Remembering Blueberries

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Memory works in peculiar ways.

Some people hear an old song and are instantly transported backward in time, to a childhood summer spent at a beach, to the moment they met the boy or girl of their dreams. My 91-year-old father has always had a pictorial memory associated with the town golf course where he played 18 holes every Saturday morning: days later, he could still describe, hole by hole, each of the 80 or so shots he had hit. My husband can keep a knot of foreign languages straight in his head. A German word never pops out by mistake if he’s speaking Italian, while my brain, after decades living all over Europe, keeps trying to speak several languages at once, few of them convincingly.

Some people recall only slights against them, embarrassments, arguments, life’s humiliations. Others bury the bad memories so thoroughly that they never learn anything from them, and remember only happy snippets — when the heartthrob of their teens asked them to the school dance — conveniently forgetting that he never actually rang the bell that night, but left them sitting, overdressed, at home.

My own memory works best around food. A single bite of a crunchy McIntosh apple can bring me back to an October day in the mid-1970s, when I lugged home bushels of apples from a pick-your-own orchard in central Connecticut. For days I made apple pies, applesauce, apple butter, apple crumble. For the rest of that winter, the unheated hallway outside my front door, where I stocked the leftovers, gave off a slight apple-y smell that made me hungry any time I passed through it.

I’m convinced that one of the reasons I love blueberries is that they bring back the memories of my family’s first camping trip, to Burlingame State Park in Westerly, Rhode Island, where blueberries grew wild around the lake. I spent a week swimming, hiking and picking berries with new friends, singing campfire songs every night with the big family camped nearby. Come morning, my father made blueberry pancakes on an iron griddle he perched on our rickety Coleman stove. We ate blueberries at every meal that magical week, and even today, if I eat a bowl of them, I can recall how glorious they tasted snatched straight off a low bush near the lake, or mixed with chunks of a luscious, local cantaloupe that a truck farmer would sell as he drove through the campsite each day. When I eat blueberries today, I still remember that peculiar damp, woodsmoke smell that came from our canvas tent, and how my mother had had to be coaxed and badgered and begged to come camping, and shown the facilities weeks beforehand, to prove the existence of running water and flush toilets. I still remember how she was actually won over once she saw that a week in the woods meant that the farmer and his market had come to her on four wheels, instead of she having to go to him

My food memories are generally happy, not just because my extended family happened to be good cooks but because of the warmth of the atmosphere around the table where we ate. Part of the ceremony of eating together was the non-stop talking, joking, and laughing that went with it. We were all always on our best behavior at table — the grown-ups too — who either by nature or great good luck, by habit or design, always sparkled and shone when a plate of simple, fresh food was placed in front of them.

I suspect that some of our enjoyment came from older, darker memories, passed down the generations by osmosis, when there simply wasn’t enough food, ever, to go around, which was the basic reason my grandparents’ families left their poor Italian villages and got on the boat to sail for l’America. Maybe it was those unspoken memories of simple hunger that made us all seem so grateful and mindful of our good fortune each time we sat down together to eat from a plate covered with nourishing, tasty food. Nobody ever left our family table hungry.

I know that it was not until I was 19, sitting at a round, oak table in my dormitory dining hall, that I ever realized that not everybody had been lucky enough to have grown up with a simple and happy relationship to food. Before college, I had never imagined that a supposedly intelligent pre-med student would attempt to live on iceberg lettuce sprinkled with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice day after day, or that she couldn’t see that she was a walking skeleton, whose hair was the hair of a 90-year-old, brittle as fiberglass. I couldn’t believe my ears, years later, when a friend’s husband described his family’s daily battles around their dining table, which seemed to be a private theater for an alcoholic father to assert supremacy.

In this blog I’m going to be talking a lot about food, health, illness — both physical and mental — about the restorative pleasures of eating together, with family and friends. I won’t be writing about food as an enemy, a contest, or a race, because for me food is simply not a competitive sport. I’ll be writing about food as nourishment, comfort, and support, one of humankind’s most basic ways to celebrate the gift of being alive.

11 Responses to “Remembering Blueberries”

  1. josephine palermo says:

    Dear Paula,

    We are friends of Arlene and Charles and have met you and Julia in Florida and
    had dinner with you and John in Italy many years ago.
    Loved reading your blog and am eagerly awaiting reading your book.

    Best to you and your family.

    Josephine Palermo

  2. Dave Ceponis says:

    Nothing instantly (and vividly) brings back memories to me better than smell. A wisp of a certain perfume, the salty sea air, the musky scent of fallen leaves, a baby’s blanket; all can sweetly transport me to another place and time. And of course the smell of foods.

