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Some meals are time machines
The most memorable things I’ve eaten have a lot to do with grief.
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Have you ever heard of the dish “Fancy Pants”?
I hope you haven’t. If it’s a known entity, don’t tell me. I submit it to the historical record as my mother’s invention and a meal that no one but the two of us has eaten. She made it for me on my birthday every year.
Fancy Pants consists of two burger patties, American cheese melted between them, covered with baked beans and served with mashed potatoes, also covered with baked beans. The moniker is ironic, the taste is transcendent. My mom was usually on a diet and working multiple jobs to ensure we ate a tidy presentation of greens, grains, and protein together at the table every night, so Fancy Pants was served with her implicit declaration: Fuck it. Fuck Atkins. Fuck greens and well-rounded meals. Fuck everything but contentment on this day that is all about you, and I’m so glad you exist.
Fancy Pants is a dish from my own Before Times. Its introduction preceded the years I’d spend wrestling with what disordered eating has done to me. The internal voice constantly surveilling and yammering feedback about what I eat has become less menacing and more productive, but there was a time when I didn’t harbor it at all. I didn’t designate food as morally bad or good or consider that designating food as bad or good is not good. I didn’t go to therapy or reflect on whether I was struggling with food issues or rising above them. I didn’t think about my position on the long timeline of whatever recovery is. I was unaware of how people would shame me about my appetite and body. I knew nothing of the work ahead.
I just ate food.
I ate the mass-produced foods of my youth, too: the Lunchables, the Dunkaroos, the Ellio’s Pizza. But Fancy Pants triggers something more profound than 90s-kid lunchbox nostalgia, because someone who loved me made it for me within the cozy confines of our relationship at a precise moment in time. Any attempt to revive those moments would feel hollow — if I wanted Fancy Pants now I’d have to ask, and who wants to ask someone to say I love you? Something like Dunkaroos makes me think, “Aw, remember that?” but Fancy Pants makes me think of the pain from old wounds:
One of the markers of my evolution as a person is my relationship to food, for better or worse, and dishes like Fancy Pants remind me of a former version of me. But they also remind me of the people who made them and the people I’d eat with. Some of them are gone. All of them are aging. We’re all reckoning with distance and time and obligation. Everyone and everything is different now and so am I. This is the natural order of things but still, I grieve. These are the meals of my grief. These things I have eaten remind me of the places I ache to go again.
Gadooldees and Nanny Foods
My maternal grandmother used to make an Easter dessert known in my family as “gadooldees.” My grandmother — called Nanny, from the Italian “nonna” — formed dough into massive rings allegedly symbolizing Christ’s crown of thorns (the Roman Catholics would have a guilt pastry) and made one for every member of the family. At some point she was making close to 20 hulking cakes bedecked with a syrupy glaze, rainbow sprinkles shaped like butterflies or stars, and a dyed hard-boiled Easter egg nestled in the baked dough. Every year we shouted that they’d gotten bigger. We pretended we could hardly lift them. My cousins and I fought over egg colors. The noble gadooldee became a family totem.
I once tried to research their origin but Googling “gadooldees” returns nothing but a horrifying Urban Dictionary entry. I pressed Nanny, who told me they were also known as something like “Sicilian Easter bread.” I then found cuddura, which are more like cookies, but cuh-doo-rah becoming gah-dool-dee sort of tracks if you throw some serious Mario & Luigi flair behind it. Or, “gadooldee” stems from the desserts called cuculi in Calabria. Either way, I get the sense that Nanny took one look at something like cuddura, thought “That’s cute,” and sent my grandfather out for another 30 sacks of flour and got her bespoke sprinkle guy on the horn.
