If I haven’t told you before, I started White Fluffy Icing as a memoir — a kind of living history — with food as the medium. The stories I tell here are for The Boy: stories about today and the way he infiltrates and enhances my life, stories about yesterday and how I became who I am, stories handed down by previous generations that will die with me if not captured somehow.
When this blog has run its course, I will edit it (heavily), print it, bind it, and give it to him. Maybe The Boy will never read it, but maybe his children will. Maybe he’ll never have kids, but his cousin will. Maybe it’ll gather dust in an attic somewhere and it will never see the light of day, but I will have done my part. It begins with me.
Both of my parents are gone, but I’m still getting to know them. How? Through stories. I’m finding letters they wrote, notes they jotted down, cookbooks they annotated. I didn’t know, for example, that when Mom married Dad, she wanted to have twelve children (and presumably live in a shoe). I’m not sure what it means that she stopped with me, her second, but that’s for me and my therapist to work out.
What would happen if more of us captured our own histories? We would have a broader base to learn from, a firmer foundation from which to scan the horizon. We would simply know more, and we can never know enough.
This is why I get so excited about Foodways Texas. More than anything else, it’s about capturing stories — our stories, all of them. When I examine my personal history, I learn about myself — but when we examine each other’s histories, we start to understand each other in ways we never could dream of otherwise. It’s a powerful concept.
I just returned from the 2nd Annual Foodways Texas Symposium, titled ‘Texas Preserved’, and like last year, I was overwhelmed by it. So overwhelmed, in fact, that when it was over, I sat in my car and had a good cry before I headed home. I’m not talking about one or two crocodile tears, I’m talking about makeup-ravaging, leaned-over-the-steering-wheel, just-let-it-all-out sobbing. It wasn’t pretty.
Actually, the crying began before I even left home. All my life, I’ve had an overactive imagination, which has a warm and fuzzy ring to it, as though you’re describing a young Jim Henson. But trust me, it’s a blessing and curse. It can be terrifying.
As a new mother, my imagination ran wild with all the ways The Baby Boy could be injured or killed — vivid, horrific images that I could not clear from my mind. They weren’t far-fetched scenarios, they were things happen every day to babies the world over. It’s easier now, but I still struggle with it.
Since Dad died — so suddenly, and while feeling so well — I have new challenges. I can’t stop thinking about how any one of us could be gone tomorrow, myself included. I know it’s irrational, but the thing is, it’s also true. I’ve told you before, denial isn’t in my DNA, but it sure would be handy sometimes.
The morning of the day I left, I kissed The Boy goodbye at preschool, and for whatever reason, my brain went wild. What if The Boy dies while I’m gone? What if Matt dies while they’re home together? What if this is the last time I see either of them? What if, what if, what if…?
I’m told that this fixation on death is a natural part of grief, and that it will pass, but that sure wasn’t helping me last Thursday.
Adding fuel to the fire was an acute desire to call my mama. She would have been dismissive, probably, telling me that we all have enough real problems to deal with, no sense in manufacturing more – but it would have been just the thing to snap me out of it.
Then another thought hit me: The Boy is only three years old. His journey to adulthood, with all its inherent problems — real ones — stretched out before and around me in 360 degrees, like the Mojave desert. How many parenting problems will I face without my own parents to talk to? How many more times will I want to call my mother? What if I’m in over my head?
I cried so hard I gave myself a headache. Then I packed and drove to Austin.
I approached from the east on Cesar Chavez, whereupon I was greeted by a man riding his bike down the center yellow line of the street in a cockroach costume. His face was lifted skyward, basking in the sun, with little apparent regard for me (aka, opposing traffic). Welcome to Austin, I thought. I need a little of what he’s got.
The Foodways Texas family is a talented crew. There are going to be write-ups by others about the things we talked about, and the food we ate. I’ve seen amazing photos already, and there are more to come. Like last year, I’ll create a linkery for you, so that you can see it all — and like last year, I have no interest in trying to hold a candle to any of those folks.
What I do have interest in is sharing with you some of the personal experiences I had, in hopes of giving you a glimmer of what this organization and their work means to me.
I decided during the drive up that I wouldn’t take any notes or photos. I wanted to focus on connecting with people, and I’m not talented enough to listen — really listen — if I’m looking for sound bites or photographs at the same time. I decided that when asked a question, I would answer it in an authentic way. In short, I wanted to let my guard down and see what would happen.
A lot happened.
First, there’s Lisa Powell, Foodways Texas’ program director. I emailed her ahead of time to let her know that I’d be in town a little early, and asked her to please let me know if there was anything I could do to help.
Acts 20:35 taught us that it’s better to give than to receive, and that’s true, but it’s also easier to give than to receive. After all, being able to give means that you’re in a position of surplus — a fortunate circumstance. Receiving means that you’re in need of help, something that can be awfully difficult to admit.
