Sunday, January 21, 2007

Comfort Food

Momofuku Ando has died. He was 96. A Japanese entrepreneur, he was the founder of Nissin Food Products. He invented the instant noodle. What we call ramen noodles. What my college buddy Mona called, for no discernible reason, flexy noodles.

Ramen noodles were one of the staples of my law school diet, available at the Piggly Wiggly on Vineville Avenue for six packages for a dollar. I think I tried the shrimp flavor once, but most of the time I rotated among chicken, beef and pork.

I wasn’t much of a cook then, but standing over my tiny little apartment stove and watching the brittle square of noodles fall apart and soften in a pot of boiling water made me feel, somehow, a little more human. The steam would raise and swirl around my face and, after I opened the plastic-lined foil pouch and emptied the flavor packet into the pot, the scent of chicken soup would spread through my three tiny rooms like a cartoon genie freed from a magic lamp. It would creep into the curtains and the carpet and my winter coat draped over the back of one of the two chairs that bracketed my cinder-block-and-2x4 bookshelves. The next day when I came back from class and opened the door the lingering aroma made those three rooms a little less empty.

Katherine was in graduate school at the same time I was in law school and her go-to meal (to use one of perky Rachael Ray’s favorite phrases) was Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, only most of the time it wasn’t Kraft but whatever generic brand the grocery store in Athens had on sale for three boxes for a dollar. She managed to get two meals out of a box so she and I were pretty much on the same food budget.

At the time, of course, the idea of eating ramen noodles (or macaroni with powdered "cheese") three or four times a week wasn’t as romantic as it appears in retrospect. More than once I had to remind myself that the economic deprivation of being a law student would not last forever, that one day I would be able to choose my meals based on something other than price. Over 25 years later, I can’t remember the last time I bought a pack of ramen noodles. I haven’t asked her, but I don’t think Katherine has bought macaroni with fake cheese since her children were small.

The last time she and I ate together it was for a Christmas party at Sandhill. There was real china and crystal and flatware that I keep in a big wooden box. There were linen napkins and candles. And we ate real food, cooked from scratch. It was a lot of fun.

But, now that I think about it, not any more fun than the ramen noodles and mac and cheese days, the tiny apartment days, the our-whole-lives-before-us days. Days when there was nothing better than the free entertainment of standing on the Indian Mounds and watching the whole city spread out before us. Nights when there was nothing better than cruising down Highway 41 with the Guess Who wailing out "These Eyes" through the speakers on the 8-track tape player. Days and nights when there was nothing better than being young and eager and hungry.

The newspaper article that informed me of Mr. Ando’s death said that the Chinese eat nearly 30 billion packs of ramen noodles each year and that 65.3 million packs were eaten worldwide in 2004. Mr. Ando died a very rich man. I hope he also died a happy man. I hope he knew that his noodles were more than just food for the body, that they were – in that odd backward glance kind of way – food for the soul.

Copyright 2007

Monday, January 08, 2007

Jingle Bell Awe

The Saturday morning that I finally tackled the cleaning out of the attic, I found myself surrounded by a rug rolled into a long cigar, a doll cradle, Christmas tree stands of various sizes, a cooler and probably 25 cardboard boxes, something of them mislabeled. Wreaths hung from the rafters by ten-penny nails and insulation billowed up from the unfloored part of the attic like cotton candy.

I stood in the dim light of one naked overhead bulb and wondered how I would decide which of the thousands of pieces of my history would stay and which would go. I was torn between wanting to toss everything blindly and wanting to go through every box, every file to make sure I wasn’t getting rid of something important.

The boxes stacked on top of each other contained everything from old cancelled checks to a wall calendar from 1975. In one of them was my Girl Scout badge sash, in another old school notebooks. There were doll clothes and 8-track tapes and scrapbooks with pages nibbled along the edges by mice.

Two large trash bags and six or seven trips up and down the attic stairs later, I had reached a compromise with myself. There had been some tossing, some tears and a lot of restacking. The attic was, as a result, neater but not a lot emptier.

The sense of righteous cleanliness that I’d hoped to attain had eluded me. The higher consciousness of detachment from tangible objects would have to wait.

I thought about that the other day when Aden’s mom called to tell me about Christmas. At four, she shared, he finally "got it." And what she meant by that was that the excitement this year was his own, not just a reflection of his family’s. He spent all day Christmas Eve going back and forth to the computer with his dad charting Santa’s progress around the world. "He’s in Peru!" he cried out running through the living room and, then a hour later, "He’s in Mexico!"

On Christmas morning he went outside and found a single jingle bell in the yard. He picked it up, dark brown eyes shining, and said in near-disbelief, "It still smells like reindeer."

Ah. I couldn’t help smiling when she told me that. I could just see him holding the shiny jingle bell in his little boy hand and staring at it with that special brand of awe that exists exclusively in childhood and fades so slowly that one realizes it is gone only too late to halt the process.

"It still smells like reindeer." And I knew, then, why I’d never be able to throw away the key chain, the note scribbled on the paper plate, the nametag, the smooth gray stone, the newspaper clipping. Each one, held in my hand and up to the light, conjures up a moment, a feeling, a promise, a memory. Each one still smells like reindeer.

Jingle bell awe exists only in childhood, but there is another kind that is available to even the most grown-up of grown-ups. It is the astonishing realization that even as our vision narrows to focus on those things like meetings and mortgages, to concentrate more and more on that which we can manage, govern or manipulate, our other senses, like those of the blind, can become more sensitive. It is the amazing revelation that we can still hear jingle bells and smell reindeer as long as we remember. And we will remember as long as there are tokens and talismans, relics and artifacts. As long as our attics and desk drawers and hall closets hold the keepsakes of our hearts.

I suspect that the jingle bell will be around for a long time. Will probably make its way into a box, into an attic at some point. And then one day, when someone is seeking righteous cleanliness, it will reappear, dull and rusted, and, rolling it around in his hand, Aden will be reminded of the Christmas he was four years old, the Christmas he tracked Santa Claus all the way cross South America and learned what it meant to believe.

Copyright 2007