Exactly no one among my current friends would tell you that I am a picky eater. Take me to a restaurant where there’s something like — oh, I dunno — the cheeks of a grouper on the menu, and I’m all in. I love to try foods I’ve never tasted, especially in restaurants where I have a reasonable expectation the folks in the kitchen actually know what they’re doing. Lord knows I miss our halcyon pre-pandemic days when going out to such a restaurant didn’t require pondering a dozen questions about the personal safety of me and everyone else involved.
When I was a child, my eating habits were a different story entirely. I liked almost nothing.
Today, the vegetables I grew up with are delicious to me — black-eyed peas stewed with a ham hock or some salt pork, string beans stewed with the same, butter beans. I love them all. But when I was a kid, I was like, “Get thee behind me, Satan.”
Fried pork chops, a big Sunday pot roast. I love them both today, but back then, no dice. Even steak didn’t have a chance with me. I think I refused seafood in its entirety until one night when my parents prevailed on me to order fried shrimp at Earl’s Lakeside Restaurant in Blue Ridge, Georgia. Earl’s burned to the ground one night when I was still a kid and was never revived, but I’ll never forget getting that plate of shrimp, peeling the foil cover off a plastic container of Kraft tartar sauce, and dipping my first shrimp into it. I was hooked and still am. I’d eat fried shrimp every night if the preparation didn’t leave such a mess to clean up in the kitchen.
In my earlier childhood, I don’t know how my Mama put up with trying to feed me at all. My memory is this: I liked only two things — “applesauce and cereal” and sandwiches.
The “applesauce and cereal” thing was Gerber baby cereal with applesauce mixed in. In my earliest grocery-store memories, I can picture a wide variety of Gerber cereal boxes, but the one I ate was Gerber Mixed Cereal, with, if I recall correctly, White House brand applesauce mixed into it.
I know the stuff was made to feed babies — actual babies who could not pick up a spoon — but I stuck with my applesauce and cereal until I was at least 4 or 5. I was not ashamed.
And then there were the sandwiches. I liked as little variation as possible, typically one ingredient between two pieces of Sunbeam white bread, with the crusts cut off. A favorite was the simple jelly sandwich — Welch’s grape on white. I liked bologna with mayonnaise, too, the more mayo the better. In fact, I liked the mayo so much that one day I asked Mama for a mayonnaise-only sandwich.
That’s when things got strange. At some point I wound up with two sandwiches on my plate, both perfectly crustless and square, one filled with mayonnaise, the other filled with jelly. Then somehow, I got a bit of the mayonnaise mixed in with the jelly. I loved it. To me, they tasted perfect together. After that, the question became Would Mama actually make me a jelly and mayonnaise sandwich?
And she did. Without a word of complaint. No suggestions that it was in any way wrong to mix these unlikely ingredients together.
That’s why I tell you the story of the jelly and mayonnaise sandwich today. Over the past few months, I’ve spent a good bit of time digging into the recesses of my memory, searching for stories about my Mama. After she died when I was 11, I think the pain I was in gradually caused me to lock away all my memories of her. But I have reached a point in my life where I need those memories. I’ve grown tired of living without them. More specifically, I’ve grown weary of how living without them hurts me in the here and now. I need those memories because I have to know not just that my Mama loved me, but precisely how she loved me.
So, having found the courage to open up the box into which I had stuffed my memories, I unlocked it, and out popped a jelly and mayonnaise sandwich. And what did it tell me?
It told me that Flora Reece loved her only son absolutely without condition. It told me that maybe, having waited through 21 years of marriage for me to show up unexpectedly, she didn’t care that much for the norms of how kids should be trained to eat, or what they should be trained to eat. It told me that she accepted me exactly as I was, picky eating habits and all.
All of us have bad dreams occasionally, and I do, too. When one of those wakes me up, I find that it helps to get up out of bed and take 10 or 15 minutes to talk to myself, to bring myself back from the place where I believe the dream was real, to tell myself it was only a dream. Sometimes, on nights like those, I wonder what Mama might have done years ago if I had come to her after a bad dream. I imagine she might tell me what I needed to hear, might bring me words of reassurance, might even ask me if I wanted something to eat. At that point, I get up from the sofa, walk into the kitchen, take the twist-tie off the Sunbeam, and pull the mayonnaise and jelly from the refrigerator.
I am not ashamed.