A Life of Meals
Reflections on Food and Its Connection to Memories
Our lives are filled with milestones, moments and memories that shape and define who we become. These memories are charged by emotional, psychological or social markers that leave a lasting impression. For some, what sticks in the mind may not always be the lessons taken from these moments, but rather how good the food was when they happened.
I fall into this category. The parts of my younger years I can most vividly recall involved the pleasure of eating, and for good reason—it was almost literally inborn.
My parents met as employees of Dick’s Pizza in my native West Bend. My dad, who had already taken up his birthright as a third-generation carpenter, liked to earn extra money to buy fast cars. He was a cook, and my mom was a waitress, still in high school. I like to imagine their courtship took place after hours in some of the same booths I would years later fall asleep in as a child, my head nestled in Dad’s lap as he finished an after-dinner Whiskey Stinger or Manhattan.
Though a Walgreens now stands where Dick’s used to be, I can still remember the taste and texture of the cracker-thin pizza, especially the times when Dad ordered it the way he used to make it for himself when he worked there: cheese, sausage and fresh mushrooms with just a few very thinly-sliced anchovies.
As I get older, there are an increasing number of memories that come into focus and illuminate a life with food at its center.
I remember summertime pilgrimages to the small, family-owned Mapleton Creamery where the now-legendary Bon Bree Brick cheese was made. We’d buy huge blocks of the stuff to take home, and an obligatory bag of squeaky curds for the road. The plant closed in the mid-80s, so I couldn’t have been more than seven or eight, yet I can still picture the milk tanks, cheese vats and uneven concrete floor.
I was giddy in 2013 when Bon Bree was brought back from extinction by Williams Homestead Creamery with the assistance of original cheesemaker Terry Shaw and Milwaukee’s Clock Shadow Creamery. In one of those full-circle moments, I took my parents to Clock Shadow one sunny summer afternoon and bought some.
I remember when my parents decided to throw a pig roast for my 10th birthday and invited dozens of people. My uncle Glenn came from Michigan with a cooker trailer. Dad and I went to pick up the pig, and I was both appalled and excited to help flop the big fella onto the tailgate of his pickup and take it home. The men took turns tending to the pig during the night, drinking beer and telling stories well into the next afternoon when family and friends arrived. By the time things were in full swing, I knew my birthday was really just an excuse to have a party, but I didn’t care. The pig was predictably delicious.
I remember the trip our family took out West the summer before my junior year of high school. The four of us piled into our conversion van and hit the road for three weeks, never staying in the same place for more than one night. We made stops in the Badlands, Wall Drug, Yellowstone, the Rockies, Jackson Hole and Deadwood, the Tetons, Lake Powell, Taos, the Grand Canyon, and more.
Despite access to a plethora of local culinary delights on this trip, the angst-y teenage version of me insisted on ordering the same thing every night: a small pizza with ham and jalapeños. I gave up on pizza after my first taste of Native American fry bread tacos at a small restaurant near a reservation in New Mexico.
Before my wife and I got married on Independence Day weekend in 2003, I had been fairly involved in most aspects of planning the wedding, but the two things I took the greatest delight in deciding on, to no one’s surprise, were the food and liquor. During the tasting at the hotel, I famously grabbed and ate one of what looked like thick, artfully arranged slices of indeterminate white cheese. It was butter. My wife still laughs at me for it.
When we arrived in Puerto Rico for our honeymoon, we were excited to take in the sights, sounds and flavors of the island. This desire unfortunately manifested itself in my eating from a buffet in an otherwise empty restaurant at about 10 p.m. and waking hours later with violent food poisoning.
When I finally felt well enough to be upright and mobile a day and a half later, we made our way to the nearby El Yunque rainforest, and on the way down the mountain I regained my appetite. Undaunted by the last vestiges of nausea and cold sweats, I insisted we stop at a sketchy roadside taco stand, where I proceeded to order a chimichanga, two tacos and a beer. Most of it had been sitting in the hot sun for who knows how long, and soon after eating it, I was right back on my knees for another day.
