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Friday, 09 January 2009

Food and Life

By Old Woman of 20th Century Woman

This Christmas I won’t have to fret about what to have in the house for my family to eat. For the first time in 54 years I will probably be without children or grandchildren. It will be just Jerry and me, possibly including Jerry’s younger son, who is a bachelor of 30. I could visit any number of children or friends, but I thought it would be interesting to try it on my own.

Still, at this time of year one thinks of food, and I am mentally cataloging what I would have needed on hand for my teenage grandchildren.

I think that teenagers can be excessive about food. Some eat almost anything (me in my teens) and some limit consumption to one or two items. One of my grandchildren in her early teens ate only pizza. Another ate only red meat. One has been a vegetarian all her life, but during her teen years she was difficult to feed because she liked almost no vegetables.

When my oldest son was a teen ager he would come home from school, fling open the refrigerator, and as things fell out of its overstuffed interior, declare loudly, “There’s never anything to eat in this house.”

For a few months when I was a teenager, every day after school I fried a pan of sliced onions, put them between 2 pieces of bread and had a sandwich. I gave this up when I noticed an expansion of my waistline.

That didn’t stop me from occasional binges of candy making. I was good at fudge, and ventured into the mysteries of the soft ball, hard ball and hard crack stages. Girl friends would come over and we would make pulling taffy and talk about academy boys.

Almost every Sunday my aunt Clare invited people for lunch. These Sunday lunches usually included a good number of the aforementioned boys form Phillips Academy, where my uncle Bart was a teacher and director of the art gallery. It was a teenage girl’s dream. Prissy and Pen, Clare and Bart’s best friends, were almost always present. They usually brought a whole leg of lamb, and I learned from Pen the skill of carving a leg of lamb with the bone in.

Pen taught English at the Academy, and every year he produced and directed a play, usually Shakespeare. Sunday lunch began about 1 o’clock, and at 4, most of the guests and their children and dogs would go up the hill to George Washington Hall for rehearsal, either as a spectator or participant.

Pen would stand at the back of the auditorium calling out directives. Sometimes he would stride down the aisle followed by his two standard poodles and leap onto the stage to push the actors into position or demonstrate some piece of business. Clare’s smaller poodles milled about with the children. The dogs enjoyed the social event and the children, every one, developed an early and lasting love for Shakespeare.

We spent many summers in Maine, either at Blue Hill or an island, North Haven. Clam bakes on the beach were the most wonderful events of the summer. Bart and Pen and other friends would build a roaring driftwood fire on the rocks and keep it stoked all day. In the evening when the rocks were almost red hot they would pile heaps of wet seaweed onto the hot rocks, throwing in lobsters, clams and ears of corn to cook in the steaming seaweed. Great vats of butter were melted. You got your paper plate with lobster, clams, corn and a cup of melted butter, found a seat on the rocks somewhere near the bonfire for warmth and light, and ate the foods of paradise.

These gastronomic delights came to an end when I married for the first time at the age of 20. We were short of money and my husband, Pete from South Carolina, was unused to eating anything but beef, chicken and rice. He had never tasted lamb and I found to my dismay, after cooking a dinner that included fish and kale, that he hated fish and kale was to him like boiled grass. He pushed away his plate, saying, “I’d rather eat a bowl of cereal.” After that we existed mostly on hamburger.

Nine years later things had improved. My husband was working as a college professor and we owned a small house. I had had 3 babies, finished my bachelor’s degree, and was working on a master’s degree. He and I got home from work/school at the same time, but he must have suffered from unstable blood sugar, because about 15 minutes after we hit the door he would be pounding the table, bellowing “Where’s my dinner?”

In the last year of our marriage he had a visiting professorship at the University of Rangoon in Burma. My kids by that time were 9, 8 and 5. It was a great adventure for all of us, though it ended sadly. In Burma we had an army of servants including a cook, Joseph, who was Indian. (The other servants were: a “sweeper-bearer” a baby nanny, a “wash nanny” a driver, a gardener and a “derwan” or night watchman.)

