SaltWhat did we know then? We knew the dirt roads of the Ozark Mountains, knew that duct tape was the best way to remove thousands of seed ticks, knew to ignore the fierce itch of poison ivy, knew to collect rocks with abandon.
The curve of that salt block, worn down by the tongues of dozens of cows, called out to us. We ran across the field, my cousins and brother and me, our tiny bodies streaking by cows before we tore off, each of us in a different direction, all of us with our tongues out. I remember the abrasiveness, the delight of fitting my tongue into the deep groove where tongues much bigger than mine had been.
We were born at home, could mark the place on the floor where we came out of our mothers. Even those of us who weren’t blood felt that we were because we had been exploring our Ozark homeland together – Drivers, Ynosencios, Levins, Higgins – ever since we were old enough to walk.
And then there was dog food. How curious it was, such a fascinating challenge for a bunch of five and seven-year olds. Who would eat dog food? Who would eat more? How did it taste? “Not so bad,” we declared, “not so bad at all” as we crunched it up sitting on the stonewall outside my Aunt Karen’s house, feeling defiant and proud.
We played in the slough, submerging our fingers in the bright green slime. We threw rocks, mud balls, and cow patties. We saw the dogs eat grass, so we ate some too.
We longed for the absolute coolness of clay and its earth-after-rain smell. We entered my dad’s pottery studio yearning to eat it. That same clay was formed into pots and fired in a kiln. On firing nights, my brother and I would lie in the back of the truck bed and watch our mom and dad stoke the flames of the kiln. Look over, fire. Look up, stars.
Then there was dirt, which we ate both on purpose and on accident as we ran around the woods like a gang of feral children. One of us, I can’t remember who, fell off our bike and slid face-first down a hill on the dirt road. Ever after it was known as “Eat Lunch Hill.”
The roly poly I remember too, the crunch of its tiny exoskeleton. But we didn’t limit ourselves to oddities. We descended like locusts on homes too, leaving one aunt and uncle or another with an empty fridge in a matter of minutes. My brother Ian and cousin Brahm would make cheese, mayonnaise, and mustard sandwiches and then sit and dissect them. Stuff the cheese in the mouth. Lick the mayo off one side of the bread. Lick the mustard off the other. Throw bread down the hatch with gusto.
And on hot summer days, when we were tired of eating sweet peas out of the garden or being offered healthy treats like carob bars, we would get seven or eight of us together and bike 12 miles to the general store to eat potato chips and ice cream.
Other days we’d sit on the banks of the Little Mulberry River catching crawdads and tadpoles and grinding rocks down to their bright powdery cores. By mixing the burnt red and bruised purple dust with water, we created paint and decorated our bodies. Then we’d lie by the river until the glistening paint cracked and dried under the sun.
Once or twice a year we’d all go to Madame Woos, a Chinese restaurant an hour-and-a-half away. There, we tried sweet and sour soup for the first time. Drinking Coke and going out to eat regularly and frozen food were all things that came later, when we left our homeland, when we were forced out into the world that wanted to know how it was possible that we hadn’t seen MTV and why we ate ugly homemade bread. All of us struggled to find our way back to the joy and pulse of unmediated curiosity and exploration.
Eventually, almost everyone left. Poor schools, few economic opportunities. The Ozark Mountain Valley could not hold and protect us from everything. But the collective we created in our childhood, that voice that ran through us like the blue-green of the waters of the Little Mulberry, it remained.
We grew up, moved to San Francisco, New York, Mexico, ate more expensive, more exotic things. But we have not forgotten what it was to have the will to know, to taste everything, to hunger for a homeland and everything that entails.
Turkey“I don’t know why we bother having a full menu today,” Mei Lan moaned. “Everyone only wants one thing on Thanksgiving.”
We were standing in our navy blazers and support hose, stripping the previous day’s menu and gluing in a fresh page that featured our restaurant’s Thanksgiving Special: for $34.95, guests could enjoy traditional turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, stuffing, veggies and, of course, pumpkin pie.
What the menu didn’t say was that our turkey was factory-farmed, our veggies pesticide-ridden, our mashed potatoes made with Grade-C milk. None of this California free-range organic fair-trade grass-fed hippie-dippie malarkey. Not at Jack’s Steak and Grill. In some ways, it was a true American Thanksgiving.
