Monday, May 19, 2014

The Feeding Instinct

Sacchi Green

I don’t recall ever truly suffering from hunger. In fact I may have suffered more from never going hungry for long. My thoughts about hunger now, at least on a personal level, are more from the perspective of the person responsible for feeding a family, even though I’m not solely responsible for that these days now that my kids are grown. Still, much as I want to reject traditional gender roles, I can’t reject the connection with all the generations of women who came before me, doing whatever it took to satisfy the hunger of their families.

It startles me, sometimes, how much just the smell of flour, or my untidy drawer of spices and herbs, makes me feel a link to my mother and grandmothers and all the long chain of grandmothers reaching back to the ones who dug tubers out of the ground with forked sticks and figured out which plants were edible and which had medicinal uses.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m infinitely grateful that providing meals doesn’t have to be the main focus of my life. I wish it didn’t have to be the main focus of anyone’s life. But we still have bone-deep connections to those ancestors. whatever our gender--and I do fantasize about cave-women who could also hunt and defend their families when saber-toothed lions threatened--who managed to find (and later cultivate) the food that allowed them to survive and pass along their genes to us.

Actually, maybe I fantasize and/or worry too much about such survival skills, which I don’t have in any great measure. I don’t get the whole zombie apocalypse deal, but I do speculate fairly wildly about how to manage if a major glitch in our system should occur, say a long-term collapse of the electric grid. Even gasoline for transport can’t be pumped these days without electricity. Where I live there are flocks of wild turkeys, and deer and the occasional moose—but how many people could they feed, even supposing we could hunt them? I do know something about raising vegetables, and preserving, but what I raise wouldn’t feed a family for long or very well.

Enough about my peculiar obsessions. I probably get them from my mother, who hoarded canned goods, and spent her first waking moments every day worrying about what to plan for dinner, even near the end of her life when she was too weak to do more than try to tell my father how to cook whatever it was. This was a woman who had been a teacher, and then a head librarian still remembered in town for all she accomplished, but the instinct for feeding her family was what lasted the longest.

Instead of the angst of satisfying hunger, let’s move along to the fun part of eating. I’ll close with a bit of food play from “Crème Brûlée”, a story I think will appear in a food-themed anthology called All You Can Eat.

Raf plucked an oyster on its half-shell from the bed of ice chips and raised it toward me like a salute before tilting the sweet juice into her mouth. I did the same. We managed a simultaneous sliding of the oysters themselves across our tongues and down our throats, swallowing in perfect synchronization, then licking our lips. And grinning.
“The sauce is worth trying, too.” I spooned a bit of chipotle mignonette onto another oyster, then licked it slowly off before sucking the slippery morsel into my mouth.
“Mm.” Raf tried it, even more dramatic in her licking and sucking. “Not bad, but not the very best sauce I’ve ever tasted.”
A sound at my shoulder like stifled laughter erupted into a snort. Audrey, bringing the scallops ceviche in their little avocado boat. I pretended not to have heard. As soon as she was gone Raf raised a questioning eyebrow and jerked her head in the direction of Audrey’s sashaying butt.
I raised my hands in exasperation and shook my head. “Audrey’s a good kid in her way, but a one trick pony, and that trick is getting her posterior paddled by any means necessary. Once in a while I’ll indulge her, but I make her earn it. Last time you were here that’s how I bribed her to let me wait on your table. There’s nothing more between us.”
We finished off the last two oysters sedately, though we were close to laughter, before turning to the contrast of tender scallops tangy with lime and jalapeńo and the buttery luxury of perfectly ripened avocado. I could almost forget the memory of young Juliana sampling the same dish with a high degree of suspicion.
Raf must have been thinking of Juliana, too, or maybe she read my mind. “Funny how much better food tastes when you’re with someone who really knows how to enjoy it.”
I still wouldn’t ask what had become of the girl. “Maybe we should have ordered lobster, too, for the full Tom Jones effect.”
‘That’s exactly it! When I said something along those lines to Juliana, she had no idea what I was talking about. Never heard of Tom Jones the movie, much less the book, or even the singer who lifted the name.”
“Ah, youth,” I said. “Just the same, she was certainly a tasty bit of arm candy for a stroll around Provincetown.”
“She was, wasn’t she.”
Past tense. So my unasked question was answered. The entrees arrived just in time to save me from having to respond. “It’s not too late to add some lobster,” I said.
Raf grinned but shook her head. “Better not bite off more than we can chew.” She plucked a mussel from the cioppino tureen, yanked open its shell with her fingers, and ran her tongue around the interior. I joined in the game with a quick twist to tear duck leg from duck thigh, brandishing the drumstick at her before sinking my teeth into the meatiest part. Purple plum sauce ran down my chin and hand.
“How about a baby calamari?” She held one out on her fork and made the tentacles seem to dance in the air.
“Aw, how cute.” I held out the duck leg with the bite I’d taken out of it uppermost. “Slip it right into there.” The tiny cephalopod made it from fork to drumstick to my mouth. It went as well with my plum sauce and pecan pilaf side dish as it would have with the cioppino broth.

