Here's a brief vignette I wrote this morning, in twenty minutes allotted to write some short food memoir piece. This exercise was part of this wonderful food writing workshop I'm taking part in this week at the New York Public Library (about which I hope to write in more detail soon!).
For now, the story:
It was common practice I suppose, finding ways of getting kids to share and to reflect. We perched on our mats before nap time, in a circle, sitting, as we then called it, Indian style. (The other kids all had special sleeping mats intended just for nap time, in bright shades of red and blue. But mine was a dull gray, with small drawings of women in leotards and legwarmers bending their bodies into various poses. Why waste a perfectly good exercise mat?)
Mrs. Gardner, our kindergarten teacher, in a long Southern drawl, put the question before us, “What did y'all all have for supper last night?” The kids in my class went around, offering a peek into their kitchens—fried okra, pork chops with mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, chicken tenders, kool-aid, ham sandwiches.
And then it was my turn.
“Rice and milk,” I said.
The teacher, with a pause, looked at me a little longer, not yet turning to the next kid in line.
“Oh,” she said sweetly, “were you still sick?”
All of the alarm bells were flashing, warning signals shining bright letting me know, even with my dim, five-year-old awareness of social positioning, that I had exposed myself. Revealed myself to be something other. Reminding my friends that I was the outsider, whose parents were immigrants, who did not go to the Baptist church on Sundays or Wednesdays, who didn't watch sports or own any camouflage clothing. I was the girl who ate warm rice in a bowl with milk poured over it.
And it's true, I had been sick the week before, had stayed home from school with a stomachache and fever. But that had nothing to do with my dinner the night before. Still, my teacher was offering me a way out.
“Yes,” I nodded, “the doctor told me I had to eat it.”
And with that, I was off the hook, the teacher had made sense of this culinary anomaly, had smoothed over the rocky shores of cultural difference with the cool balm of medical expertise.
Rice and milk. What made sense and what did not.