It was my third year working the Thanksgiving shift at the pseudo-fine-dining establishment along Oakland’s industrial waterfront, where the diesel fumes wafted through the windows. It was also my first Thanksgiving as a vegan, as well as my 21st birthday. Three years sober and already in possession of a fake ID that enabled me to go see bands play, the birthday didn’t mean much; being vegan made it mean even less. Better to pick up an extra shift, I’d reasoned, since my university classes were cancelled for the holiday.
It was a decision I was regretting now, feeling back-achy and varicose-veiny, a vague queasiness rippling through my body. A flu, I reasoned — perfect.
We were one of the only restaurants open on Thanksgiving and our reservation book was a Tetrised nightmare of scribbles and erases, stars and frantic bubbles. “Amateur day,” Mei Lan would snort, referring to the sad procession of holiday-only diners that would file through, fussy and overdressed and tipping ten percent.
Even if we had to deal with the bookings, and the red-eyed GM who kept gleefully scribbling in more VIP names, we were lucky to be hosting: we had an hourly of $15, which made the shift worth our while. The wait staff, meanwhile, were always trying to weasel out of the shift. “Work nine hours for $80?” Kewesi would ask. “That’s hella whacked!” The management was stern, though — you either had to get the shift covered or come in to work. The fact that the owner allowed us a free plate of turkey was small solace for spending the holiday in collective misery.
Around eleven, my co-workers started trickling in: Yukari, a 50-year-old Japanese stoner with tattooed eyebrows who’d tried to convince me to sell my underpants in a Tokyo vending machine; Marco, an undocumented Mexican who worked sixty-hour-weeks and ran laps around the American staff; the other Marco, whose teenage daughters were now working as food runners; Ronnie, an aging queen who thought his homosexuality justified his misogyny; and James, a bartender with one earring who took home at least one phone number per shift.
Our half-blind piano player Mr. Brown shuffled in to complete the haphazard clan. A kind of Oakland legend, Mr. Brown would play “Kansas City” on loop while his wife sat nearby in costume jewelry, spending most of his meager tips downing bourbon and catfish.
At noon the GM flipped on the lights over the ice display, then disappeared into his office. We were open.
Guests started lining up at the podium. Mei Lan ran interference on the phones and books while I took charge of the floor. One of the first parties I sat had balloons with them. “Happy Birthday!” I beamed, then leaned in and added, “It’s my birthday too.”
“Aw, happy birthday!” The honoree, a man with a beard and soft lines around his eyes, looked at me a moment then asked, “Wait, you’re working on your birthday? On Thanksgiving?”
I smiled and shrugged. I was working on my pity tip angle, but I had a lot to learn. Mei Lan had worked through her third trimester, mostly for the pity tips — maternity pay was a joke. She’d bought a fancy stroller with her pity tips. I was just hoping for some Tofurky and vegan cheesecake.
But I didn’t get anything from the guy except a sad smile. Pity with no tip, I decided, was just a bummer.
The day went by in a blur of faces, soiled napkins and “I’ma gonna get me some”s. My back ached worse than usual and I kept having to pee — a major annoyance during a balls-to-the-wall busy holiday shift. Around me my co-workers faces were growing tenser, as shitty tip after shitty tip accumulated.
“Another ten percent!” Yukari muttered.
“Oh yeah?” Ronnie hissed. “I just got two dollars on seventy.”
“So much for gratuity, huh?” James laughed.
By closing our feet were sore and spirits broken. Most people had busted ass for nine hours for less than $100, not to mention having to spend the holiday away from their families. Only Marco and his daughters were together, which actually seemed kinda sadder.
But finally, once we’d all cashed out and wiped down all the service stations, we filed into the unheated backroom for the sole redeeming aspect of the otherwise legendary dismal shift: the free turkey.
And although I’d told myself I’d forgo the perk in the name of my new veganism, something in me caved. Maybe it was the long shift, the way my back ached, how crumby I felt; maybe it was the realization that I’d actually spent my 21st birthday working at Jack’s Steak and Grill; or maybe it was the way all of us were there, my wayward assortment of coworkers, hunched over our plates in our winter coats, commiserating together in the cold.
Fuck it, I decided, piling my plate high. If you’ve ever been denying yourself animal products on the basis of vague political notions and an obsessive need for control in your life, then you know how good meat can be. Even if it was shitty meat, even if they were industrially farmed veggies and a watery gravy recipe from 1975, that plate of Thanksgiving in the back room with my co-workers was a kind of gathering, a kind of family, a kind of perfect American moment.
