From time to time the past throws me a line which I maw on casually to unravel a hybrid story-half truth memory that brings me current to now. I recall that I used her for her food. More accurately I extended the friendship to get closer to her mother’s food, which seems infinitely worse. Marisa was one of my playmates from about the third grade to the seventh. Later and inevitably, our paths parted as we moved away from our carefree childhood and headed towards adolescence, a time when social allegiances can appear at best tenuous. In the early years however, we were a funny pair and inseparable, a sort of suburban Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. We had a huge appetite for swashbuckling adventure which unfolded in the deep unknown forest behind my house and the thin stand of trees in the park which became our source for ready made weapons. We brandished swords, bows and arrows whittled from tree branches. We chiseled authentic arrow heads, unearthed buried treasures, collected acorns to pulverize into flour, jumped out of trees, built forts, made concrete (Elmer’s glue and sand) and pilfered orange juice to ferment into moonshine. It was a great relationship until we started to get older and our differences became sharply pronounced. While we were too young to really be considered geeks, we were both of the persuasion that read encyclopedias. We were consumed with experimental frenzy when I received Science Service’s Things of Science as a birthday gift. But her penchant for books and study became all-encompassing and quickly outweighed mine, her imagination driven hard inward and solitary. And my desire towards expression and high adventure encroached upon this stalwart private world. She became less enthusiastic about exploring the outside surroundings and inside, I was a caged animal itching and nagging her to quit her ivory tower.
But I needed her- and in hanging about, I became fair target for chores and reluctantly became enlisted to pick and destroy the hundreds of Japanese beetles which flocked in voracious droves to her father’s rose bushes and grape vines. This was a horrid task that appalled me to no end. But perform I did, for the rewards were great. I clasped my fingers around their emerald jeweled chitinous shells and spiny legs and left Popillia japonica to asphyxiate in hordes in kerosene filled Folger’s cans. It was a brutal chore that allowed me eventual access to the calm even space and tempo of her mother’s garden and kitchen. Helga was a tall kind woman who took her domestic duties seriously. Every detail of her home had a clean simple practicality to it: smooth teak furniture, beige carpet, woven linens and that solitary display case full of rosy cheeked Hümmels. This was the place that welcomed me in- odd ragtag child to temper my restless edges. It was a time that swelled to allow me to observe and explore a new domestic territory other than my own. Helga’s domicile was contrast; a safe edge that allowed me to push and discern and ultimately refine my taste buds, and me.
In this unfolding reverie one might be inclined to imagine a more impressive setting; picturesque meals on Dresden china, a bucolic cottage in the heart of Bavaria, maybe even a mother in braids and apron. But this is far from how it really was. Rather this place was so ordinary, so unassuming it became a blank canvas for the events, the elements and in this case, the food to come alive against. Outside in a huge bin- I helped to turn piles of vegetal refuse over into sweet smelling Gardener’s Gold which would in turn feed and support the garden. I would walk between crowded rows of purple headed alliums, bulbous kohlrabi, stubby fringed carrots, beets and sprawling vines trailing gourds and pumpkins. I would pause to admire the beans, tomatoes and cucumbers, touch the blue-green crinkle of kale and of course thump the monstrous zucchini. It was an ambitious productive plot that seemed to endlessly pump out vegetables of all colors and size. And it was here up close and personal, contained within my hand, warmed and nourished by the sun that I learned to adore the beauty and vitality of the jewels that sprung from the earth. At a time when many mothers opted for convenience food out of a box or can, Helga still did things the Old World way and I was ready at the dinner table with extended plate in hand.
I know she must have thought me a strange child following her about asking detailed questions about cooking process and content. But I couldn’t help it; I was ravenous for her food and hungry to understand what was at the heart of her kitchen. What I remember most was the way that the entire process of eating seemed to have a space about it, an obvious importance. The collective nature of this family seemed to be quite reserved and understated; naturally the intrinsic value of nourishment was understood without words. The fresh picked goods from the garden would find themselves generously assembled into an old wooden bowl. In a floral teacup, pebbles of veiny blue cheese would dissolve into thickened vinaigrette to be later, lightly tossed onto the delicate greens. Trips to specialty German delicatessens yielded numerous white packages of beautiful rounds of thin cut bologna, salami, and liverwurst. Other wrappings held assortments of Swiss cheese, dark breads, pickles and fresh horseradish. Back at home all of these gifts would ceremoniously be un-papered and plated. The entire tabletop spread with full bowls, lined baskets and plates. While we eaters would endlessly, almost silently and politely pass containers of our personal favorites back and forth to each other. Shy to speak, somehow I managed to knock back a few liverwurst and Swiss cheese on dark Pumpernickel bread sandwiches with lots of thin sliced onion and head clearing amounts of horseradish. Sometimes I even introduced salami to the mix. After all, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity for that much fatty opulence at once. I hadn’t learned restraint at that time.
Let’s just say I consumed a lot. I drank the most refreshing lemon aid made in a glass pitcher with 2 to 3 lemons, a scant amount of sugar and ice water. I ate the best tuna fish salad that I had ever tasted on countless picnics. I always volunteered to eat what remained after the sandwiches were made. I studied the size of the dice of Helga’s celery, onion and pickles, the proportion of each and the amount of mayo. Frustrated, I could never recreate the taste when I went back home. Time and time again I would come back to her kitchen to re-taste and re-analyze etching even deeper food idolatry that couldn’t easily be attained by anyone else. I came to understand that the difference was the quality of ingredients and care. Tuna equals tuna equals tuna, just isn’t so. One cannot slap together sub par ingredients without the love and expect it to sing. (Btw, in this moment I realized that she used fancy white albacore tuna and mine was the cat food looking kind.) And this was the problem I had with attempting to duplicate her chocolate chip cookies. Though I brought home a neatly written recipe on an index card, I didn’t have the proper items. Funky margarine, the kind that has been exposed too long in the fridge and absorbed odors like kimchee, was substituted for butter. Generic chocolate chips with chocolate flavoring were used instead of Toll House. We didn’t possess vanilla or walnuts. My cookies were a disappointing greasy mess. Understandably, I ran back for hers. And then I ate plates of brownies, oatmeal cookies, bear claws, homemade soft pretzels, German pancakes rolled and filled with strawberry jam…
While the actual end is a little hazy, I suspect that “Man cannot live on Bread alone” bears some truth in the matter. The food wasn’t enough to ultimately keep the friendship alive, but it still taught me beauty and comfort, generosity and care, respect, appreciation and lots of love. I am so grateful to have been part of Marisa’s world and wow, do I still miss those cookies.