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Monday, August 24, 2009

Food Families

Sarah’s visit this week made me resurrect and edit this piece I wrote several years ago. It felt just as good to eat oatmeal with her this time as when we discovered the coincidence about five years ago. As I edit this post, she’s on her way back to NY to catch a plane home. I better go buy some Fritos.


Twelve thousand miles away my sister eats old-fashioned oatmeal with sugar and raisins for breakfast. Here, in the country in which we were born and raised, I do too. After so many years apart, I was surprised to discover when she visited recently that we both habitually enjoy warm “porridge” as she is prone to calling it now.

I was seventeen when Sarah, five years my senior, moved to Australia. A new college graduate seeking adventure, she landed a teaching job in a rural town northwest of Melbourne, where all those years ago, lack of central heating required that she learn how to chop wood for her fire and outdoor lavatories meant visits to the “dunny.” Eventually, she married an Australian and ended up staying for good. She has resided there now longer then she lived in the U.S.

Long before the invention of the personal computer, when the idea of email was science fiction to most of us, we wrote letters on tissue thin paper, inserting them into envelopes marked “Air Mail” as to avoid a six-week journey by boat. Phone calls scheduled around fourteen-hour time differences echoed and crackled with static; the delay so long that we tripped over each other’s sentences. As a result of this difficulty in communicating, many of the formative things that we experienced in our separate lives remained unsaid during those first several years apart.

But the universal language in which our family conversed whenever she returned home began over a bag of Fritos Corn Chips. Growing up, it was her favorite junk food, and at that time, on the other side of the world, there was nothing similar available. Desperate to please our expatriate sister, we had an over sized bag waiting each time she returned. Although ostensibly for her, we all burrowed into the chips, comforted by the salty crispness evocative of the flavor of our shared youth.

Then there were the brownies. As a teen, she had baked late night batches and it seemed the simple sweet was one she should have been able to recreate easily in her new country. But the baking chocolate sold in Australia had different qualities, she couldn't find plain cocoa and ready-made mixes were unheard of. Even worse, early on she befriended another U.S. citizen who successfully concocted a brownie recipe that she refused to share when ever she served them to Sarah. Outraged, we bombarded her with this taste of her past each time she returned home.

Upon my graduation from college I worked to earn money for my own adventure, a four-month visit to my sister and her husband. Once there I was exposed to food I had never heard of; salad rolls--sandwiches dressed with coleslaw and pickled beets; kiwi and passion fruits, Pavlova--a luscious confection made with meringue and whipped cream, meat pies and pasties, and a shandy; bitter beer cut with lemon soda.

I grew to love these new foods, but then I returned home.  Back then the miles away from my sister seemed to stretch forever. To help myself feel closer, I made things that reminded me of her--hot tea from leaves steeped in a pot instead of bags, iced chocolate--thick chocolate milk poured over ice, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a dollop of whipped. I baked scones, and looked forward to family holidays when I could make a fruit covered Pavlova in a beautiful presentation that always reminded us of Sarah.

While I absorbed these pecialties into my repertoire, the long fingers of American commerce began to touch Australia. During a visit, Sarah returned home to the Fritos we had waiting and remarked “I can get these now” and my siblings and I felt cheated, as if someone had presented her with a gift that was only ours to give. Yet not long after, I discovered a kiwifruit in my own market for the first time since my trip “down under” and on tasting the tiny melon felt the miles to Australia melt away, gaining an infinitesimal understanding of what those corn chips meant to her. She smuggled brownie mixes in her luggage for many years until a recipe printed in the Melbourne Age offered instructions on how to make them using local ingredients. We still present these foods to her upon her return, but as the world contines to shrink, it is a symbolic gesture.

These days, Skype allows for face-to-face conversations and the photos and emails we send back and forth arrive instantaneously. Many of the foods from both countries are available in each of our respective hemispheres, all of which reduce the expanse of ocean between us. But the day that we ate “porridge” together recently, it struck me that blood and heredity have conspired to bring us as close as if we lived next door. Like the Fritos, oatmeal escorts us back to the table with our four other siblings--shivering on the wooden benches lining the maple drop-leaf of our childhood kitchen, waiting while our yawning mother scooped steaming spoonfuls into chipped stoneware bowls. All this time later I thought I was the only one still making it.  Then my Aussie sister announced that she does too.

Sharing this breakfast with Sarah is a reminder that the right meal can be as warm and nurturing as a family, the things that we love to eat as soothing as a sister. Lately, I dish up dinner each evening reassured to know that around the time we clear the table, my sister is boiling water in her electric kettle for her breakfast of porridge, and sometime many hours later, I’ll microwave my own.

It took a bowl of oatmeal and over thirty years for me to figure it out, but just maybe Australia isn’t so far away after all.

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