The plate was so good I had a second. Then some pumpkin pie. With whipped cream. Then a little more pumpkin pie, this time with vanilla ice cream.
I ate so much I was nauseous through the next morning. “Man, I didn’t think you could get so sensitive to animal products after only a month of being vegan,” I kept saying at my own family’s Thanksgiving celebration the next day, where I was the only one eating the burnt lentil loaf I’d made.
I couldn’t shake the nausea all day. Or the back pain or the having-to-pee.
It wasn’t until a week later that I realized I was pregnant.
Aunt JemimaWhen we think of aphrodisiacs, we think chocolate. Jungle-brown mole, silky and thick, spiced and sweet, enveloping and oppressing the tongue. Or, say, the tender and innocent – strawberries and whipped cream – or the baldly spicy: chiles that spur sweats and tears. We don’t think of 10-peso Chi Chis flour tortillas filled with quesillo and heated to gooeyness in a George Foreman.
But this was the food of my courtship with my husband. I achieved that American cliché – fell in love with a Latin Lover, bearded and all – and I did it over the most banal, pedestrian, one-dimensional American foods. Perhaps I was subconsciously wary of playing that role of love-struck gringa, and so I fought back with Aunt Jemima. No succulent squash blossom quesadillas or star-shaped churros fried in sugar for me, thank you: here is a thigh-high stack of panques con jarabe de maple. Jorge, too, loathed the image of the Latin artiste with the blond girlfriend, which was perhaps why he ordered Dominos on our second date.
It never seemed strange to us at the time. Living abroad, first in South America, then on a remote French island, and finally in Mexico, I almost never ate American food – I prided myself on trying bull’s testicles, goat innards, regurgitated alcoholic corn beverages, bacon-wrapped hot dogs. Jorge was a market man, a familiar joven to the purveyors of memelas and quesadillas and tamales. But somehow, our love produced not elaborate Oaxacan sauces heady with crushed chiles but those late-night Chi Chis quesadillas in the only piece of cooking equipment Jorge owned: the George Foreman, gifted him many Christmases ago by an older brother.
We bought the supplies at the Miscelánea around the corner, along with a forty of Victoria and a Sprite to make shandies. In the morning, before I went to teach, I made us piles of pancakes that we ate in bed; Jorge then went right back to sleep. We look like little chipmunk versions of ourselves in photos from that time: we must’ve each gained ten pounds during our first few months together. On lazy Sunday afternoons, after we’d gone to the Tequio park and I’d run 15 kilometers and Jorge had walked a few laps in his Converse listening to Yo-Yo Ma, we’d eat Oreo ice cream from the Miscelánea on Jorge’s concrete terrace. The blandest, most straightforward food: a single earnest and uncomplicated flavor, so classically American. This was what brought us together.
But once I’d moved in, and we’d gotten a puppy, and his friends had become my friends, our diet shifted without either of us noting or talking about it. For breakfast we had chilaquiles verdes at the market, served simmering in a clay pot with two eggs cracked on top, the yolks streaming out over fresh epazote and crunchy fried tortillas when we dug in. For dinner we walked to a nearby señora’s garage and ate twenty-peso tlayudas: huge Oaxacan tortillas spread with lard, filled with lettuce, onions, tomatoes, quesillo, chorizo, and homemade salsas, and grilled over coals. And when we moved to the States, in 2010, we survived for awhile on Indian food, eating next to nothing all day in order to binge on punitive lamb vindaloo, spiced to near intolerability, and samosas dipped in sharp acidic chutneys.
We were married, we were together across continents and through failures and successes. The George Foreman was lost in one of our many moves. We haven’t made pancakes since those cool mornings in 2006, sitting in that lime-walled room stuffing ourselves with the simplest carbohydrates. We don’t need the bland any longer, the vanilla guilelessness of a flour tortilla. It remains a mystery to me why, of all moments, we turned to these foods when our love was forming and strengthening. Maybe we wanted to test its quotidian-ness, its ability to tolerate the mundane everyday of marriage. Maybe we wanted to find a space in between our relative exoticisms, a safe place where neither of us played too predictable a role.
Maybe, on those initial nights when we stayed up late talking about infinite subjects neither of us remember, anything, anything at all, would’ve tasted incredible, and a simple flour tortilla, white cheese – forthright as a daisy – was more than enough to sustain us.
