Last night I had the immense honor to photograph an event called The Cornbread Convocation at The Wrigley Taproom. Guests enjoyed an absolutely delightful farm to table menu prepared by Chef and owner of the restaurant, Kristin Smith, and six amazingly talented Appalachian authors (Ronni Lundy, Silas House, Lora Smith, Marianne Worthington, Jason Howard, and Michael Croley) shared their own writing about food and the beautiful community in which we live.
Ronni Lundy, whose cookbook Victuals won the James Beard Award for best book, is full not only with recipes, but with stories, with the voice of a region, and with the message that food brings people together. Their narratives about food and the people they share that food with pulled at me to think just how many dear memories I hold that revolve around food I’ve shared with others. So below is a brief recollection of one afternoon with my mother before she passed, as well as a few preview images from the Cornbread Convocation. I cannot wait to share with you a full post about this absolutely gorgeous evening– I’ll be sharing very soon!
I grew up a picky eater. Somehow I managed to survive the entire first decade of my life living solely on frozen pizzas, french fries, scrambled eggs, and margarine smeared on white bread. Oh, and Kool-Aid. Of course Kool-Aid.
Staples in my house were Shake-n-Bake chicken, pot roast cooked in a plastic bag, and on more casual evenings, an array of Banquet tv dinners. I snubbed my nose at all of these and instead nuked a frozen, saucer-sized disc that I guess was some kind of a pizza. But I savored it, peeling off the stray shreds of cheese that had melted to the plate, and eating them.
A few times my mother took me to the doctor, worried that I might be malnourished or on the verge of starvation because I never wanted to eat. I wasn’t malnourished or starving (shew!), and the doctor said as long as I would eat my peas and have a Carnation Good Start every once in awhile, I’d be just fine. Fortunately, I did like peas, too, so death wasn’t imminent for me.
But my mom, on the other hand, was sick. I always felt a mixture of satisfaction and guilt when she’d worry over me, checking me out of school for a day to go to a doctor’s appointment. We’d sit in the waiting room together and she’d wear a surgical mask to prevent getting germs. As she flipped through old magazines, I’d alternate biting my nails and sitting on my hands when Mom would tell me to “quit that” without looking up. I was thrilled to have alone time with her, but felt bad that we had to be somewhere potentially dangerous to her health because of me.
I tried to find ways to steal time with my mom. I was not the baby, nor the angsty teenager— but occasionally I’d get that swath of attention for refusing to eat even normal kid food. I did feel bad, though, and I didn’t want my mother to have to drag me to a pediatric waiting room every time I decided to be particularly selective about what I was eating, so I took up pretending to be ill.
I loved school, and I loved my packed lunches: margarine sandwiches, orange slices packed in syrup, a leaky plastic thermos of grape Kool-Aid. My friends and I would unzip our vinyl lunch bags, spread our food across thin, paper napkins, and enjoy the delicacies we each had to offer: globs of chocolate pudding, goldfish crackers, gummy fruit snacks shaped like cartoon characters.
But, I loved my mother more than all of that, and one morning I decided I had a stomach ache, and a head ache, and I was possibly feeling feverish as well. I didn’t feel warm, according to Mom, but if I felt bad, I could stay home. I curled up on the sofa underneath a blanket after changing into a pair of clean pajamas (one of Mom’s rules) and watched daytime television quietly while my mother read her Bible and journaled, swept the kitchen, went through bills, painted her nails, took her medicines, and all of the other things mothers do during the day.
I listened as she prepared lunch; I heard the thwack of a knife cutting through wet potatoes against a plastic cutting board, the hot grease bubbling in the small deep fryer we had gotten her for Christmas the year before, the clatter of Corelle plates against the Formica counters. I knew those sounds, but I feared getting up and going into the kitchen would make my mom question if I really was sick, so I stayed in my place on the couch, occasionally craning my neck to a catch a glimpse of her work in the kitchen.
Finally I heard the soft pouring of juice into our glasses, and she came over to the couch where I lay. I sat up as she scooted next to me with our plates in her hands, and she passed one to me. Each plate was lined with paper towel to soak up the grease from the pile of the most perfectly fried potatoes there ever was. My mother had made my favorite dish. The one she’d promise to me only if I would start eating more foods, only if I’d quit being so picky, only if I’d eat a little chicken— real chicken, she’d say. Each piece of potato was a perfectly sliced disc, shaped like a chip, but thicker and soft like french fries, the skin crispy and the surface a golden brown. She got up to get the ketchup from the fridge, and when she sat down I turned the bottle over and beat the bottom with my palm so we could enjoy the last blobs of sauce with our potatoes.
We’d dip each crispy slice into the ketchup, lick our fingers for the grains of salt left there, and return to our plates for more until all that remained was the greasy paper towel beneath it. I took a drink of my juice and sputtered as my mom bumped against me and kissed the top of my head. We hadn’t spoken much through the day, and I had some inclination that I was only barely getting away with staying home. I felt her take in the smell of my hair for a moment, felt her maybe remember what it was like for me to be very small when all we had was time with each other, and then she spoke softly against my head, “ I love you, and you’ve had your favorite lunch, but if you ever play sick again, I’m going to beat your butt.”
And with one more quick kiss, she walked our empty plates back into the kitchen.
And here, a few lovely images from The Cornbread Convocation.