January 14, 2022 § 7 Comments
By Keema Waterfield
Twenty-one months into pandemic parenthood, the thing I most often pine for (after a vaccine for my toddler) is a mail-order intravenous food option for my entire household.
My youngest child was eighteen months old when we first locked down. He’d just recently been assessed by an oral therapist, because he grew so tired while chewing that he’d pocket his food in his cheeks like a squirrel, only to choke on it later. This was when I pre-chewed his food for him like a mad woman. My oldest had just turned four and was going through a taste change. Foods she’d previously adored were suddenly repellent. Goodbye curry and strawberries and garlic potatoes. Goodbye pepper. Goodbye quesadillas and grilled cheese sandwiches. Grilled cheese!
Now I was ordering groceries online in a small city with limited options, because I wasn’t taking my rambunctious offspring inside a grocery store where they could lay all sixteen octopus tentacles on every surface in sight. But fresh fruit and vegetables weren’t always available for delivery. I had to get creative with a game I call Pandemic Whack-a-Mole. Will they eat frozen carrots and peas? Nope. Canned corn and peas? Acceptable, but rarely. Forget the canned beans. By five o’clock, after preparing three experimental meals and four hundred snacks for my littles, I despaired at the thought of thawing, roasting, dicing, and plating my own grown-up dinner.
“One day I’m going to take you to a restaurant and let someone else break your heart by putting jam on your toast,” I told my youngest last week. Then it hit me: he doesn’t remember restaurants. I barely do. It’s been so long since I’ve experienced indoor dining, or cooking for pleasure, that I’ve forgotten what that forbidden fruit even tastes like.
This is what makes Kathy Biehl’s witty food memoir Eat, Drink & Be Wary: Cautionary Tales such a delicious reminder of what awaits me on the other side of the food desert I’ve been living in.
The collection is neither straight memoir nor explicit food critique. Most of the works gathered here fell through the cracks of mainstream assignments over her three decades of food writing in Houston and New York, many culled from Biehl’s self-published zine and related blogs. It’s a foodie’s photo album in narrative form, with vignettes ranging from philosophical musings on the timeless power and connection of food in “The Cellular Memory of Food” to fantastically absurd situational humor. “The Omni-Directional Scud Lust Missile Rears Its Unwelcome Head Again (And This Time She’s Brought a Friend)” reads like a scene written from the point of view of Tom Cruise’s mask at the ball in Eyes Wide Shut.
There is cuisine, yes, of the fine and ordinary varieties. And crowded venues, empty bars, fascinating guests, a few recipes, and dreamy far-off places. But you won’t find the next hot eatery here. Instead, Biehl’s conversational joviality is an invitation to join her in recalling this hole-in-the wall someone told her about. Taste the chicken, smell the bleached Formica, hear the pans rattling on a stove just out of reach, and gorge on the unexpectedness of it all.
With Biehl as my guide, I wandered into memories I haven’t allowed myself to touch in nearly two years. I sat alone at a table with her, nearly swooning when she says of her solo outings, “I don’t feel lonely at all; I feel lucky to be alone.” Through her, I recalled the revelation of a new menu, the power of junk food, the connection a shared plate brings. When her friend finds an insect in his Scotch, I time travelled to the moment, a decade ago, when I discovered a fried cockroach in my takeaway burrito (half eaten, alas).
“What’s so great about going out to eat?” my son asked, when he caught me laughing at an early chapter, where Biehl is ensnared by a food surveyor at the mall and asked to participate in a mayonnaise review. (“[A]n offer no self-respecting magnet for weird could pass up.”)
I had to think about it. What is wondrous about the experience for children? I can’t really say. I only grew comfortable at restaurants deep into adulthood.
Dining out was such a rare treat growing up that it holds a place more precious than Christmas in my memory. Except during one brief spell, when my single mother worked part-time as a server at the Armadillo Tex-Mex Café in Juneau, Alaska. Unlike her house cleaning gigs, with this job I could sometimes stop in and share her shift meal with her, always crunchy nachos piled high with chicken, beans, olives, tomatoes and jalapeños. She was usually too tired to talk, so I quietly admired the way she made a silk neck scarf seem fancy beyond our means while picking at the crusty cheese on our plate. I’ve never held a taste on my tongue so perfect, before or since.
For my kids, it’s a global crisis, rather than poverty, depriving them of the marvel of cramming eight chairs around a four top simply to break bread and bump elbows somewhere not home, while practicing having a say about what they graze on.
For the first time, it occurred to me that my son may never enjoy the noise and energy of dining out. His eyes glaze over in crowds, and he claps his ears at loud sounds. He still has trouble chewing. I can’t predict how he’ll move in the world after spending half his life apart from it. I hope he’ll find, as Biehl has, that it’s about more than being fed.
“I’m looking to be nourished,” she writes, contemplating what’s left after the novelty of thirty years of food writing has worn off, “to be amused, at least, entertained at best, and, if I’m lucky, to be so surprised and delighted that I want to stomp my feet or pound my hand on the table.”
“I don’t know what will be great about going out to eat for you,” I told him. “Maybe you’ll love it, and maybe you won’t. I hope we get to find out soon.”
For now, I’m grateful for the reminder Eat, Drink & Be Wary brings: there is gobsmackingly good food out there waiting for us, and good people who can’t wait to share it with us.
Keema Waterfield is the author of Inside Passage, a nomadic childhood memoir set along the wild coast of Southeast Alaska. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, WIRED, Brevity, and others. She resides in Missoula, Montana, with her husband, two children, a bunch of extra instruments she doesn’t know how to play, and a revolving cast of quirky animals. She lives and writes on Séliš and Qlispé land. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @keemasaurusrex.