And having food and raiment let us be therewith content.
|Scene from the film "Babette's Feast"|
Funny how our senses are tuned differently. While my husband is so sensitive to musical detail even his dreams can have soundtracks, my brain assigns high priority to flavor.
So many of my memories revolve around food, transporting me to times and places far away.
Sitting here in my kitchen on a cloudy afternoon, I can recall the tang of Russian black bread, of calamansi juice squeezed over sweet ripe papaya, of the Vitamin C lozenges Mom used let us suck on when we had sore throats. I can compare the tastes of three different bread recipes Mom used during my childhood. I can travel back in time to taste her favorite chocolate cake with coconut sprinkled over the icing, her homemade turkey stuffing, the broccoli casserole she used to make with blue cheese in the sauce and Ritz cracker crumbs on the top.
Mom taught herself to cook after she was married, and then she taught me. From the time we were able to crawl, we were allowed in the kitchen (there was always a drawer or cabinet the babies were allowed to play in) and she got us involved in food preparation quite early. We helped plant and weed the garden, snap the beans, husk the corn, pit cherries, and turn the handle on the food mill when Mom made gallons of applesauce or tomato sauce. Of course, she had us help with the clean-up afterward, too.
Food became part of my childhood identity.
Mom was zealous about serving her family nutritious food, so while my classmates brought sugary snacks and brightly-colored fruit leather to school, I brought a Tupperware bowl of Mom's strawberry-rhubarb sauce. She made sure even our desserts had "redeeming value" most of the time: all-natural ice cream, peanut butter cookies, peach cobbler, pumpkin pie. I eventually learned that some other children's mothers were "health nuts" and that put me at ease. There was still a place for treats: Mom enjoyed Pepsi on occasion, and pizza was a craving we were all happy to indulge. We ordered it from a place in town or made our own, with mushrooms from a can labeled "Pennsylvania Dutchman". Since my parents and I were born Pennsylvanians, I felt a kinship with the brand every time I opened a can.
But when I was seven or eight, our lives--and menu--changed dramatically.
My parents had attended Bill Gothard's Basic Seminar, but about this time they must have attended the Advanced Seminar. Mom quit wearing jeans, and got rid of all my pants. It was jumpers, dresses, and skirts for us females from then on. There were no more bathing suits, and my parents informed my grandmother that she could make the boys pajamas, but the girls needed nightgowns. Dad put a rock through the front of our television so there were no more evenings of "Little House of the Prairie".
And just like that, we developed our own Talmud.
Mom stopped wearing her prettiest cardigan vest--a lacy blue garment I loved but whose scalloped pattern was knit of cotton & ramie yarn. In those days before Google none of us were quite certain what "ramie" was, but it sounded suspicious. God had instructed Moses not to let the Israelites wear clothing of mixed fibers: the American colonists' "linsey-woolsey" was a direct violation of God's Law. Cotton and polyester, we decided, was not a problem since polyester wasn't actually a fiber but a petroleum product.
Leviticus prohibited hybrid animals (mules, for example) and planting two kinds of seed in the same field. So Mom stopped buying tangelos. Oranges, yes; tangerines, yes. But not tangelos. I remember trying to reconcile my confusion over the Burpee catalog, which was bursting with hybrids.
Genesis said God gave us "every seed-bearing plant" for food. Well, what of mushrooms then? They may be sold in the produce aisle, but seed-bearing plants they are not. No more little Pennsylvania Dutchman cans. No more of Mom's favorite omelettes at the best breakfast place in town. No more steaming cream of mushroom soup with a winter lunch. No more of Mom's rich and creamy beef stroganoff. How I missed them all.
The stroganoff was out on two counts--because it also mixed meat with milk, which was banned under one strict interpretation of an obscure rule repeated three times in the Torah. Mom adapted her meatloaf recipe accordingly, omitting the mushrooms and substituting water for the milk. For a while, her caution against fungi extended to blue cheese, resulting in the demise of her flavorful and creamy broccoli casserole. (I rebelliously continued to choose blue cheese dressing at salad bars and to argue that the yeast that made our bread rise was essentially another fungus.)