Joseph was a good cook, but I had to ask him not to leave the chicken he had bought at the market in the morning for our dinner alive and tied by the feet, lying outside the kitchen door. It upset the children. I was advised by friends, both Burmese and American, that I should sometimes go with Joseph to the market to buy our food in order to keep him honest with his market money.

I had a feeling that this would not have much effect since the business looked quite mysterious, but nevertheless I did go once. The market was open air with stalls selling all sorts of vegetables, rice, live chickens, fish and other things unknown to a European.

The most impressive thing about the market was that before one knew what sort of thing was offered (carrots, potatoes, spinach, etc.), a thick layer of black flies which completely covered the display had to be waved away. They would swarm upward briefly only to quickly re-blanket the merchandise. Our beef and other household staples were bought at the military commissary.

The children ate separately from us, British style, and we ate on a screened veranda at about 8. Often we had friends from the consulate or the university over for drinks before dinner. The university was closed because of political unrest for most of the time my husband was there and thus, neither of us had much to do.

There was a tennis court in our garden surrounded by gardenia bushes and my husband played a lot of tennis. Even now, the scent of gardenias reminds me of Burma. The net on the tennis court was rather ragged because stray dogs played with it. There were a lot of dogs because they were fed by Buddhist monks in the monastery up the hill. They were rather wild, and I worried that they might bite the children, so I inquired about having them removed. I was told that it was simple. I should just call the authorities and they would distribute poison meat around our house and come later to collect the carcasses of the dead dogs.

Thus we continued to have a dog torn ragged net, and for all I know, the descendants of those dogs are playing with a new net today.

I liked Burmese food. It was fiery hot curries, often served with an accompanying bowl of soup, and various relishes. My favorite of these was fried dried shrimp. We also had parties with a Chinese hot pot.

The pot was tire shaped with a central chimney and a coal receptacle underneath. Clear chicken broth, boiling from the hot coals, filled the pot and dishes of the various soup components surrounded the pot. These were thin sliced pork, beef, chicken, shrimp, many kinds of greens, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts and onions. The ingredients were added to the broth by the guests. Each person had an egg which he would break into his bowl, and then ladle boiling soup over it. That would cook the egg and thicken the soup. There were condiments to add, some to make it very spicy.

Burmese food, as eaten by the Burmese themselves, was usually too hot for Europeans. When we ate at the homes of our Burmese friends the fire level of the food was toned down for our wimpy palates.

Toward the end or our stay in Burma, at a time when the political situation had worsened, we attended a luncheon put on by the Burma America Society. For most of the American guests the food was inedibly hot. I ate it and rather enjoyed it, though there was sweat running down my face, and my husband loved it. He used to make money in college taking bets on how many hot peppers he could eat. I guessed that it was just an error on the part of the caterers, but I was assured by some embassy people that it was done as a deliberate political insult. Things were getting tense.

About a week later I took my daughter Julia to a birthday party at the house of a Japanese child from school. We passed the university where the students were protesting. There was a great mob of them running around, laughing and looking festive.

Later, after we got home, the army moved in and shot hundreds, then spread out over the city and randomly shot hundreds more people.

We were invited to a party that night and my husband insisted on going. On the way home our car was following a truck and in the gloom I gradually realized that there was a great pile of dead bodies in the truck bed. That night the authorities blew up the student union and the next day I gathered up my children and flew away from Burma and my marriage.

[EDITORIAL NOTE: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. Instructions are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


"Old Woman"

I really enjoyed these wonderful memories of food and its relationship to important parts of your life. (I don't blame you for fleeing Burma!)

My memory of food is that it is something I once enjoyed, but now has become something I must severely ration, bucause of its nasty tendency to settle in the middle of me.

I was a bit perplexed by your fond Andover memories. In that part of my youth spent studying at Exeter, I was trained to look with disdain at the other 'Philips Academy' situated to our south!

A fascinating story. I am amazed that you didn't all die of food poisoning with the flies and poor sanitation. I guess I now know why food is so spicy in some cultures.

I certainly would have fled that country then. Did your ex-husband stay and survive?

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