Literary Luncheon

I eat poems for breakfast

If you have never experienced a literary luncheon, at some point in your life you must.  It’s a simple enough concept-write about food in a way that expresses the particular impact it has had on your life, then make the food and share your writing.  When you do this with family, you laugh.  When you do it with friends or colleagues, you laugh and cry.  When you do it with complete strangers. you open and grow and heal in ways you could never imagine and, of course, still laugh and cry.

This past week at the Greater KC Writing Project Summer Institute we feasted on fare and fellowship through some truly incredible works of writing.  Here’s a taste:

Jennifer wrote of detailed notes outlining her stuffed animal collection for insurance purposes in the case of a natural disaster, and those same stuffed animals showing up on Christmas morning along with sugar cookies, German bread stollen, and chocolate cherry cookies.

Anna wrote of con recipes passed off as family tradition when in fact they were plucked from Pinterest, and thus shared her family’s love of relish dishes that led to the black olive fingertips of party goers, and her family “mostly” unchanged recipe for BBQ pecans.

Molly wrote of beef bouillon and Beau Monde seasoning as secret ingredients to her grandmother’s incredibly delicious veggie dip, and a trip back to her home that reminds me so much of what my own kids experience when they visit their great-grandparents today.

Brian hilariously wrote to the powers of his super mom and her ability to make birthday treats that would give any kid some serious school street cred.  As the baby of the family his mother left no detail overlooked in her turkey Rice Krispie treats for his November birthday, complete with a candy corn tail and chocolate chip eyes.

Linda reminded us all that recipes don’t have to complex to be significant with her black eye pea dip that the family looks forward to every summer at the lake.  Her daughter helped her recognize its meaning, and we are so grateful she shared it with us.

Gail eloquently wrote of her baking evolution comig full circle.  Starting in her youth with Duncan Hines, to “discovering that the secret to blue ribbon shortbread is grating lemon peel into the butter at least an hour before stirring in the flour and powdered sugar” and then having to walk away from it all due to food allergies, she wowed us with delicious gluten-free cupcakes from Cupcake A la Mode.

Jane wrote of her father’s love in many forms, including the chocolate chip cookie recipe he inherited from his own mother.  These cookies were eulogized when she passed, and continue to be made again and again whether the distance between them be Iowa or Taiwan.

Tammy wrote of grandma’s noodles in a way I’ll never forget. Making these noodles created a rare opportunity to be messy and loved inside her grandparent’s home, a luxury not afforded in her own childhood home.

Kassidy taught us the importance of preserves–the berry kind that deliciously couple with butter and bread, and the act of, as in preserving memories.  Memories of families coming together and sharing jam-making traditions, growing the circles of our world wider, not smaller.

Diana made us laugh and consider the power of community as she spoke to friends who were as close as family, ice cream and potato chip traditions, and over 55 years of that damn ham salad.

Kate spoke of her family’s immigration and how food connects us when words can’t through garden fresh ingredients picked by the family, succulent homemade sauces, and grandma’s legendary Caprese Pasta Salad.

Leigh took us to Spain with tales of blood sausage and squid ink soup, but decided to wow her Missouri crowd with a vegetarian friendly plate, tortilla espanola–a potato and onion omelette that had us all looking for our passports to join her on her next trip.

Margaret wooed us with her whoopie pies and snapshots of a blossoming love that started with kisses over a salad spinner and has grown to Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives food tours all over the country.

Ro took us inside The Daughters of Columbus cookbook and her grandmother’s Italian kitchen to share her delicious lasagna and the hard time she put in to work her way up to cooking status in the kitchen.

Ted wrote of pumpkin pie so delicious it was devoured on the car ride home, never making it to Point B.  And of relationships so powerful, motherly figures so caring that the pumpkin pie is more of a symbol than a staple.

And I wrote this, for Grandma Josie.  All the love.

There’s a sleepy little town in Illinois by the name of St. David.  Passers-by rarely notice it and to research it is in vain. The facts you find are few.  Population: 587. Streets: 15. Banks: 1. Stoplights: 0. But as numbers tend to go, these don’t tell the whole story.  Amongst those 15 streets sits a home on West Burlington Avenue constructed by the calloused hands and faulty heart of a man I never knew-my grandfather.  A heart that would leave him as cold as the winter’s day on which he passed.

On that day my grandmother rounded the kitchen corner to deliver warm coffee to his side while lying on the couch.  He’d just come in from the bitter cold, and in the moment she laid her eyes on him, horror filled her body. The scalding coffee spewed forth; her teardrops and broken glass shattering against the floor all at once.  Shoveling snow had stopped the old man’s heart, and in the time it took him to walk through the door, ask for a fresh cup of joe, and lie down on the couch he was gone. My grandma had been happily filling his cup only feet away when he took his last breaths. This memory, this kitchen, would torture my grandma for the rest of her life.  But leave the home–no way. He had built this house for her, for them. She would care for it as he intended, keeping her promise to the man she would always love.

But this version of grandma’s kitchen was not the one that I knew.  The grandma’s kitchen I knew was a long, skinny one where rumps and elbows bumped with haphazard turns. One that left the back door slamming on hot summer days between potty breaks and popsicle pilfering. One that used a wooden spoon to hold up a window pane or swat a misbehaving child on their backside.  One that had a flyswatter only an arm’s length away. My grandma considered swatting flies an Olympic sport, one in which she always took the gold. Legend has it those silver-winged creatures didn’t even have to land. As soon as they were in her line of sight, the flick of her wrist sent the swatter wasping through the air and they were as good as gone.  One shot was all she needed. Her aim was impeccable.

The times were simpler then. Milk, eggs, flour, water, and salt were the only food staples grandma needed to satisfy the grumbling tummies of her grandchildren.  When flour clouded the air above the counters we’d quickly scamper in from outside knowing that kerpitcas were on the menu. These Croatian egg noodles came to our dinner table through my great grandparents, Antonia and Joseph, who traveled to America in the early 1900’s from Yugoslavia.  Their travels landed them in Painesdale, Michigan, a copper mining town that began as a tent town in 1899. While there they would grow their family by 8 children, one being my Grandma Josie–the only grandparent I ever knew. She was a hard broad, a Croatian curser who had no time for pishitca (bullshit).  After living through the Great Depression and the rations of World War II, my grandmother learned to be crafty and thrifty all at once.  She refused to let anything go to waste and knew how to make something from nothing. A satisfying meal made from basic goods–well, that was all she really knew.  By the time the flour settled we were there to help break the eggs, add the milk, whisk, knead, and cut the noodles to make a plentiful pot. Sprinkle in a little salt, melt some butter on top, and feast.  We gathered round this simple fare time after time, enjoying it all the more because we were a part in making it.

The kitchen I knew was one where the wooden round table we sat to eat was also the one where we played card games, read newspaper comics, and on occasion, would find my grandmother sitting alone, staring off in a distant gaze. I imagine now she was recalling back that fateful day and wishing in so many ways it could have been different, that he didn’t have to miss so much.  I hope in some way our girlish giggles and silly shenanigans eased the pain, paving the way for happier memories. She always said we were “full of pee and vinegar”, and she was right. In return, I hope she knows how many happy memories she created for us. She now rests beside my grandfather once again, and would be beyond proud that her noodles have stood the test of time, still satisfying the appetites of those gathered together today.