And then there were the unclean meats. Seafood wasn't a big deal for us--living so far from the coasts, we weren't used to crab cakes, shrimp, or lobster. But our German ancestors loved sausage. It was a sacrifice to lose bacon with pancakes, ham sandwiches, Mom's baked orange pork chops, and pepperoni pizza*--not to mention hot dogs!
Thus began a new era in our family history. Eating out became an exercise in selection by elimination. If six of out of eight entree choices contained pork, shrimp, or mushrooms, and one had something else you hated, you knew what you were ordering. When we were invited to other people's homes, which became a rarer event the larger the family became, Dad was sure to mention to them that we followed certain dietary restrictions. Church folks volunteering to bring us meals after Mom had another baby got the same information (resulting in three variations of chicken and potato salad in one week).
There were exceptions, of course. When our new neighbors invited us across the street for hot dogs the day we moved in, Mom was glad enough not to cook and we were permitted to receive with thanksgiving what was set before us, without inquiries as to the ingredients. When we were visiting family out-of-state and a sweet elderly relation baked a ham, there was a whispered discussion behind the scenes. Dad told us that it would be okay for us to eat it. Seeing that she had prepared it out of generosity and ignorance, it would be gracious of us not to turn it down. I stepped up to that table in her blue dining room with mouth watering, endeavoring to mask my anticipation. It was the last ham I would taste for over a decade.
Our hot dogs were all-beef. (Soy weiners were nasty.) We cheered when turkey pepperoni hit the market, and when we could serve turkey bacon planks as a salty side to a breakfast of waffles. By then our parents had relaxed on combining meat and dairy, so we could enjoy cheeseburgers again, and browned hamburger on our pizza. We found the stores that sold beef sausage links and became adept at rapidly scanning labels for offensive ingredients. Jiffy cornbread mix and some refried beans contained lard, which was "unclean". Mom once came home with frozen Salisbury steaks. When I found them in the freezer, I dutifully read her the ingredients. When she realized they contained pork, she threw the boxes in the garbage in exasperation.
When Dad accompanied me to San Francisco where I sat for a law exam in 1996 (required for students of Gothard's unaccredited correspondence law school), we were served breakfast sandwiches aboard the jet. I remember being annoyed that the diced ham was cooked into the egg, so it was nearly impossible to separate the two. I would have happily eaten the sandwich all together, but dared not appear to do so with my dad watching from the seat next to me. I remember looking sideways at him to see how he would handle the awkward situation, but I think he felt the same way. Sightseeing later on Pier 39 in the Fisherman's Wharf district, we carefully avoided the clam chowder that smelled so delicious in sourdough bread bowls. Shellfish, having neither fins nor scales, are an abomination, no matter how beguilingly disguised.
Ironically, the only times I was served pork during that long period was when I was volunteering for IBLP and they ordered pizza for the staff! (IBLP training center kitchens did not ordinarily serve pork products.)
I knew from my own reading of the New Testament that I had never shared my parents' interpretation of the Old Testament code. When I left home for the first time at age 22, I lost no time shedding the "standard" I had resented for so many years. My first day as an IBLP staff member was spent traveling from Chicago to Oklahoma City. When we stopped for lunch at a Subway, I ordered the Italian sub, chock full of forbidden salami, pepperoni, and ham. Two years later, I savored every morsel of the first real breakfast bacon I'd tasted since childhood. Each first made an impression: crab Rangoon, New Orleans shrimp, Maryland crab cakes, scallops in a pasta dish, calamari, lechon, pulled pork, BBQ ribs.
When I tell my kids about the way I grew up, they are aghast. They know religious kids in their classes who are vegetarian, or don't eat pork, or don't get candy at Halloween. But it always jars them to imagine their mother swimming in a dress, or kept from eating bacon, because of what an ancient scroll said that God told an old man on a mountain in a middle eastern desert.
*The famed Duggar family--equally zealous followers of Gothard--also stay away from pork. One episode of their "Nineteen Kids & Counting" showed them visiting a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. and enjoying pepperoni pizza. Curious viewers looked up the pizzeria's website and discovered that Jumbo Pizza uses all-beef pepperoni.