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Why Food Memoirs Make Me Dream of the Flavors of My Youth

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

By Allison Lane

My Oma’s German pull-apart bread is a two-day ritual of savoring. Always started on a Saturday with boiled milk, sugar, and yeast, it ends mid-day on Sunday with licked fingers and thick scrapings of buttery, powdered sugar icing.

In long copper braids, I worked the dough with my five-year-old fingers until it was gray and discarded. Years later, my dough graduated to the oven, emerging crackled and capturing the warmth to shield against icy bursts off the Chesapeake Bay.

After her death at ninety-seven, I inherited my grandmother’s recipe book and wooden rolling pin with one remaining rough handle. These keepsakes sat unused in a bottom drawer until I had my own daughter, who now rolls the dough perfectly smooth and then into sublime spheres in her palm, dipping in melted butter and gently padding each into place with a cinnamon-sugar mortar of her own concoction.

The method I thought was lost came back like a wave. As the weather was turning in our new home in Boston, one day while we were unpacking my husband suggested that maybe the rolling pin can go. He may as well have suggested wiping my memories away.

When I read Kathy Biehl’s Eat, Drink + Be Wary: Cautionary Tales which chronicles her culinary lessons, loves, and lows as a long-time food critic, my memories bubbled up again. This book of essays is a sumptuous journey back to the breadcrumbs of my own life’s food diary. Every page is packed with flashbacks and routes to my childhood menu. I was hungry back then and didn’t know how to turn up my nose. Chipped beef on toast was cheap, warm, and filling, and we couldn’t afford roast beef.

In these pages, I saw my elementary school brown bag lunch: bologna and mustard on white, Nature Valley honey and oats granola bar, apples, and whole milk bought at the school for fourteen cents. The girls at my table tossed their unwanted lunch items into the center as “up-for-grabs.” Doritos, Cheetos, Capri Suns, Girl Scout cookies, Jell-O pudding, and Little Debbies, all of which I could taste again, thanks to Beihl. The unwritten rule was to give one, take one. But I couldn’t give one because no one ever wanted mine.

I had flashbacks of nights spent at friends’ houses, eating the strange and foreign junk that my mom wouldn’t allow. A third into the book, my mouth was watering and I nearly left my daughter’s soccer practice to run to the CVS junk food aisle for some sour cream and onion Pringles and Goobers. Some flashbacks were tart: Vlasic dill pickles, liver, and onions at our neighbors’ on Sundays.

There are several stories about waiting tables and food-service subculture that made me wary of one day letting my kids work in a bar. At sixteen, I was sneaking white Russians in the mezzanine while bussing tables at McGarvey’s in Annapolis, Maryland. My mom had no clue I was consistently offered pot, but she did let me work until 2:30 a.m. so maybe she would have shrugged it off. I’m guessing she was just tired. At least she always left steamed shrimp doused with Old Bay seasoning or chicken divan with extra broccoli and bread crumbs covered with foil on the counter, so I could have a proper meal before dislodging a damp tip wad of ones and fives from my pockets, peeling off my dumpster-dipped bar jeans, and falling flat into my twin bed.

In these essays, Biehl magnifies the best tastes of our upbringing: the candied and the bittersweet. This book is a time-traveling journey, and encouragement that now is the time to imprint those memories on our kids. My daughter will need these, as she often reminds me.

My 8-year-old daughter adopted my “all hands” technique for scrumptious caramelized pull-aparts

“When I’m your age, you’ll already be gone,” she says. “You should have had me in your twenties.” My mother died at seventy-five when I was forty-eight. I’m fifty now, and my daughter has done the math — after all, she is in fifth grade.

She will one day need to recall the memories we’re making today. Her great Oma’s pull-aparts, her grandmother’s morning milkshakes, her mom’s garlic roasted potatoes, and our special visits to Dunkin’ for the pink -sprinkled glazed.

No worries, my Oma’s recipes are now sacred. The onset of crisp fall winds demands I dive back into the cupboards of my youth. Now, where did I put that rolling pin?


Allison Lane is a coach, editor, and marketer for non-fiction writers. Lane has published pieces on Better Marketing, P.S. I Love You, and the Maryland Gazette. Her Facebook group Creative Non-Fiction Writers Community of 500+ published and emerging writers offers free workshops, interviews with authors and publishing experts, and compassionate critique sessions to develop every writer’s work. Lane has a bachelor’s in journalism, decades of writing, editing, and PR for global mission-driven brands.