The following is the letter from the editor, written by Margaret Olsen Hemming, for the Summer 2018 issue of Exponent II, which will go to print at the end of July. If you would like to read this issue, the deadline for subscribing is July 20. You can subscribe here. The Cover Art is by Megan Trueblood.
So many of my memory markers center around food. In the blur of passing years, food memories stand out, the intensity of the sensory experience wedded to the emotional context.
I am nine years old and a classmate claims that his mother makes the best lasagna in the world. I think about my mother’s lasagna: an Americanized version with ground beef and cottage cheese. I know my classmate is wrong and that my mother’s lasagna is the best in the world. Every time she makes it I stuff myself and try to hide leftovers in the back of the fridge where only I can find them. When I eat that lasagna today, it tastes different. I can’t go back to that sense of absolute security that was in every bite.
My relationship with food is just as dynamic, complex, and full of contradictions as any other relationship in my life. At times food is comforting and sustaining; other times it is full of guilt; other times it is simply utilitarian. While there have been periods of my life when cooking felt creative and exciting, there have also been stretches when I don’t have the mental space for anything new or challenging. My knowledge that my well-being and sense of identity are healthier when I put effort into my food are undermined by days when the only things I eat between breakfast and dinner are a piece of fruit and some cheese. We put an enormous amount of effort into eating a healthy dinner together as a family, but the actual meal is often an ordeal.
I am barely eighteen and living in rural Alabama on my first assignment during a year of AmeriCorps. My team has a small stipend to feed 11 people and we take turns cooking for the whole group. It is before the age of ubiquitous internet and I randomly guess at amounts for a recipe for ginger chicken and rice. It is so gingery that it is almost inedible, but we all gag it down because there is no alternative. Today, I use ginger with confidence but always with a little humility, remembering those days of feeling overwhelmed with young adulthood.
I am in my mid-twenties and enjoying the bounty of a summer garden. Some mornings I gather summer squash blossoms, stuff them with herbs and cheese, and fry them up for breakfast. That is the summer I discover the joy of the slow food movement and achieve a goal of making all of our bread from scratch for the whole year. In my memories of that kitchen, the sun is always shining and the food is always delicious, even though I know that couldn’t actually be true.
I have four children, all with different lists of things they refuse to eat. Refusing to cave to pressure, I make saag paneer or falafel or tomato soup for dinner. They have to try it, but all I get is a few timid bites and accompanying groans of suffering. They fill up on apples and milk while my husband and I try to enjoy our food while ignoring the surrounding chaos. Insisting on preparing and eating good food feels like a way to rebel against the forces of my life pushing me toward giving up in exhaustion.
I wish I had realized earlier that food would play a role as a character in my life. It affects my self-esteem, my other relationships, my memories, and my daily patterns. Something that has that much influence deserves some attention. That is why, as we enjoyed an extraordinary meal of buffalo short ribs, sprouts, and garlicky potatoes, Pandora and I decided we need to do an issue about food. It may be delightful, stressful, or painful, but regardless, food tells a story.
In this issue, we explored a range of experiences with food. “The Story Cheesecake,” by Sherri Gavin, and “Spinage,” by RevaBeth Russell, look at how recipes handed down through generations connect us to history. “Jell-O,” by Liz Layton Johnson, and “Baby Food,” by Amanda Frost, tell stories of death and birth and the importance of our traditions of bringing and sharing food in these times. In “Cafe West,” Erin Barnett shares a searing retrospective of a hospital cafeteria and how many memories one place can hold. We also feature many artists, including Danielle Hatch and Janelle Fritz, all of whom incorporate food themes in their work.
Sit down, break out your favorite snacks, and enjoy our Summer 2018 issue. Bon appetit!
Yay! I’m excited about this issue!