Nanny is 93 now. She stopped making gadooldees — and pizza from scratch, stupefying rum balls, pounds of fried chicken, made-to-order birthday dinners for everyone, etc. — long ago. Of course she did. This was labor, and she retired. I imagine that after 60-odd years of cooking this way, Nanny does not romanticize her food how I do. But she was one of the women who raised me, so it was by her culinary hand I was taught an early lesson about food. When she ladled homemade sauce onto rigatoni, when she passed the basket of crusty, almond-shaped rolls from DiFonzo’s, when she made the world’s saltiest, oiliest salad followed by braciole followed by ice cream (with the sprinkles) and Suisse Mocha (topped with Cool Whip and the sprinkles), when she handed me my gadooldee, she taught me: Eating delicious food is what you are meant to do. This is ancestral, it’s in your blood. This is how eating is supposed to be.
Eventually I’d learn other, maddening lessons about food, including that in Italian-American families, apparently a woman should cook this kind of food but not look like she eats much of it. But I’m trying to give more weight to the earlier ones. I’m trying to go back to the lesson my grandmother taught me first.
Lobster Bisque and Fall Cookies
My family was friends with another family who lived hours away in North Carolina on a lake. We visited them in the summer, but for a couple years they also visited us in the winter. The three daughters and I, soulmates to this day, would lurk in the basement to watch music videos. During one visit, their mother was mysteriously compelled to make lobster bisque. We gobbled bowls upon bowls of her creamy, stupendously briny soup and hunks of her unrivaled homemade bread. Later, we watched Tool’s “Schism” video and scared ourselves out of our minds, frozen in place in the drafty midnight murk of the unfinished basement.
To self-soothe, one of the sisters suggested we retrieve some more bisque and bread, and to summon our resolve for the harrowing dash up the dark staircase, we belted the lyrics to the 2001 version of “Lady Marmalade,” as one does. Then, basking in the calming glow of the kitchen, I sat with my friends as the cold raged outside, cleared a second bowl at an hour far past the typical for soup eating, and generated a core memory of the concept of comfort food. Their mother made that bisque for the first time that year and never again.
But my best friend, who was also my neighbor growing up, had a mother who made the same things over and over. A woman so magnetic she seemed not quite of this earth, Wendi would prepare all manner of signature snacks I’d enjoy as I loafed within the walls of her home. One of them was a seasonal item that couldn’t be easier: She’d spread a little bit of white frosting on top of a gingersnap cookie and top it with a single candy corn. Before there was the twinkling of a Pumpkin Spice Latte in anyone’s eye, these “Fall Cookies” were how we knew fall had arrived.
Fall also brought the beginning of football and marching band season at our high school, where my best friend and I were band members (marching band was actually cool in our school, but I know you don’t believe me). One year we played “Hey Jude” during the halftime field show (see, that is cool) and our parents were on their feet in the stands, singing along. I swear I remember people waving lighters. Later at her house, Wendi gushed about the delight of watching her kids perform a song from when she was a kid. Now I see how moving something like that must be, even if your kids’ marching band is aggressively mediocre as confirmed by a YouTube search for the field show some years later. It didn’t matter. That night, Wendi paid us in Fall Cookies for taking her back in time.
My best friend, a devotee of the sentimental and traditional in the most charming possible way, continues to make Fall Cookies each year and now has a daughter who will I’m sure eat them as soon as she can chew. I know when my friend tells me of this milestone we’ll both be thinking in our own distinct ways of Wendi, who died our freshman year of college.
When I get together with my North Carolina friends during the annual girls’ trips we’ve established in our adulthood, we talk late into the night about our shared lifetimes. The ephemeral bisque comes up sometimes. It’s funny — their mother had a flash of inspiration to create something marvelous that she never tried to replicate, and one of the sisters did too, once: One summer she churned out several photo-perfect, stunning watercolor portraits of iconic musicians within the space of a week. I hadn’t known her to be a painter and when people raved and said she could make money on commissions she said no, she was done. Sometimes people are just done.
At some point our families stopped getting together at least once a year. The summer trip to North Carolina was a given for most of my life. It felt like a factory setting of my existence, a default schedule item like the holidays on my Google calendar. It was always a thing we did until it stopped because of Life. The house on the lake was sold and turned into a soulless luxury rental. The listing made me feel a little sick when I saw it. I hope Life doesn’t prove ruinous to our girls’ trips. I feel confident that it won’t. But I bet our parents once felt the same.
