What Do They Even Eat Here? — Wednesday Writing Prompt

“There’s no Prince Spaghetti here. There’s no Hood Ice Cream. There’s no Salada Tea. What do they even eat here? How am I going to feed myself?”

My older brother had just taken a new job at the University of Missouri at Columbia, and his first trip to the grocery store was an exercise in culture shock. We are Bostonians, and that means that we grew up drinking Salada tea with milk and sugar around our grandparents’ dining room table, we ate Hoodsies (ice cream in a cup) at birthday parties, and Wednesday was always Prince Spaghetti Day. Our family did not buy a lot of name brands, but these were staples. When we move from Boston and can no longer smell the ocean, these are among the things that we miss.

I understood his shock, because when he called me, my husband and children and I had been living in Texas, where one also could not find these things. Tea had been the first shock. Salada teabags had sayings on their tags. Some of these were profound, others were bad puns. In Texas, when I drank a cup of tea and looked at the tag, all it said was the name of the brand. I took to drinking coffee, instead. But at restaurants and gas stations, one could not get coffee “regular” (milk and two sugars), which was a New England Thing long before Starbucks had people ordering ventis and lattes. No, because it was hot outside, coffee came not with cream but with non-dairy creamer — in powder form.

I had a sister-in-law to guide me through this strange new world. She and my husband’s brother had moved from Michigan to Houston to work for NASA back when there were fewer Yankees in town, and at the local Kroger no one had heard of rhubarb or Vernors. But after one of the hurricanes, Kroger diverted all their trucks to Texas, to fill the emptied shelves, and these strange products became popular. My children grew to love Vernors, and after we moved to Connecticut, our trips to visit my in-laws in Michigan always ended with a Vernors run. The soda was rationed, saved for birthdays and illnesses.

My sister-in-law explained to me about heat and food, about how Yankee food has to be kept cold and Southern food was designed for warmer weather, and for people who, before air conditioning, needed more salt and sugar, both of which my children’s classmates put on their watermelon slices. People needed sweet iced tea, and buffet foods that could be kept warm without losing their flavor.

She gave me brands to try. Blue Bell Ice Cream turned out out to be as good as Hood. Skinner Pasta had as much of a cult following as Prince Spaghetti, in part because they made Texas shaped pasta for the State’s Sesquicententennial and they were so popular that they just kept making them. Over the course of our time in Texas, each of my children glued Texas-shaped pasta to an outline of the State of Texas for “Go Texas Day,” something my son was sad to learn, when we moved, that Connecticut did not celebrate. “That’s okay,” he told his first grade teacher. “Just tell me, when is ‘Go Connecticut Day?'” Alas, there exists no such beast. Texaroni cost no more than any other pasta, so it became part of our Wednesday pasta supper, and also made a nice gift for visitors.

I told my brother he had to adapt, and learn to eat for the region where he was living, and come to appreciate the good things that Missouri had to offer. He tried, but told friends who asked where he was working that he was “living in the State of Misery,” and when he had a chance to teach at Princeton, it wasn’t just the prestige and the salary that attracted him — it was that he could find good Italian food at the local Shoprite.

When you are young, you don’t know what is local and what is everywhere. A friend from Long Island who was planning on visiting Wellesley as a prospective student asked me if Wellesley got New York television stations. I told her no, Wellesley got Boston stations. Her face fell. “I’ll die if I can’t get NBC, CBS, and ABC,” she said. I explained the difference between nation wide networks and their affiliates, and it made more sense to her once she started classes.

The Prompt: What brands did you assume were everywhere, and not find when you moved? How did you cope? Or, what things did you think you would never see again, and were surprised to encounter?

Using brands in your writing: Name brands can ground a story in space and time. In “Summer of My German Soldier,” the narrator hears the family maid singing the “Rinso White” laundry jingle. This small nod to 1940’s Arkansas domestic life also subtly hints at race issues which arise later in the book. The cleaning products your characters use, the brand of coffee that they prefer, the brand of detergent the family can afford, all can be a shorthand introduction to their lives.

