By Lyssa Tall Anolik
Teasing the taste buds
My CSA box is overflowing with fall produce, so I’ve been busy cooking: buffalo chili, corn and squash stew with lima beans, roasted eggplant with caramelized onions and bell peppers, and my favorite – my mother’s garlicky, herb-dusted roasted tomato slices. Is there anything better than tangy-sweet dried tomatoes adorning a salad, ooey-gooey in a toasted cheese sandwich, or layered into an artichoke and kale quiche? I think not! Sometimes I eat the glistening red jewels straight from the mason jar with a fork, olive oil dripping from my chin, summer ripe on my tongue, remembering fall gatherings in my mother’s kitchen. I will give you the recipe at the end of this article.
The literature of food
What would a memoir be without food? The things we eat – or don’t eat – flavor our memories, sweet and bitter, engage all our senses, and build emotional texture into our work. Food evokes a specific place and time. My mother learned to cook from her Czechoslovakian grandmother who began every recipe with, “You take an onion … .” My mother-in-law, who grew up in Israel, makes chicken schnitzel every time we visit – chicken breasts pounded thin, battered and fried, a quintessential Israeli dish by way of eastern Europe.
Food is complicated. It represents abundance and comfort, family and fellowship, nourishment, a sense of history – but it can also speak of hunger, poverty and loneliness. What does it mean for you? Layering descriptions of food into your work will bring your readers into a direct and intimate experience, both sensory and emotional.
Here are some titles that left me hungry for foods and places – literal and figurative – I never knew I craved:
The Language of Baklava: A Memoir, Diana Abu-Jaber (memoir)
Candyfreak: A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America, Steve Almond (memoir)
Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments, with Recipes, Romances, and Home Remedies, Laura Esquivel (fiction)
Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy, Frances Mayes (memoir)
Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt (memoir)
Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table, Ruth Reichl (memoir)
Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger, Nigel Slater (memoir)
Now it’s your turn! The possibilities are endless, of course, but here are a few to get you started:
Bring your writing notebook to a meal and catalogue the sensory experience of eating it: What does the food look like? What does it smell like?
Take a bite. What are the different flavors? Textures? What does it sound like when you chew? What memories does eating this food elicit? What emotions?
This exercise will help you build a food vocabulary which you can then use as you write about past meals from memory.
Pick one – or more – of the following prompts and freewrite for 5-10 minutes:
A recipe I know …
The secret ingredient …
Ripe tomatoes …
Mashed potatoes …
An egg …
Forbidden fruit …
The best thing I’ve ever eaten …
The worst food I’ve ever eaten …
A family meal …
While traveling, I tasted …
My grandmother’s kitchen …
A meal I remember …
Keep going. Follow where the food leads. Often when I use these prompts, they take me to places in my past and within myself I did not expect – but perhaps needed – to go. Food is powerful. Sometimes this writing will knock you to your knees and make your stomach ache with longing or grief or love. Sometimes it will just make you hungry.
Now, as promised, here is my mother’s recipe:
Mom’s Oven-Roasted Tomatoes (with my notes)
Roma tomatoes halved, thirds or quartered, depending on size (I have also successfully used heirlooms, beefsteaks and plums which I grew in my garden this summer.)
Garlic – chopped into chunks
Oregano, thyme and basil (dried)
Olive oil, salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 250 degrees.
Using a large cookie sheet, place tomatoes on the sheet so they’re not touching one other.
Sprinkle garlic, dried herbs (rubbed together), plenty of salt, pepper. (I skip the salt and they’re still delicious.)
Finish by drizzling olive oil so tomatoes are well coated.
Place in center of oven for 4 hours.
Check at 3 hours to see if some are finished.
They should be dried to a glisten, not a burn.
Cover completely with oil in a jar.
This is VoiceCatcher’s tenth article in a series by writing coach and teacher, Lyssa Tall Anolik. If you ever wanted to write a memoir, here’s the perfect place to start. Check in every month for Lyssa’s practical tips on telling your story. If you’re new to this column and memoir writing, please see the October 2012 installment for an introduction to memoir and tips and tools for getting started.
Lyssa Tall Anolik received her MFA in Writing (Creative Nonfiction) from Vermont College. She coaches writers and teaches memoir in Portland. Her personal essays and poetry have appeared in Drash: Northwest Mosaic, The Wild, VoiceCatcher3 and 4, EarthSpeak and other journals. Lyssa is a founding member of The Writers Next Door.