The Scarletina BoleteI find them along the side of the trail our second day in France, the smooth brown caps conspicuous against the clutter of fallen leaves on moss. Sebastian catches up beside me as I kneel down. Around us stands a forest of pine and oak, birdsong, stillness.
“They look poisonous,” Sebastian says. I can’t argue. The caps are harmless enough — a rich matte brown, the texture reminiscent of velvet — but each has a yellow stalk covered in tiny scarlet dots, and when I overturn one, the underside of the cap flashes a brilliant burgundy. Instead of gills, the surface is spongy, suggesting that it’s some kind of bolete — perhaps a cousin of Boletus edulis, commonly known as porcini or penny bun, highly prized among gourmets. Gently I prod the firm surface. The spot turns instantly, deeply blue.
Sebastian is unimpressed. “Probably oxidation.”
“I’m bringing some back,” I say.
“Not to eat, right?”
“Just to identify.”
He watches wordlessly as I wrap several specimens in cloth and place them in the outermost pocket of my backpack, careful not to bruise the flesh.
We started collecting mushrooms earlier this year after a friend mentioned seeing wild porcini in the forest near our house in central Germany. I never much liked mushrooms — those paper-thin gills, the lingering musk of dank places and decomposing wood — but the idea of mushroom hunting, separate from its culinary objective, appealed to me: an excuse to explore unfamiliar territory, to slow down, to observe more sharply, to give things a name.
We bought an identification book and I took it with me on daily walks with our dog, who learned to wait patiently as I bent over each new specimen and flipped page after page in search of a match. Once I started to notice mushrooms, I couldn’t un-notice them: they were everywhere, in a staggering variety of colors and shapes. Enormous umbrella-like Macrolepiota procera with rings of dark shingles; deadly crimson Amanita muscaria; delicately violet Laccaria amethystina; hefty white Calvatia gigantea, a.k.a. “giant puffball.” Identifying them felt primitive and thrilling, as if I were tapping into some ancient human compulsion—the need to forage, to categorize, to feed.
The first time I ate a mushroom I’d collected — Leccinum scabrum, a birch bolete, with a perfect half-sphere of a cap—I found that I actually enjoyed the mild, earthy taste. For a week afterward I stalked the forest like a woman with a secret. The world became sustaining. Abundant. Mine.
Back in our holiday apartment in France, I glance through online lists of bolete species while Sebastian slices the plump, pristine porcini we gathered not far from the mystery mushroom. After browsing a few dozen photos, I spot it: Boletus luridformis, the Scarletina Bolete. The images and description are identical to my specimens, including the blue bruising.
Next to toxicity is a single word: Edible.
My fingertips begin to tingle.
Farther down the page, the writer notes that this species is not advisable for beginners, as it’s easily confused with the poisonous Boletus satanas, the Devil’s Bolete. I reexamine the photographs, take measurements, hold my specimens up to the screen. The fundamental rule of mushroom hunting is “when in doubt, throw it out” — a guideline I’ve followed closely till now, consuming only easily identified porcini and that single birch bolete.
But now I’m gripped by a desire to eat this mushroom. The force of it takes me by surprise. I wonder if it’s the same restless, reckless instinct that drove me to hitchhike in Ethiopia, swim cave-rivers by candlelight in Guatemala, volunteer in South Sudan — if it’s wrapped up somehow in risk and adventure, in the rush of pushing right up to the precipice of mortality and leaning just far enough to see the bottomless crevice beyond.
I’ve never before seen food as a source of real risk. In the Western world, where the basic safety of our consumables is guaranteed by government regulations and inspections, we seem preoccupied by optimal nutrition instead, which is complex and subtle and constantly shifting. Foraging leads us back to a place of stark opposites, when our ancestors had to choose between survival and death. They had to trust the collective wisdom of those who came before—those who chose right, and those who chose wrong.
Sebastian sautées the porcini in butter, garlic, cream, and a local Alsatian white wine that came from a vineyard we drove past on our way home. In a separate pan, I drop five thin slices from my smallest specimen. The scene feels utterly domestic and benign.
Ten minutes later we sit at the dinner table with three dishes before us: two bowls of linguini in a white wine–porcini cream sauce, and my plate of sliced bolete, now shriveled and black and distinctly unappetizing. I spear a piece with my fork and bring it to my nose. It smells of butter and nuts and soil. This is luridformas, not satanas — I’m sure of it.
Moving the fork toward my mouth feels holy, an act of reverence.
I take a bite.
It tastes like prayer.