What you remember: Some brands don’t exist any more. Some people who preferred these brands also are no longer with us. Write about a product that you remember that you can no longer find, whether because you moved or because it no longer exists.

Write about revisiting something you used to love but don’t buy any more. It can be those disgusting orange candy peanuts or your father’s aftershave, lemon oil furniture polish or your ex-boyfriend’s brand of soap. Smelling and tasting things again brings back a flood of memories that do not exist in words. When you put words to them, you gain some mastery over your past and present. You can find many discontinued products online.

There is one value in a planned encounter. But you could also write about finding an old friend in a strange place. There was one dessert my late mother made that I could not find a recipe for anywhere. We had called them “date nut bars,” and all the recipes that I had found under that name were…wrong. Then at an estate sale, I bought a cookbook that did have the recipe. I made them and brought them to church. “Oh! Chinese Chews,” the ladies said. Had I known the other name, I could have found the recipe sooner.

You were a different person when you ate these foods, used these products, smelled these scents. There may be things you forgot that you did or thought that will come back to you when you explore.

This is For Special — Wednesday Writing Prompt

The Wentworth by Thomas

Growing up, I understood that my mother’s mother’s china had a special place in our lives. They were not just dishes; they were “your grandmother’s good china.” We used them for company and birthdays, for special occasions and holidays. Grandma Rooney died before I was born, and these dishes were, with a few other items, my connection to her. These dishes were kept in a special built-in rosewood cupboard in the dining room, and stayed behind glass when it was not a special time.

Dishes can be a shibboleth. When we read “Jane Eyre” in ninth grade, I was struck by how important a treat it was for ailing young Jane to receive a pastry on a special dish:

Bessie had been down into the kitchen, and she brought up with her a tart on a certain brightly painted china plate, whose bird of paradise, nestling in a wreath of convolvuli and rosebuds, had been wont to stir in me a most enthusiastic sense of admiration; and which plate I had often petitioned to be allowed to take in my hand in order to examine it more closely, but had always hitherto been deemed unworthy of such a privilege. This precious vessel was now placed on my knee, and I was cordially invited to eat the circlet of delicate pastry upon it. Vain favour! coming, like most other favours long deferred and often wished for, too late! I could not eat the tart; and the plumage of the bird, the tints of the flowers, seemed strangely faded: I put both plate and tart away. 

Some dishes are an honor; others serve a less honorable function. When my children were young, once all of them were sick at once, and we followed suit. I handed out buckets and basins and finally designated one of my cheaper mixing bowls as the Emergency Barf Bucket. After everyone was better, all the receptacles were washed and sterilized and the mixing bowl was put in the kitchen but not with the dishes, just with the canned goods, in case I needed to hand wash something or soak an item of clothing. Everyone knew not to use the plastic green mixing bowl — everyone who lived with us all the time.

Then as a special treat, some weeks later, my husband and I hired the daughter of our son’s pre-school teacher to babysit for the evening. She was a teacher in her own right, and the children really loved her. I told her she could help herself to anything and could even make brownies, if she liked. I put the box of brownie mix on the counter. I should have been more thorough. When we came home, she told us how good the children had been and told us they had even saved a brownie for each of us. I was about to pick one up and bite it when glanced across the kitchen and saw the green mixing bowl in the sink, with brownie batter still clinging to it.

An object that has meaning and history for one person is just a thing to another.

Here’s the background: Everyone has a special dish, a favorite coffee mug, the plate that everyone wants to use or the dish that no one wants. My husband and his brothers each had their own colored cup, and it was unthinkable to drink from the green instead of the blue.