Lisa graciously welcomed my assistance Thursday night and Friday morning. I like to think I really helped her out, at least in some small way — in exchange, I got to know her and her main squeeze Roland, the cutest couple you ever did see. I got to hear about Lisa’s background in history and math (left-brained girls, unite!), and the dissertation she’s working on about the competition between the corn economy and the energy economy in western Kentucky, her home state. Roland and I discussed, among many other things, the wonder of astronomy, the ways that the City of Austin manipulates its own real estate market, and the merits (or lack thereof) of okra.
By the end of the weekend, we’d gone from zero to sixty so fast, I didn’t even know how to tell her goodbye.
Helping Lisa Friday morning meant that I arrived early to our lunch venue, where chef Justin Yu, a Houston sensation, was preparing a bycatch lunch. He was running behind schedule. With his permission, I scrubbed in and started counting 150 plates for the service, laying them out like canvases on which he would create his beautiful work.
“All the plates are out, chef. Is there anything else I can do?”
Sure, he said, without looking at me. Count out the bowls for dessert.
150 bowls and a new table configuration later: “The bowls are finished, chef. How else can I assist?”
He looked me in the eye for the briefest moment, then handed me a container of kale. He took a piece and said, Here, can you lay these on the plate like this? He propped the small leaf artfully over the other preserved vegetables.
I took a deep breath, tried not to squeal, and said, “Certainly.”
About 20 minutes later, as we were finishing the plates, I asked: “Chef Justin, how do you work so quickly without obsessing over each one?”
Eventually, he said, you have to learn to let go.
Yes, I thought. I do.
Friday afternoon, I got to know Julia, a lovely young woman and a talented photographer. The battery in her camera had died, so I loaned her mine — it might as well be of use to someone.
I had just met Carla Loeb (of Slow Food Austin fame) moments before, and we were talking when Julia approached to return the camera. She joined our conversation. It took about thirty seconds to see Julia’s gentle, loving soul.
Carla and I asked about her background, and learned of Julia’s widely varied interests and obvious talents. She’s in her early twenties, trying to figure out a path for herself that will balance it all, use it all, somehow pay the bills. It wasn’t obvious to any of us what that path would be, but Carla and I were confident that Julia would figure it out.
Just put yourself out there, really out there, Carla said, and you’ll be amazed at how your life will find you.
During Saturday’s lunch, dumb luck plopped me down directly across from a gentleman by the name of Dr. Jeff Savell, a professor of meat science at Texas A&M University.
We spoke for a bit about the Foodways Texas Barbecue Camp, which he had hosted last summer to much fanfare and success, and then, looking at my name tag, he asked me about White Fluffy Icing. I explained that it was a memoir-based food blog, and that I was capturing my voice and my family’s history for my son. I told him about my reluctance to pursue a food-related career, for fear that I would commoditize my passion, and in the process, lose it.
We talked for a good long while, exchanging stories. I mentioned my gratitude that my mom, who’d died of cancer, had a chance to read and comment on the blog right before she died. And now my father was gone, too….
My voice cracked, and I dabbed my eyes with a napkin. I made an excuse to take a walk, I returned with my composure intact, and we resumed our stories.
Just before dinner that night, I ran into Barbara, whom I’d met in Houston a couple of weeks prior. There’s something that draws me to her, something about the way she looks at me that puts me at ease. It probably isn’t a coincidence that she’s about my mother’s age and has daughters about my age.
Barbara asked about my upbringing, and then I asked about hers. She told the story about how her daddy was from Louisiana and her mother was from the Midwest, where they met and married. He called his family to tell them he was moving home with his new wife, who was apparently a petite little thing. His bride was agog when she met his mother and sisters — all tall, sturdy, opinionated women.
They didn’t accept her at first, Barbara explained. But my mother decided to teach herself how to cook Cajun food, and they started getting along a lot better once she started making gumbo.
“Barbara,” I said, “what a great example of how food connects us. Your mother adopted part of her new family’s heritage, and it changed their relationship.”
You know, she said, I’ve never really thought about it that way. But you’re right.
Sunday, I ran into Dr. Savell again, along with his lovely wife Jackie. He’d read WFI the night before, which made me gulp — why hadn’t I posted something eloquent and witty before hitting the road?
He told me how he shared the Valentine’s cupcakes with Jackie, a scratch baker.
But then I saw the story about your dad’s funeral, he said, and I just wasn’t prepared for that.
A tear ran down his face.
And then he told me about how he had survived cancer four years ago, and about the colonoscopy that saved his life. We talked about what it’s like to face death and admit vulnerability, and how it changes you. How fragile life becomes — or rather, that you realize how fragile and precious life has been been all along.
We talked about the miracle of modern medicine.
We talked about what it means to have friends in times of need.
Both of our cheeks were wet. We hugged and departed as friends.
I could go on and on, but now you understand why I got in my car and cried like a baby. It was intense. It was inspiring. It was unreal. And you haven’t even seen the linkery yet.
If you care at all about preserving Texas culture, or about connecting with an amazing group of people, please attend a Foodways Texas event and consider becoming a member. We would love to have you join our family.
For more information about Foodways Texas and upcoming events, please visit the Foodways Texas website.