Plums. My mom opened the back door, and silently handed me and my new friend, Denise Puia, two round and perfectly purple, plums. It was summertime, and I was struggling with crippling shyness and a desperate need to grow beyond the unhealthy “friendship” I had been stuck in since Susan Macchi and I were toddlers. She was bossy, spoiled, not so nice, not such a good friend. Enter Denise and this very big, very brave step to expand my small world, by inviting her over to my backyard to play. The plums, well they were my mother’s quiet sign of support. They never tasted so good.
I don’t think I’m alone when I confess that so many memories in my life are connected to food. I cannot eat a tuna fish sandwich and potato chips without feeling the breeze of a summer afternoon, and the tailgate to our station wagon laid open, as we watched the propeller planes at the Pittsfield airport, take off. This was entertainment in Western Massachusetts back in the day! The saltiness of the chips, the briny taste of the tuna, the tall grasses on the edge of the road, lifting their faces, like us, skyward, as these mechanical birds climbed into the soft blue sky, and off to some faraway place; tuna with chips equals summertime, basking in possibility.
My mom used to post a menu of the coming week’s dinners on the refrigerator. It was just one example of her organizational skills, and the simple way she managed her grocery bills within a tight budget for a family of seven. With a simple glance toward the frig door, we knew what was for dinner, whether we liked it or not. There was no going off plan, primarily because there wasn’t the money for that kind of flexibility, but it didn’t feel rigid or limiting, on the contrary, it was comforting, it was connecting; a handwritten testament, held by a magnet, to her nourishing nurturing, every Sunday through Saturday.
My brother, Steve, recounted the weekly menu, between tears, at her funeral, and my niece, Lauren, inspired, now posts her own weekly menu on her Instagram account and blog (@lollioftheday) devoted to recipes, delicious dinners and fun in the kitchen. Mom’s practical planning became a platform for Lauren’s creativity, and for the meals she makes that are harvesting her own children’s memories.
Food works that way, circling forward and back, reheating our memories, restoring our health, providing a trail of crumbs into the past, a smoke signal toward the future, even if it’s just tomorrow’s dinner. Food has always been so much more than the plate placed before us.
This past holiday season, I made the ravioli my Irish mother made every year for our Christmas dinner, using the recipe she learned from my Italian grandmother who barely spoke a word of English. While I was ladling out our dinner in Newton, MA, my niece, Caitlin, unable to travel home for the first time in her life because of the pandemic, packed up her supplies, drove to her studio, with its long work table, and spent her Christmas afternoon in Charlotte, NC, making Christmas ravioli too. She was alone, yes, but she found solace in the nostalgia of those soft, delicate pillows of dough. She found comfort in the connection they created to her own family, sitting down miles away in Pittsfield, MA.
On this particular Sunday, as we look past the empty seats and imagine a stadium packed with people unafraid to brush up against each other, we remember boisterous gatherings, and tables laden with platters of chicken wings and foot-long subs. Maybe our future memories of today’s strange Super Bowl will be steeped in a steaming bowl of chili, just for two, and how long into February we were still eating that Lipton’s onion dip. Food is the bridge that allows us to traverse the distance between, and to find satisfaction in both.
I wonder what will produce the most savoring memories in my own children as life unfolds, and they gather around their own family tables. Will it be Sunday brunch, and their dad’s famous hash browns? Will it be lobsters, and picnics by the ocean with their cousins from far and wide? Will it be pie, and another generation of the famous Larkin Pie Salute? (To the uninitiated: fingers forming a pie slice triangle to the forehead.) As the pie maker in the family, there is no greater honor than the Larkin Pie Salute.
Or will their memories be like those plums? Will the taste of something sweet and tangy, dripping with juice, transport them to a moment when they too, felt vulnerable and scared; to a time when they tasted not just the satisfaction of what they were swallowing, but all the love that cupped the tender fruit, and handed it to them, quietly, freely, without a moment’s hesitation.
In loving memory of Peggy Messina, June 17, 1932-February 7, 2020.