Getting the Dishes You Want: I learn from my friends. One bought her sister a beautiful gold china set that their parents gave away upon the sister’s death. This left a hole in my friend’s heart until she saw a way to fix it. On Ebay, she found the same set and bought it, setting it up in her dining room where it shined on her quilts, statues, paintings, and carpets, part of the warp and weft of her daily life. That inspired me. When my stepmother moved, she had given each of us siblings some of what remained of my mother’s good dishes. I chose the big glass plate with metal decorations that had held so many birthday cakes, the tray that had held the celery that I stuffed with cream cheese and walnuts for hors d’oeuvres as a child, and as many of the Wentworth plates as still were intact. I lamented that there weren’t really enough for a full dinner, so my husband encouraged me to go through an online website to obtain enough matching plates to have eight place settings. The day they arrived, I could hardly breathe with anticipation. Unwrapping them felt good, initially, and I set aside the bubble wrap, removed the stickers, washed the plates, and put them in our new china hutch with the rest of the set. But after, I felt like a fraud. I could not tell which dishes my mother and grandmother had held and which were from strangers. I was almost as unhappy as Jane Eyre. Later, when we had company, pre-COVID, and I served a formal meal on the good china, with flowers and candles such as I could not have done with four children home, some of my joy was restored.

Here’s the prompt: Every family has their own special dishes, for better and for worse. Write about a time when someone let you use the good thing, or when someone made you use the bad thing. Think — who or what kept you from having the one you wanted? Was it love on your part, giving your husband the big cup or your child the plate that wasn’t chipped, or was someone making a statement, or, worse, oblivious to your happiness or sorrow?

Here are examples: You might write about choosing your own china pattern for your wedding, or about seeing dishes like those someone you love had at a yard sale or flea market. Or you could write about what happened when a dish that you didn’t know that you treasured broke.

You might write about a mother and daughter arguing over whether an old, chipped dish should be discarded. To the daughter, it’s old; to the mother, it’s a gift from the departed. Or, vice versa, it may be important to the child to use the pink cup and a parent may try to give her juice in the white one.

How many ways can you reveal a conflict, using dishes, without actually spelling out the source of tension?

Enjoy!

Who Goes There? A Pascha Story

How do you welcome strangers when you aren’t home?

Photo credit: foter.com

I have been away, visiting my brother and his amazing family, and so I haven’t posted in a while. However, I have a short little remembrance from when my children were little. We lived in Texas in the 1990’s, and often had only one car. We had made new friends, a husband and wife, who were Orthodox, and they were coming to the house. But an emergency arose, and my husband needed to be someplace. I drove him, so I could have the car. But, the children would be home alone when our friends arrived. I wasn’t sure how the children would recognize them. They couldn’t really reach the peep hole in the door.

I made my cross, prayed, and smiled.

I called the children into a huddle, gave them instructions, took off my apron, put on some shoes, and drove.

My friend told the story to my brother, who reminded me of it. My children were about nine, eight, and four. Our friends arrived and saw no car, but they rang the bell, and heard a muffled sound, in response.

“I can’t hear you!” the husband said.

There was a murmured consultation, and then the same response, a little louder, but not clear.

“I’m sorry, I still can’t hear you,” the husband said.

There was a longer consultation, and the deadbolt was turned. The door opened, but the chain stayed on. Three mouths appeared at the door. In unison, the children called out, “Christ is Risen!”

It was in the Paschal season. In the Orthodox Church, we prepare for great feasts by abstaining from meat and dairy, and then we celebrate the feast for a long time after. And so we greet each other for the forty days of Pascha (Easter) with “Christ is Risen!” to which one replies “Truly He is Risen,” or “Indeed He is Risen,” depending on your parish’s preferred translation.

And so our friends called out, also in unison, “Indeed He is Risen!” The children consulted again, and closed the door, unchained it, opened it, and welcomed the guests into the house, into our lives, and practically speaking, into the family. That happens, especially in Texas. “If you don’t have family in Texas when you arrive,” my brother-in-law had explained when we moved, “you create family.”

Christ is Risen!” It is a greeting to bring joy, to proclaim victory over death, and to draw like minded people closer together.

Christ is Risen!