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Jessica Holt Emery


Photo of reading at celebrationThe following is part of a larger “encyclopedia” piece, modeled after Amy Krause Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life

Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Food Life

Breakfast, Nicaraguan
First of all, there will be a hot dog every morning, split in half the long way, fried brown and crispy at the edges. Hot-dog-bun toast, startlingly yellow butter. Chocolate milk, the real kind.  Weak instant coffee, black (ironic in this land). A fried egg and a mound of rice and beans, the infamous gallo pinto, not so bad, really (after a couple of weeks, you’ll discover that adding a tiny bit of ketchup makes it delicious). This will be set in front of you, with a slight flourish, in a warm and open kitchen, with one small stove and turquoise walls. Chickens right outside the door. It’s a comforting and lovely way to start the day. It’s grounding before taking a deep breath and stepping out into another day of mind-spinning language. Soon, very quickly, you’ll begin to look forward to it, even the hot dogs, and you will forget even to wish for granola and good bread. You’ll sit down each morning with relish, and eat with relish, and it will make you realize that this meal is more than just the food.

Cooking, Family-Style
Food is more than just something to eat. More than what we need to give us energy. You’ll learn this when you begin to be involved in preparing it, after you realize that meals don’t appear magically at dinnertime. After your mom goes back to work, newly single and frazzled at the edges, and you pick your sister up from daycare, and you are in charge of dinner, you will know the satisfaction of chopping and sweating your way through a recipe, and coming out the other side fed. You will come to love shopping for groceries, the choosing of bright produce and the possibilities it suggests. You will carry this with you into adulthood, trial and error, through forays into obscure ingredients and twenty-seven-step recipes. You will reach a point at which you greatly appreciate simplicity (see Toddler, Feeding a), reminiscent of long-ago days (see Breakfast, Nicaraguan), and you will arrive at a perfectly caramelized roast chicken and one glass of good red wine.

Food, My Relationship with
It began like it does for most people, I guess, as taste memories and favorites and I-don’t-like-thats (see Toddler, Feeding a). It consolidated into a childhood of memories intertwined with meals (that particular feeling of satisfaction when you realize the beauty of chocolate ice cream and you settle into a secret movie-watching session. Really good pizza: not the coal-fired farm-sourced stuff you consider really good now, but what just tasted really, really good. As many pieces as you want. Even mom’s oatmeal, brown sugar and raisins, comforting and solid before school on winter mornings). It develops into something more nuanced. A friend that says, “Are you really going to eat that?” Suddenly there are other factors. Junior-high insecurities. Years of this, interspersed with bursts of defiant feminism, resulting in a kind agreement with your body image but a certain sluggish hedonism. Then, bliss: a period of contemplation, of learning the kitchen again, of listening to which foods you really needed. Not true balance, but pretty damn close. 

Toddler, Feeding a
Bananas. The food, and a good description of what lunchtime is like. “Nana, mama. NANA!”  She’d eat only bananas if I let her. There are grunts, and screeching, and a wide almost-toothless grin, because she can barely contain her joy even though her mouth is full. She’s still learning about the limits of how much she can fit into her mouth before swallowing. She hates some things once, and the next day we try again, and it’s her favorite. She likes things to be tangy: sauerkraut, pickles. She eats hummus by the fistful. She cannot abide the sliminess of blueberries or grapes. Right before my eyes, she’s forming her own food memories (see Food, My Relationship with). She desperately wants to use a spoon. She hasn’t yet experienced people telling her what to eat, or how it should feel, or how that relates to what she looks like. She experiences food full-throttle, all in, no holds barred. I think it’s my job to keep it that way as long as possible.