I try to keep my traditions and meaningful events going despite Life’s machinations by framing them as intentional choices. They are not givens. They will not maintain through momentum alone. They cannot only happen in the perfect conditions. I have to actively choose my closest friendships and the effort they require, again and again forever. They are like little marriages in that way. The sisters and I choose our time together every year despite children and limited time off and tight budgets and on two separate occasions, a hurricane and a blizzard on our travel days. We keep choosing to do this thing we do, so we keep doing it.
Summer Soup and Beef Wellington
Besides the time in North Carolina, my adolescent summer days were tedious. I had the sluggish routine of a non-athletic kid who didn’t go to camp and whose parents both worked. I’d wake at 11 a.m., float in the above-ground pool for a while, watch whatever was replaying on HBO (usually it was “Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead”), and wait to see what would happen to me that day, which was mostly nothing. I’d sit in a wet bathing suit, getting goosebumps in the air conditioning as I flicked through channels, and marinate in an indeterminate yearning. I wanted to do something but didn’t know what and had no real means or motivation to do anything. I internalized the cultural mandate to have fun! but I was mostly frustrated that my ideal life, whatever that was, had not started yet. Essentially I was an anxious, neurotic, overthinking young woman with nothing but time between June and August to perfect those qualities.
At least I had Summer Soup.
My father made Summer Soup with the late-season vegetables from his backyard garden, picked at their peak and charred over his grill. His tomatoes, gargantuan to the point of freakish, were folded into an simple broth with zucchini, peppers, mushrooms, onions, whatever else he grew or scrounged up. The soup was the apex of his seasonal labor, the swan song of the year’s harvest. He’d serve it that first Summer Soup Day along with his reminder that soup always tastes better the second day (it does), and with great anticipation for our reactions. We were never anything but inebriated with gastronomic satisfaction but every year he’d note what needed to improve, how the damn tomatoes weren’t as juicy or the damn zucchini were small this season.
I had my last bowl of Summer Soup years before my father was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. In many ways he is still the same man I’ve always known. He is in good spirits when I visit. He knows who everyone is. He tells the stories that are housed in his long-term memory, which is less affected. But we know how this thing goes. Over the two and a half years since his diagnosis I’ve had to reckon with the fact that no actions I or anyone could take will stop the progression or fix or cure anything. I could choke on the fury and sorrow of this because I like to believe that action begets solutions no matter the circumstance. Of course, sometimes it doesn’t. Life has the upper hand. I have to sit in the knowledge that there is so much I cannot do for him.
But I can cook.
This past Christmas I made Beef Wellington for my parents, brother, and husband. I first made it in 2020, when my husband and I had a COVID Christmas alone at home. He, a brutally honest food snob with stratospheric standards, said it was one of the best things he’s ever eaten. In 2022 I doubled the recipe and bought a cut of tenderloin the size of a dachshund. The formidable recipe calls for multiple days of prep and chilling before cooking and hours of work on the day it’s served. I was nervous: One year of success with Beef Wellington does not necessarily foretell another. I cleared everyone out of my parents’ kitchen and guzzled wine as I clattered pans around and shoved things into the fridge and spilled flour all over myself. I made frantic apologies in advance for burst dough or overcooked meat and annoyed everyone with my anxiety about the thing I volunteered to do.
What I was saying without saying it: I just need to do something, anything. I know it’s my turn to care for you in some ways but this devastates me. I am selfish and want everything to stay the same. I am desperate for more time. I am trying to make something of what’s left.
My husband gave my efforts a “solid B-plus” this go-round which might as well be a Michelin Star coming from him, but I was focused on my dad. I became him on one of those first Summer Soup Days, peering from across the table to see if he thought the thing was good even though the damn dough was undercooked on the damn bottom.
He ate four huge slices, barely coming up for air before asking for another. He bestowed upon my dish his signature plaudit: Out-standing.
The Beef Wellington transports me to the future. There, I know I won’t make it anymore after he’s gone.
Do you have any dishes from your own “Before Times”? What are your time machine meals or most nostalgic foods? Let me know in a comment.