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Coffee with Mimi: The stories our food tells us

By Mimi Becker

Contributing writer

Food has stories to tell.  The choices we make in selection, preparation, consumption and keeping convey more than the simple list of the meal items in front of us.  That meal on the table has meaning.  Whether it is a quick bowl of cereal at breakfast or the recreation of a meal experience which recalls fond memories, there is a message in the choices.

My husband and I are somewhat retired and have a relaxed morning schedule. We don’t put much thought into breakfast most days.  Big breakfast menus are reserved for family gatherings or maybe a Sunday morning.  A bagel, apple or cereal will do just fine with no ceremony involved.  Other meals get a bit more thought.

I acquire cookbooks to read.  Certainly, they will have some interesting recipes or techniques I would like to learn.  But, mostly I’m looking for the story.  I have culled the mountain of cookbooks we were left from my mother-in-law and other sources down to the ones I really love and the ones which are tried and true.  The ones that you know every recipe works because it has been around forever. 

Recently, I added two selections.  One is by Maya Angelou.  That woman could write and her philosophy of food and cooking are just as relevant as her inspirational words. 

The second is “The Little House Cookbook.” Barbara M. Walker has studied the entire Laura Ingalls Wilder series and researched not only every bit of food mentioned, but has learned how to prepare the recipes accurately and true to the period.

I am fairly sure Maya Angelou could, by the time she began writing cookbooks—  yes, plural — buy, or have prepared anything she desired to eat or serve.  But, she hadn’t always and she never forgot the food lessons she learned throughout her life.  She celebrated the timelessness of simple foods, well prepared using basic and available ingredients.  She appreciated food.  Meatloaf was more than inexpensive nourishment.  It was a meal which provided a hot dinner one day and absolutely wonderful sandwiches the next.  Even for a celebrated and successful writer, food preparation was part of what gave her pleasure.  It was important for living.

For Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family, every meal was brought to the table through very hard labor by many people for hours every day.   And then the work started all over again the next day.  On the frontier, you hoped you would have produced, harvested and preserved enough to nourish your family and have something to share at gatherings during the bountiful spring, summer and fall and, perhaps more importantly, the long, hard winter.

In the good times, when the weather had cooperated and the harvest was plenty, winter meals were simple but satisfying.  Sometimes the weather and the harvest were not so cooperative.  Winter was long, very cold and almost deadly as described in “The Long Winter” when the family was near starvation.  Yet, it is noted that Laura, as an adult, didn’t dwell on the difficult, but instead recalled the times which she looked forward to when there would be plenty.  It is also noted that the family often moved in search of a better opportunity for the task of farming for a living.

The Little House TV series has been much maligned for its romantic portrayal of life on the frontier.   Maybe it bears another look through the eyes of the person who actually lived it.  In “By the Shores of Silver Lake,” Laura recounts a cold, “crisp” morning when the Ingalls served a simple breakfast to a traveling minister.  The meal consisted of sliced fat pork, parboiled, rolled in flour, fried and served with gravy made of the drippings and some milk.  A pot of hot brown sugar syrup was also offered and steaming tea.

“This meat is delicious,” Reverend Stuart said.  “I know it is just fat salt pork, but I never tasted any like it.  Would you tell me how you cook it, Sister Ingalls?”  Now, that is a man who knew not only his manners, but honestly appreciated what bounty was prepared for him.  Reading the story in Laura’s words leaves no pity for the life she led.  Her numerous accounts of the food they shared tell the story of lives well lived and appreciated.

I don’t want to return to the days when existence was contingent on the reliability of the salt pork supply, a cow in the back yard and a maple tree.  However, I would like to think that the stories our food choices tell are as comforting as Maya Angelou’s leftover meatloaf and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s salt pork drippings.