know if they are inebriated or if that is just how they talk…mmmm Streuselkuchen.
Which brings me to a battle over liver, between me and your Nammy when I was six years old. I was not allowed to leave the dinner table until I finished eating my liver and onions. I refused. I sat there for an hour rallying for the liberty of all those refusing to partake in flesh once used to filter toxins.
Americans, as it turns out, haven’t always had King Kong Maple Bacon Cronuts and Brown Butter Almond Brittle in our wheelhouse. We arrived from bitter culinary places of striving. During the Great Depression, most people were economic losers, but from a gastronomic perspective, dietitians were big winners, and with the country in desperate need of nutrition, dietitians had an opportunity to change America’s food. My parents and grandparents experienced the worst hard times but they were nevertheless memorable times and worthwhile times. But, my childhood food was perhaps more sugar-coated because of their struggles, and the Depression was a time in American history when dietitians had an excuse to innovate in the name of nutritional efficiency. This is when they invented chicken nuggets and white bread and cream gravy, one of your first food loves, as American homogenization trumped immigrant cuisine which meant a great deal of milk and white sauce and Wonder bread.
Your great-grandmother Mildred Davis grew up in the panhandle of Oklahoma in the midst of the Dust bowl when nutrition was more about being thankful for whatever you could find to eat. She often belittled my chicken leg-eating inefficiencies at Sunday dinner by grabbing the mostly denuded chicken leg from my plate and gnawing off what I had missed. No gristle, skin, or flesh was safe. She ate it all because she remembered how it was in her moments of want, wondering if the sun would shine again, if her children would eat, and if the wheat would ever take root again in the blowing dust.
Food is the best of times, it is the worst of times…and like the old church hymn, I’ve been redeemed. Redeemed by people like you and your Mother who’ve taught me to enjoy food, but to not abuse food, to embrace the feeling of hands in a garden of dirt on a spring day and the thrill of autumn harvest, bringing that harvest onto our plates where it sustains us and gives us life and health. Soak it up, drink it in, smell the aromas, make memories, and like that old Nehi ad, take a good look at life lived simply and gratefully, and say with Tevye from The Fiddler on the Roof, “L’chaim.”
Bon appetit to you and Andrew, and L’Chaim! To memories yet to be made, of roasted corn and sautéed garlic Brussel sprouts with bacon and fresh blackberries with cream, and the dirty dishes of a well-cooked in kitchen, rounded out with the soft conversation of loved ones around a table of food…eat well and live well, it’s the stuff dreams are made of, memories that live forever.
Congratulations Jenna! And Andrew! Go preach the word of nourishment and life.