Admittedly, I was smitten with the idea behind this summer’s issue of Alimentum long before I’d had the opportunity to read it. This biannual literary journal, which dedicates itself to the subject of food, has gathered together work for its twelfth issue with a focus on food memories. Whether they are good—that first icy Bombpop of summer—or perhaps, not so good—think glace fish mold—we all have them. The editors at Alimentum have chosen carefully its ensemble of voices for this issue. Collectively, they offer up a very soulful celebration of first foods.
In her nonfiction work “The Piece of Politeness, ” Joanna Clapps Herman invites readers to sit down at the kitchen table with her Italian family—a place you’d no doubt be happy to find yourself, so long as you understand the rules. Herman’s family is steeped within a tradition that holds certain food etiquette sacred. The tradition, according to Herman, is “based on a culture of scarcity of the very old world in southern Italy and Sicily, where it would have been shameful to show any hint of actual scarcity in your household.” These customs play out like a well-rehearsed dance between host and guest: “Never take any food that you are offered. Not at first, even if you are at your aunt’s house. You must refuse any and all food when it is first offered. […] Only after the food has been offered repeatedly, then put on a plate in front of you, and the host has insisted, […] are you even to consider eating a modest portion.”
Herman recounts the first awkward meetings between her family members—most notably, her mother—and her non-Italian husband during their courtship: “My mother, the ruler of rules, had already met him and disapproved. I was an unmarried daughter, but I was her unmarried daughter.” As her two worlds rammed together, Herman cleverly illustrates the careful balance she precariously held between the two. Acceptance into the fold does not come easy and coming together over food is sometimes as much of a test as it is a rite of passage.
While Joanna Clapps Herman recounts her story—demonstrating the power food has to bring people together, Vivian Liao writes of how food can act as the thread that holds an individual together. “First Impressions” is the tender story of Yang, husband, father and cook forced to work aboard a merchant ship out of China for an extended period of time in order to provide for his young family. Liao gives depth to sensitive Yang, whose plight is loneliness and food his refuge:
When every bowl in the dining room had been cleared, he retreated back to the small quarters he had been assigned, where he could not escape thoughts of the black sea outside or the taste of bile in his mouth which he tried hard to keep down. Despite his queasiness, he found himself quite hungry, anxious to taste the small goubuli buns Fan-Len had packed for him. As his teeth closed around the soft floury flesh, the traces of pork and cabbage settling on his tongue, he thought of his small wife, alone in their kitchen. He swallowed, and a hard lump lingered in his throat. The hand holding the goubuli dropped to his lap; the other hand wiped away tears.
Liao’s story reminds us of the power familiar foods have to satisfy our hunger—be it physical or emotional.
I would remiss if I did not to mention Traci Yavas’s smart, plucky poem, “Those Biscuits”:
Stop feeding her those biscuits, he says.
You’ll make her fat.
I grew up on those biscuits.
Dunked in soup beans,
Drizzled with honey,
Drowned in maple syrup,
Dappled with butter.
Those biscuits have built my bones and
Rounded my curves.
Those biscuits lie within me like secrets
I’ll carry to my grave.
Thank you Ms. Yavas, for putting so assertively and eloquently what so many of us have wanted to say at some point in our lives—but didn’t.
Also included in this issue is a well-written interview with Amanda Hesser. Hesser, an award winning cookbook author and long-time food writer for the New York Times, recently co-founded food52.com with Merrill Stubbs. Hesser explains the inspiration she had for this new website that serves the home cook: “Americans had gone from just consuming media to knowing so much about food that they wanted to express themselves. So many had sought their own platform through blogs. And that was really interesting to us. There was a lot of good recipe writing and beautiful food photography happening online but no place to centralize it and celebrate great cooks. There is a great tradition in the United States with community cookbooks. We thought what if you brought that concept online?”
This delightful journal dedicated to the literature of food possesses undeniable appeal. Alimentum explores the power of food within our lives, not simply to satiate us, but to help us understand who we are and where we came from.