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.