I remember going charter fishing with my father-in-law and brothers-in-law on the Gulf of Mexico under the blistering August sun. There wasn’t even the suggestion of a breeze. We reeled in a couple dozen grouper and red snapper, drinking beer after beer and taking turns sitting in the tiny cabin of the boat to escape the sun. That night’s poolside fish fry was epic in scale and rich in flavor.
My dad broke his leg in a motorcycle mishap years back and was laid up fighting multiple staph infections all summer as a result. My wife and I went over to visit and cook out, but because he wasn’t able to man the grill, I was enlisted. The steaks turned out okay, but I overcooked the lobster tails. No one seemed to want to tell me they tasted like buttered rubber, but at least we could laugh about it.
Traveling to Phoenix for a work trip—in August, no less—I decided one evening to drag my wife and a colleague halfway across the city to a tiny strip mall just to try a Bolognese I saw made during a Food Network program. It was worth the trip. Two mornings later, we waited an hour in the blazing morning sun to eat breakfast at a place I had seen on a different food show. It was underwhelming, but at least I could say I tried it.
I remember the scrambled eggs with bacon and peas I made for breakfast one Sunday morning four summers ago and polished off just before the phone rang. It was my mom, who frantically relayed the news that my brother had been badly burned in a bonfire explosion the night before and was in the burn unit at Columbia St. Mary’s, where he would remain for the next five weeks. I definitely remember how good, and comforting, the taco dip was at his welcome home party.
I made my first-ever pecan pie last summer as a trial run for a planned Father’s Day gift—pecan pie is Dad’s favorite, and mine too. I was aggravated by the fact that stores never seemed to sell them and few restaurants served it, so I resolved to make a couple. I gave him one along with a subscription to Whisky Advocate magazine. Though I highly doubt it actually was, Mom reported that it was the best pecan pie they’d ever had.
With summer approaching and my back patio home to a tangled mountain of kids’ toys and an underused gas grill, I remember watching Dad at the grill as I was growing up.
It was a something of a ritual for him: change out of work clothes. Wash hands. Mix an old-fashioned or open a beer. Maybe cut up some cheese and sausage to snack on. Start the grill. Take the meat and cocktail outside. Cook. Putter. Coordinate estimated readiness with mom, who handled the starch and vegetables inside.
I found it sort of surprising that he’d work all day, sweating and straining and busting his ass, then come home and muster the energy to grill something—burgers, chicken, steaks, brats, fish, you name it. It wasn’t until years later that I understood he wasn’t cooking out of obligation, he was doing it because he enjoyed it. Always a drink in hand, tongs and spatula nearby. I think it gave him a chance to slow down, reflect on the day, and focus on something that didn’t involve roof trusses or nail guns.
It didn’t matter if it was a beautiful summer night, a spring rainstorm, or a blizzard in the dead of winter—he’d be at the grill at least two or three nights a week. His dad was the same way. When we’d have family get-togethers at my grandparents’ house, there Grandpa would be, starting the coals on the trusty black Weber and then putting burgers on, liberally seasoning both sides with Lawry’s Seasoned Salt, a beer or old fashioned nearby. Like father, like son.
Now that my wife and I have children of our own, I marvel knowingly at their enthusiasm for certain foods, and how their moods can shift with the news that mac and cheese or another favorite is on its way to their plates.
In much the same way I observed my father embody some of the same habits as his father, I see my son taking after me in ways I didn’t, but perhaps should have, expected.
One evening as I was flitting about the kitchen making the next day’s lunches, he quietly watched me and what I was putting in to his blue- and green-striped bag.
“Daddy, what are you making me for lunch tomorrow?”
The pride I felt at his conscious food curiosity was eclipsed soon after by one of the sweetest and most apropos father-son bonding moments of his young life.
As I was rocking him in the dark before bed one night, he shifted his weight in my lap, turned to face me as his arms circled my neck, and said something I’ll cherish forever, something that has become our frequent refrain, reminding me of the role food plays in who we are:
“I love you and pizza.”