The fever dreams of nutrition-minded food writer Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl struggling to digest her family’s food history.
A few weeks ago, I spent a long weekend at a family reunion. Having focused intently for the last several years on improving my own family’s nutritional standards, I was somewhat aghast to witness the way big-box stores had dictated the menu at this extended-family event.
On the plane ride home, I napped fitfully and recorded my thoughts, which evolved into a surreal drama played out over several generations of a single ancestral line. . . .
The players: Members of the Jones family (two aging parents, and their adult son and daughter, who have brought their own children for a visit) — and one gigantic pink ham.
The curtain goes up on a large kitchen in a well-appointed suburban home. Cucumber Jones, the eldest daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Jones, peers into the Frigidaire.
Cucumber: Wow, Mom, that’s some ham!
Mrs. Jones: Isn’t it? I saw that ham; had to have it. Caroline, next door, she has a membership to one of those MegaMart shopping-club stores, and I go with her when I can. The cashiers, they know what we’re doing — they see two ladies and me giving her cash — but they don’t care. And you can’t beat the deal. Practically free, compared to what you used to pay for a chunk of meat that size.
Cucumber: Yeah, but what are you going to do with all that ham?
Mrs. Jones: What is that remark supposed to mean?
Cucumber: Well, there are only four adults here, one’s a vegetarian, and two are on doctor’s orders to avoid processed meats. . . .
Mrs. Jones: Clearly, you never lived through the Depression, young lady. You’d do well to remember that our people did not survive 10,000 years of famine by ignoring a beautiful bargain.
Cucumber: OK. So what are your plans for that 2-pound block of blue cheese?
Mrs. Jones: Oh, that’s just the crazy size they sell them in at that MegaMart. Can you believe it? Sure, it’s probably a bit more than we really need. But when you do the math, it’s maybe a tenth the price of those little packages of blue cheese down at the Stop and Shop.
Cucumber: Still, what are you going to do with 2 pounds of blue cheese?
Mrs. Jones: Nothing! Nothing, all right? Honestly, you spend the best years of your life raising your kids, you skimp and you save to put food on the table, and then they just pick, pick, pick at you. Out of my kitchen!
Cucumber: (sticking head in door of kitchen a few minutes later): Mom, we’re taking the kids to the zoo. Do you want to come?
Mrs. Jones (standing in front of the open fridge, wringing her hands, preoccupied): No, no, no! Something’s got to be done about this ham.
Europe, 10,000 years ago, a small cave near the sea. Small vessels made of clay are stacked neatly near the cave opening; a cave woman closely resembling Mrs. Jones stands at the cave door, wiping her hands on her elk-skin apron. A younger cave woman, closely resembling Cucumber Jones, stands by her side.
Older cave woman: Europe is nice enough. But it needs more food.
Younger cave woman: I’ll say. What with all my stomach rumbling, the light-headedness and burying of starved loved ones, I hardly have time for the finer things in life.
Older cave woman: Well, I’ve never seen what all that cave painting gets you, anyhow.
Younger cave woman: Gets me? Mom, it gets me ideas! Why, I’ve gotten to thinking, what if I started tracking that pregnant wild boar we’ve seen near the clear stream, and then what if I raised up the wild boar as tame?
Older cave woman: Funny you call it a wild boar; what else would it be? But anyhow, dear daughter, that’s just crazy talk. If you did that, we’d have enough food. No one we know has ever had enough food, and no one we know ever will. Let’s not waste talk on dreaming.
A sod hut, in the Dark Ages, home of a family very much like the Joneses.
Young woman (running into hut, breathless, excited): Ham! We’ve got a ham! Christopher stole it from the king’s larder!
Older woman: He did not!
Young woman: He did! He disguised himself as a traveling musician, hitched a ride on the wagon carrying plague corpses out of town, spent the night treading water in the castle moat and came back with a whole ham!
Older woman: Land sakes! Well, I guess we will live through the winter after all. If there’s one thing I never tire of, it’s living through the winter. A whole ham . . . imagine!
The Joneses’ modern suburban living room. The two adult children, Christopher and Cucumber, are arranging their carry-on bags, preparing to leave. Mrs. Jones sits at a small desk and talks on the phone, irritated.
Mrs. Jones: No, I can’t come in this week, and that’s final. (She looks up at her children.) They torture you with these endless medical appointments because they just want to pick, pick, pick at you — sure, I gained a little weight. But who doesn’t, when family visits?
Christopher: Yeah. Say, Cucumber, do you want some ham for the plane?
Cucumber: Ugh. Ham soup, ham salad, ham egg bake — I’m so sick of ham.
Mrs. Jones (rising, tearfully): I heard that! What I ever did to deserve such elitist, snobby, ungrateful children is beyond me. Not everyone can afford to eat $30 plates of organic vegetables in snooty restaurants, you know! Some people know the value of a dollar! Some people know not to mock their own mothers! (Locks herself in the kitchen.)
Cucumber (pounding on door): Mom! Nobody is mocking you! You’re a good person. But your embodiment of classic virtues of thrift, good homemaking and hospitality is going to kill both you and Dad!
Mrs. Jones says something, snuffling, inaudible.
Cucumber: Listen, Mom, there’s nothing wrong with the ham! We love ham. Really — it’s fine. But, Mom? We have to go now or we’ll miss our flight. I’ll call you later, OK? I’m so sorry if I hurt your feelings, Mom. I love you. . . .
Players leave. Spotlights illuminate an empty suburban house. No people are on stage. Neither is the ham, for the ham has disappeared. The 2-pound piece of blue cheese is also missing, though it is unknown if it was an accomplice of the ham or a hostage. In the distance, children are singing. It is a cheery, hopeful song — something about the future and the promise of home-cooked kale.