Dear Lily June,
By the time I was ten, my parents had gotten a divorce, and what had once been a two-parent, white collar household quickly became a blue-collar home headed by a secretary mother and an automotive salesman stepfather. Because the abuse from the wealthy home had stopped, there were ways in which we had more, even in less accommodating financial circumstances. There was more peace. There was more laughter. There was more quiet. But one thing I remember there being distinctly less of was food.
There were times when my mother would go to the grocery store to return with only hotdogs and frozen french fries. There were times when I was yelled at for boiling one two many of those hotdogs in a day (namely, more than one, ever). There were times when our cabinets held nothing but generic products they don’t even make anymore–big, white, unadorned plastic bags stamped in big, black script reading “Chips.” You didn’t know what kind were inside until you popped the bag open (potato? tortilla? surprise!). These were the lean times, with a lot of Rice-A-Roni added to spread out the little bit of chicken; a lot of Hamburger Helper to stretch out the beef.
When my father had been around, my mother, sister, and I had had to indulge in the secret luxury of binge-eating. As the “cat” went away on business or ski trips to Philadelphia or Vale, respectively, us “mice” would “play” by loading up the shopping cart with thick steaks, fresh-caught flounder with dill sauce, ice cream sundaes with hot chocolate and whipped cream and maraschino cherries and sprinkles. At home, we would heap our plates full of three cheese tortellini with marinara; we would chase the entree with full pints of Haagen Dasz sorbet for each of us.
It wasn’t that we weren’t allowed to eat around our father. It wasn’t that we didn’t have the money for these kinds of groceries and probably those much higher-end than I can even imagine. (What do rich people eat these days, anyways? Caviar? Brie? The livers of the poor with some fava beans and a nice Chianti?). It’s just that we needed to do something to lighten the tension, to literally and figuratively let out our belts a bit. And so we set up our own dysfunctional family troughs, thrust our faces chin-deep into their muck, and reveled in every slurp and chomp.
In the lean times, I got used to waiting until my stomach physically felt a stabbing pain to go eat, if then. Sometimes, I would distract myself with anything I could find–a book, a television show, etc.–to keep my mind off of eating. Sometimes, it was only when I went to bed that I’d realize or remember I’d never eaten dinner. Or sometimes dinner and lunch. Or sometimes, anything at all that day.
It would be hard to tell this from my physique now. At 200 pounds, I don’t in any way appear malnourished, but I also don’t think back very often to the times where scraping food off my teeth might have felt like a form of snacking. Now, when I eat, I eat heartily, not as a secret shameful celebration nor as a source of guilt that every calorie I consumed was one my mother or sister couldn’t. It doesn’t mean I eat healthily. I still associate food with emotions, and I still link eating cheaply with some kind of freedom. As a result, I end up eating a lot of really bad food at a time a lot of the time. This is a habit I know I’ll need to break before you start taking on solids, but in some ways, I don’t know how to do it without breaking every plate in the house.
Writing is a strange dish to serve up, indeed. I started this letter with the intention of telling you the story of the one blue plate in our cabinet, because though we don’t own much, that just means all the items your dad and I do own are imbued with a kind of magic. They all have a story; they all have some kind of meaning or memory associated with them by now, and the blue plate is no exception to this rule. But it took me a long digressive path to get here, to the strange, single, blue plate, and I’m trying to understand why the appetizer of my childhood was served up instead of the entree of my intention.
Maybe it’s because even this plate holds an emotional backstory for me. Your dad and I, before we were married, lived together in a itty bitty (sh*tty) apartment in Tuscaloosa. It was a white brick box, shaped and sized like the tool shed of a much better house that must have further down the plantation somewhere. In the kitchen of that apartment–roughly the size of an airplane bathroom–the set of plates we did have–that all matched–were a parting gift from my former employer, an academic secretary named Sherry who had more heart than money and insisted that we take the full, white set of Correlle plates with green ivy encircling the top rim.
As we were saving up and trying to slim down for our wedding by, in addition to teaching at UA, working as a secretary, tutor, apartment cleaner, and lit magazine editor (me) and a gas station clerk/cashier and a Chinese restaurant waiter (your father), we occasionally cooked fancy but healthy meals from this Heart Association cookbook your dad had bought cheaply when he worked at the campus bookstore for a blip as a summer stockboy. And one day, I can’t remember which us initiated it, but we got it into our heads that we needed special plates for just the two of us to eat these dishes on. And thus, we stumbled off to the local Big Lots or Hobby Lobby or similar all-American junk store to pick out a couple that we could afford.
What we found were two bright blue eyesores that I immediately fell in love with, and many a romantic dinner by candlelight were eaten on, when, of course, either of us had time from our many jobs to sit down and actually eat together. In fact, it may have been that very blue plate which I walked up the street one day with a homemade Saucy Beef Stroganoff to feed your dad behind the gas station counter. It was one of the first fancy dishes I’d ever made all on my own.
Those blue plates served your dad and I in our own lean years which, despite our growing bodies, our wallets haven’t quite grown out of. We sat down to eat on them together so often, they became our special blue plates, an irony of language since the “blue-plate special” usually connoted the cheapest offering of a diner or cafe, one the establishment was trying to get rid of before it spoiled or because they’d ordered too many of the ingredients to make it.
Eventually, one of the set of two fell to the floor and broke–as plates are wont to do–and it left us with a single Egyptian blue plate that we mostly use to prep ingredients of meals that we cook and now serve, ultimately, on those same white Correlle dishes we’ve had our whole marriage together. But the blue plate didn’t lose its touch. It reminds of times when I ate healthier, times when I had the time to cook full meals (which hasn’t happened in a while lately). It reminds me of times when your dad and I were working together towards our future, but also when we would stop working to break bread together.
That single plate, just as the circle of a ring or a set of embracing arms, is as much a symbol of our marriage as anything else. Neither of us needs to escape into indulgence just because the other isn’t around. Neither of us has to feel guilty for the ways we fill it or empty it. Both of us love eating, and each other, and eating with one another (though not eating each other, Lily, which means, thus far, our marriage is doing better than the Donner Party did.)
And since the loss of the single plate, we purchased some Pfaltzgraff replacements that we each chose. The ones with leaves are your father’s pick; the ones with poppies mine, but what both sets have in common is that there are three in each. One for your dad, the chef of the family. One for me, the baker of the crew. And one for you, little Lily, on which I hope you’ll eat sweet dishes that never leave any bad tastes–or memories–in your mouth.
- “Blue plate special sign” by Kaszeta at the English language Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Blue_plate_special_sign.jpg#/media/File:Blue_plate_special_sign.jpg
- “ProdPack-Hamburger-Helper-CheeseMac-Small” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:ProdPack-Hamburger-Helper-CheeseMac-Small.jpg#/media/File:ProdPack-Hamburger-Helper-CheeseMac-Small.jpg
- “Beef Stroganoff on Pasta” by jgodsey – http://www.flickr.com/photos/jgodsey/3114731942/. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beef_Stroganoff_on_Pasta.jpg#/media/File:Beef_Stroganoff_on_Pasta.jpg