Now I come to think of it, a scene like that is obscene rather than erotic when our topic is honest hunger, but it’s what I’ve got, and it’s now after midnight, so I’ll post it, allow myself a couple of spoonfuls of fat-free yogurt, and call it a night. I’ve already planned what to cook for dinner tomorrow.



  1. I wonder how many readers know what you're talking about when you mention "Tom Jones"?!

    Great post. My family is just DH and me, but I spend a reasonable amount of time planning, shopping for and cooking our daily food. It's part of the nurturing process for me, certainly the result of my upbringing.

    1. Lisabet, I worry about readers knowing what I'm talking about when I refer to Tom Jones (the movie,) and maybe that part won't make it into the final story, but it seemed like the perfect way to illustrate how much more these two older women had in common than they had with younger girls, and how much that meant to them.

  2. P.S. Delicious excerpt, no pun intended. The sexual tension just drips off the page!

  3. That's an interesting point you bring up about wanting to reject traditional gender roles/wanting to stay connected to previous generations of women. I think about that one a lot myself. I like all that kitchen magic and the history of women in my family, and I'm an heiress to the tradition. I love the knowledge I have of food and herbs and implements, and there is a wonderfully witchy feeling to boiling a chicken carcass for the marrow. On the other hand, sometimes I am cooking in my floral apron (no lie) and I notice that I've got a bunch of men at my house all sitting down relaxing while I sweat and work, and I feel like a parody of myself. It's a tough one.

    1. Annabeth, here's a tip from an all-too-old pro--convince a man that he makes a better tossed salad (or other simple dish of your choice) than you do, and you'll get at least some degree of help. Yeah, I know, it shouldn't be like that.

      The flowered apron thing made me laugh. I gave my mother a lovely one several years ago, when I noticed that the one she wore was getting so ragged that she was in danger of tripping over bits of it, and goodness knows she was unsteady enough without When she was in her final decline my father did all the dishwashing, and still does now that he's alone. I take him several days' worth of meals every week, and one day I gestured at his very wet shirt front and pants and asked why he didn't wear the apron. "Aprons are for women," he said. "Aprons are for whoever washes the dishes!" I told him, and he laughed, fully consciousness of how silly he was being. But he still doesn't wear the apron. I should just trade with him, since the one I wear at home is totally gender neutral, but he still wouldn't wear it.

    2. Totally sensible tip, and hilarious story about your father and the apron. It took me a while to realize how great aprons are. I kept being like, "How do you keep from ruining your clothes while cooking?" Eventually, I went, "Wait a second, it's almost as if someone invented a solution for that..."

      Now, I keep three aprons in my kitchen. Mine (the floral), my husband's (which proclaims that he "turns grills on"), and the gender-neutral one for guests which says, "There's no place like hummus." I need to work on getting those second two used more often...

  4. I actually do all the daily cooking, but Momma X is the baker. Good excerpt, Sacchi. Like Lisabet said, it wonderfully erotic. I used to work in restaurants as chef, and professional kitchens can be sexy as hell in the down times. Lots of groping, and not much washing of hands. :>)

    1. Daddy X, I knew I was being sexist with this, and I apologize. I was betting myself that you would turn out to be an accomplished cook. But in my musings on my ancestors, I was almost sure that back then the mothers and grandmothers were the ones passing on the cooking tradition, as my own mother and grandmothers and aunts did for me.

    2. No problem, Sacchi- No apologies necessary. I'm sure you've stated the norm. I just wish women were MORE sexist with me. In the right way, of course. ;>) Yum.

    3. I think there's also a historical male tradition of inherited cooking knowledge. In the culture in which I grew up, certain foods fell under the purview of men and some under the purview of women. (For example, the old Hawaiians allowed only men to pound taro leaves into poi, and this duty was religious as much as it was culinary). Is it only in Leave-It-To-Beaver land that women are the only ones who cook? Sometimes I do think I live there, but I very much like the passed-down-ancient knowledge stuff.

      And professional kitchens... You're so right. Such sexy places.

  5. I recognize the reference to the over-the-top feast in Tom Jones! (It's prob. a generational thing - wasn't that movie made in the 1960s?) Re cooking as a traditional part of the feminine role, my grandmother (the daughter of a domestic servant & a shoemaker-turned-coal-miner) never taught my mom (her oldest daughter) to cook. I'm not sure of the rationale, but I think it had to do with not wanting my mom to inherit the role of a paid or unpaid domestic servant. So when my parents were newslyweds, my dad did all the cooking, but at some point, he insisted that she take over. (That might have been about the time I was born.) My mother's recipes were from recipe books and various friends, so luckily, she cooked an excellent Hungarian goulash (from a Hungarian friend) and Italian food from someone else's Italian gradmother, rather than the English boiled beef & carrots that were her mother's staples. So the cooking tradition I inherited is both random & multicultural, & includes Nigerian soup & ground rice from my first husband. (The authentic version is hotter than hell.) I'm grateful to have been exposed to such a variety of different foods, but I resent being expected to cook just because I'm a woman, or just because. (Even in my f/f marriage, there are occasional disagreements about whose turn or obligation it is.)


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