Tonight I have been thinking about how food is about so much more than feeding yourself, and how food, memory, and home are all so tied to one another. I have spent the last several days in Ohio, most of that time spent at a hospital in Columbus with my dad, who has just had surgery. My family and I also spent a few days at my husband's family's farm in central Ohio, surrounded by corn, soybeans, and freshly harvested wheat fields.
Throughout this journey I've had meals that I did not enjoy, meals that I enjoyed and then regretted, meals that I thought were quite wonderful, and meals which I ate solely for the purpose of eating something, but which did not feed me in any other sense of the word.
When you are staying with someone in a hospital, your sense of time and space begins to revolve around eating. Nothing else in the hospital is on schedule - it is in perpetual motion. Your own schedule - work, life, routine - is also disrupted. And even as you sit by your loved one's bedside, focusing on them and hoping for good news, you cannot turn off your own human needs. So, you find the cafeteria, you eat the grilled cheese, the tomato soup, the tapioca parfait pudding cup. You have eaten, but you have not been fed. And your loved one, recovering from surgery, struggling back to health - they're eating that same cafeteria food - overcooked, fried, or otherwise unhealthy. This is not to disparage the food service workers in hospital kitchens - they are working as hard as they can, within parameters which limit their creativity - but I wish that we could find a way to de-institutionalize the food that we serve in all institutions where good nutrition is most needed - schools, hospitals, nursing homes, etc.
When you are visiting your family, or your spouse's family, you are immersed in their food traditions, love them or not. At my husband's grandmother's house, there is always hot chocolate and doughnuts at breakfast, even in July. There are always things like slices of cheese and celery with peanut butter at their meals. When we go out for a meal, we go to the kind of place where you can get homemade noodles, or hamloaf, or hard-boiled eggs pickled with beets. This is not to say these are not good food traditions - they are just different from mine, and my digestive system says they are different.
When I come home to the town I grew up in, where I went to college, where Brian and I met and were married, and where my father still lives, there are several restaurants that I literally arrange my life around. Dinner at Casa, breakfast at the Village Bakery, lunch at China Fortune, pizza from Avalanche. We have actually timed our departure from Asheville to get to Athens at the right time for dinner at Casa Nueva. I love going to these places for the food - I will always miss the mixed vegetables with crispy tofu at China Fortune - but I love going to them for what they represent, too. So many memories are tied up in those places - first dates with Brian, drinks with friends, meals with my parents when my mother was still living. I now have a much greater understanding of why my mom would get so emotional when visiting places she used to live. It is so bittersweet returning to these places - I love it and I can't wait to leave all at the same time.
Tonight we are on our way back to Asheville, having left the hospital and returned to Athens for the free lodging and to shorten tomorrow's trip. We were both too tired to sit in a restaurant, so we opted for a Veggie Rainbow pizza from Avalanche for dinner. It was delicious, and looked beautiful on my mom's original FiestaWare plates.
Dora loved it, too. This weekend my mother-in-law commented that she has never seen a kid so willing to eat all kinds of healthy foods as Dora. It's true - she loves fruits and vegetables, and loved the brocolli and corn on the Veggie Rainbow tonight. I consider my mother-in-law's comment a wonderful compliment, and I hope that it can always be true. We do NOT always eat healthy - the tapioca parfait pudding cup is proof of that - but I hope that part of our food tradition can be enjoying a wide range of foods, many of them healthy, and finding a way to come back to our old favorites again and again, even when the taste is bittersweet.