This is a "critical response" I wrote on a food memory for my Food and Culture class--cross your fingers for a Ralphie grade.
My Dad is a terrific cook. He isn’t the most technically advanced, he has been taught only by experience. But he cooks with personality. Intense by nature, he has a gravity that makes him difficult to ignore, and it translates into his food. When I eat anything he makes, I can visualize him in our kitchen at home, without a recipe or a plan, guided only by instinct and an innate sense for what flavors go with others. He knows when the roux is the right consistency, when to pull the bread out of the oven. When he is master of the kitchen, it can be chaotic, but it is never disappointing. Sometimes, when he is particularly proud of what he’s made that night, he’ll yell, “I’m a genius!” at my family and me as we sit waiting expectantly around the dinner table.
We can never disagree.
All of his food is good, even on the nights when it’s whatever is left in the fridge and wrapped in a tortilla but his specialty is any kind of wild game. For me though, the meat that means the most is elk. I didn’t realize it until the first time that I went home after a semester away at college, when I sat down with my family and took a bite—now I’m home, I thought to myself. I don’t know if I can tell you why elk holds such powerful sway over my memory, although I have a sneaking suspicion that it stems in part from the fact that I’ve always been in the presence of my Dad when I’ve had it—it has always come from him. Elk is not a meat you can buy; you must go out and hunt this elusive beast. You must set aside a weekend in the fall to go and find all the secret, quiet places nature has made to hide her creatures, and then you have to muster all your courage and take aim. And once that messy business of dying is over, you must pack the animal out and spend an afternoon in your cold garage, quartering and labeling, until finally you can put it on the table in front of your family.
When I eat elk I am enveloped in my Dad’s rough, warm love, enveloped in the intensity of his care for my siblings and I. Elk is one hundred little rituals from home that I pay no mind until I am suddenly back in the midst of them, immersed with one taste of that lean, wild meat. It conjures memories of my whole life, of all the things I am made of—leaves changing color in September in Portland, the smell of the air in winter, rainy nights around our family dinner table, the sound of my sibling’s voices. It is sitting between my Dad and sister, at my spot at our table; it is my Mom asking what the best part of my day was. It is my whole family together, something that is becoming rarer and rarer. It takes me back further still to the first cabin we ever owned, deep in the Blue Mountains, to the youngest I ever remember being. To forgotten roads and quiet towns, somewhere in central Oregon, to dollar bets on spotting the first deer, to being told why an elk rubs his antlers on a tree.
This food is memory, but mostly this food is feeling. I cannot help but feel safe when it is put before me—I cannot help but feel secure and provided for, well-loved. My Dad is there and he will take care of me, this I know. Because in that meat is everything I ever learned from him, from being helped on my homework to knowing what a game trail looks like. In it is every time I was fevered and sick and I had his calloused hand on my forehead, in it is every time that I made a mistake and was forgiven. In it is a sense of belonging and of unconditional love. Few things are as strong as a parent’s devotion to their children, and my siblings and I are lucky—we had proof on the table every year of my Dad’s dedication to us.
Since I’ve been away at school, I’ve become significantly more aware of how much I miss elk and the food that I grew up with, in part because I miss my Dad and the rest of my family. I feel unanchored, somehow, without it—cut off from a part of me that is rooted in a food so specific to my home. So when I make regular pilgrimages back, back to the dinner table and my Father’s crazy, chaotic kitchen, I get lost again in the memories of a place where I know I belong.