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Radio Readers BookByte: Food as Metaphor

Garland, Kansas
Kansas Memory, Kansas Historical Society

I was six years old when I realized that food can be dished up in two categories:  food that proves someone loves you, and food that proves someone doesn’t love you.

Let me explain.

Imagine that you go to your grandmother’s kitchen in the morning. Breakfast at your grandmother’s—crispy bacon, fluffy scrambled eggs, warm, tender cinnamon rolls—lets you know that the day will be good.  Life is good.  Someone loves you.

Later, you’re playing on the floor in the living room.  Suddenly, your nose alerts you to what’s going on in the kitchen.  Your grandmother is baking chocolate chip cookies.  Pretty soon she’ll call you into the kitchen and you’ll bite into a warm, chewy cookie with semi-sweet chocolate oozing around your tongue.  You are reminded.  Even though the Lincoln Logs fort you built just collapsed, life is good.  Someone loves you.

When your grandmother calls you for lunch, there’s another treat:  fried chicken.   It’s crispy on the outside and tender and moist on the inside.  And it tastes so great with those potatoes your grandmother mashed and the white gravy drizzled over them.  Oh, wait— there is a vegetable, but those green beans cooked with bacon are fresh from your grandmother’s  garden.  You helped her pick and string them this morning. And she’s serving all this to you on one of her best china plates.  You climb up on a stool, say a quick “God is great” prayer, and dig in.   It’s affirmed:  life is good.  Someone loves you.

Now fast-forward to lunch time in first grade.  Here you are, nervously lining up in the hallway outside your classroom.  Your teacher leads you down the hall to the cafeteria.  You, watching the girl in front of you for an example, pick up a hard plastic tray, slide it down the railing, and someone wearing a strange net over her hair plops down what looks to be mashed potatoes (no gravy), some sort of dark green slimy concoction, and a hard, brown slab of something the girl in front of you calls a “steak finger.” The smell alone tells you that this is not good.  One taste confirms it.

Your teacher is saying, “Now everyone has to taste everything on your plate or you won’t be able to go out for recess.”  You panic.  There’s no way you can taste any of this without throwing up.

It comes to you.  You are in a hostile environment.  You must become deceitful.  Carefully, you dig a hole in your mashed potatoes.  Then you attempt to cut your “steak finger,” bending your fork in the process.  You manage to remove a chunk, and you place that chunk into the hole you’ve just created in your potatoes.  You shovel more potato over it to cover the burial site.  Next, looking around to make sure no one is watching, you take a fork-full of that slimy green spinach, and you ease it into your milk carton.

When you approach your teacher so that she can make sure you “tasted everything,” you’re caught.  You forgot to close the milk carton.  She sees that mound of green swimming in the warm, pale milk.  No recess for you. 

And there will be 181 more days of this before school’s out for summer.

I’m Lynne Hewes, and that’s how I learned that food can tell you you are in a safe, loving environment, or food can also warn you to be very, very careful because you might be in extreme danger.