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A History of Hunger

“A History of Hunger” recieved the Gertrude Posner Spencer Prize for Non-Fiction from Smith College in 2011.

I am elbow-deep in a cooling pot of water full of boiled tomatoes, grasping them with my small fingers and sliding them from their skin.  My grandmother and I are preparing tomato sauce from the plum tomatoes that have been growing all summer in the back garden and the kitchen is steamed over.  If you take the hot tomatoes from the pot and then hold them under cold water, their loosened skins slide off easily.  I help peel them, piling the tomatoes into another pot to be cooked down into sauce.  We will have fresh tomato sauce all winter from these summer plants.

Bits of the red skin cling to my hands, flecks of bright tomato against my wrinkled hands.  Sometimes it looks like my hands are bleeding, but I rinse them under the cold water and feel the shock of temperature change that makes my skin turn pink.

I don’t like tomato sauce much, but I am enamored with the process, the transformation.  The tomatoes are so different without skin, still self-contained, but looking like a scraped knee.  I remember the time I tripped on the little steps in the rock garden and gashed my knee open.  Just like a tomato, the layers peeled away.

* * *

Look backwards, beneath.  My great-grandmother stood in this same kitchen, with the same stove decades ago.  The old refrigerator is in the basement now, but the cabinets and floor tiles are unchanged from when my great-grandparents lived in this house, young German immigrants, upstarts in a New World.  This was the early 1900s and they arrived here, doing odd jobs.  This house, the small bit of land next to it that sticks out incongruously against all of the single houses with barely any yards, was my great-grandfather’s plant nursery.  R. Neumann’s nursery, back when our last name still had two “n’s” at the end.  Did my great-grandmother cook tomatoes the same way?  Did she have anyone to help her?

This is perhaps my greatest joy – that I am the one who can help.  I have one cousin, but he is younger and a boy, and he does not come to my grandmother’s house all the time.  Only I do and only I get to help this way.  My great-grandmother had no daughters, only my grandfather, just one son, and who was there to help her in the kitchen if he was out in the garden?  Once she had a foster child, a little girl, but they could not keep her and it broke my great-grandmother’s heart.

I will never break my grandmother’s heart.  This is the one promise I make myself.

* * *

Sometimes I think I break my grandmother’s heart every time I refuse lamb stew or roast pork or gravy, when I profess to hating butter on my vegetables or disliking whipped cream.  I can tell she does not know how to feed me anymore and this is a struggle.  And yet, I live with her for a summer and we talk over shared meals, or at least shared meal space.  I cook vegetarian dishes in the basement, meet her upstairs, and we recount our days.  I may not eat her food anymore, but I can feel her pride in the dishes I produce, the creativity of the meals even though the ingredients are always similar.  I may refuse what I was raised on, but I have taken something away of which she can be proud.  A picky eater with a sharp palate and a good eye, who will always know at least how to feed herself.

* * *

I am terrible at feeding myself.  Unsupervised, I will skip meals and sip bitter tea.  I watch the layers of self peel away, raw, as my bones press through my skin, banging into things.  And yet, as I get smaller, I feel more powerful.  I have been busy hiding myself for years and it’s easier to hide fifteen pounds less of person.  Easier to skirt by, one would think.

I am never hungry.

I am always hungry, and food will do nothing.

For the last several years there has been no preparing of the tomatoes for sauce.  We stir it up from cans in slow cookers rather than spending hours in the white and yellow kitchen.  There is no super-abundance that we will freeze for the winter.  There is not even a house in which to keep the freezer or the old stove with all of its measurements rubbed off, leaving us guessing at the heat.

There is no place for me to plant my feet and dip my hands into the deep, cooling water flecked with tomato flesh.  There was only one kitchen for this.  There was only one girl who knew how to do that work and when those top layers fell away no one could see her anymore.

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