    The smells of my childhood kitchen linger in my unconsiousness and are called up when I least expect it.

    My mom was no great cook, but it never bothered me. My brothers and I gobbled up everything she popped down in front of us. Remember fried liver? I hope you don’t. But that was a meal my mom made for us boys every now and then. Supposed to be high in protein and good for growing young males. The girls were allowed to eat it too, but I don’t think they touched it. I hated it but I ate it; after all, I wanted to be big and muscular. The thing about liver–you could smell it being fried all the way upstairs in the bedroom, so you knew you had to face it soon at breakfast.

    One of my mom’s favorite breakfast treats was “eggs on toast”. I loved the way she carefully placed one egg-sunny side up-on a transformed slice of Wonder Bread. And if she over-toasted it, she scratched off the black parts by softly rubbing a butter knife back and forth, and things were right again. I guess I was particular, now that I’m looking back.

    Something I always asked for, and my Mom always did ‘specially for me, was to carve up my egg on toast sandwich, using a sharp knife to cut it 4 times down one side of the bread and 4 times down the other side to create 16 little pieces of egg toast. Try as I might, it wasn’t until I was about 11 or 12 that I did it myself, but I still wished my mom did it for me.

    I chuckle now when I see the little things my wife does for my 17-year old son. Sometimes, I think she’s spoiling him, and then I think, no. I turned out alright and my mom pampered me. Maybe that’s what we’re missing as grown-up men.

    My mom died suddenly and unexpectedly in January of this year. I didn’t realize how much I missed her until I read Paula’s story about the blueberries.

    I love you, Mom, and thank you for your countless sacrifices for me (and my siblings) throughout the many years we had you. I thought I’ve heard it said, “There is no greater love on this earth than the love of a Mom for her children.” I know that was true for you, Mom.

  3. Jennifer Heimert says:

    Paula, not surprisingly this is beautifully written. I was struck by how effortlessly your words conjured up memories of my own experiences with food and my family, through both very hard and joyful times. And yet, as you’ve described above, for some people food is not about nourishing our bodies, being sustained, or being together around a candlelit dinner table. Reminds me once again that food is an extremely complicated subject matter (as is depression). I can’t wait to read your personal experience. Thanks for being brave enough to share it with us.

  4. Josephine, I’m sorry for the long delay in publishing and responding to your comment; it was only today that I learned where to find these comments, and put them up on the blog. Thanks for writing! Paula

  5. Jennifer, thanks for writing! I just learned how to find and publish comments like yours about a half hour ago. I’ll try to be more timely in the future.

  6. Dave, I finally found out where your comment had been lurking all this time, and got talked through the process of posting it online. It’s a wonderful tribute to your mother and your whole family.

  7. stephen szilagyi says:

    Paula, I have so many wonderful memories of sitting at your table on Lake Ave. You really were the first to have a grown-up dinner party. Your shrimp scampi and salted butter bread is still a family favorite; my daughters still make it today. Roz would be so proud, as all who have shared with you. As always, Stephen

  8. Bob Inderman says:

    Nice piece, Paula.

    One of the downsides of growing up in Texas – and truthfully, there are many – is that my food memories always carry a deep-fried smell about them. Watermelon, mashed potatoes and pot roast are about the only two things I recall my mom not deep-frying.

    It really wasn’t until we moved to the Midwest, away from the deep-friers of the south, that I actually experienced fresh blueberries for the first time, and I have to agree with you, eating pleasures are sometimes the simplest of things. Fresh blueberries and cream is the dessert of my dreams, though preferably preceeded by a chicken-fried steak, red beans and collard greens. 🙂

    Love your blog.

  9. Thanks, Bob, but are you trying to tell me your mom deep-fried grits (one of my favorite foods in the universe, and the one which my Georgia-born sister-in-law buys for me when she’s back home)?

    Blueberries and raspberries cost SO much money here in France that unless you’re a millionaire you just can’t afford them, or at least I can’t bring myself to buy them without choking on them at the thought of the cost. I planted raspberry canes a few years ago and they’re doing fabulously well, so we now have all the raspberries we want.

    But the blueberries are another story. I’ve been trying to grow them for the last three years, but they are puny and clearly unhappy. I planted them in the little strip of good, alluvial soil we have down by the river, but only now am I coming to realize that there’s just not quite enough sunshine down there to make them content. I may try transplanting them to the rocky soil up in the meadow where they’ll get plenty of sun (but will probably hate the dirt). I never seem to get my plants in the right place on the first go-round.

  10. campingstove says:

    Your Rss doesn’t work in my browser (opera browser) how can i fix it?

  11. I will pass your message on to my website builder; I haven’t a clue. Sorry, Paula

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