DELVING BETWEEN THE TOES OF LIFE....I AM TOEJAM


2002-02-23 - 9:34 a.m.

Sometimes I get a craving for homemade pasta. For me it is the ultimate comfort food. And I donít even like it to be cooked and topped with anything. I just like to make it, roll it, cut it and eat it. That warm doughiness settles on my tongue and instantly my body relaxes. Comfort foods for me are foods that invoke memory, not foods that are necessarily high in fat, sugar or carbs. Just foods that I ate during an especially memorable time.

Both of my grandmothers made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that give me that moment of comfort. My maternal grandmother wasnít much of a cook, she hated cooking. Being raised as she was and her subsequent years of dancing professionally and modeling didnít prepare her for the eventual duties of a house wife in the fifties. But she made do, sheíd whip together some normal American fare as quickly as she could and be done with it. She ate bacon with ketchup for breakfast. So her peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were pretty standard, cheap white bread with creamy peanut butter and grape jelly. What set hers apart was the fact that she spread each slice with Weight Watchers (fake) butter before putting on the peanut butter and jelly. That slight chemical, artificial taste made her peanut butter sandwiches distinguishable. And I loved them, just as I loved her with her slight chemical and artificial persona.

My paternal grandmother didnít care for cooking either, but she is a fantastic cook. Anything she does make is my favorite. When we have thanksgiving at her house she has the whole thing catered in, but she will still make her mashed potatoes which have no rival in this world. This grandmother is an artist, spends most of her time locked in a studio in the woods behind their house. When we would come to stay with her as children she would emerge long enough to spend some time with us at the dining room table and supervise our water color painting. Then she would make us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and disappear again. Her sandwiches were made on big, gourmet slices of dense bread. Like my maternal grandmother she used butter as well, but she used real butter and she only covered one slice with it and she covered it heavily. On the other slice she would use substantial amounts of crunchy peanut butter, she would never smooth it, rather she would make peaks with it like you would with icing on a cake. Then she would put dollops of jelly, good, expensive jelly on top of the peanut butter. It is something I have never been able to replicate. And just as I have never been able to come close to getting her sandwiches right, I have never been able to come close to her. But I love her just the same.

But the pasta...the pasta comes from a summer in fourth grade when my Dad, brother and I took a road trip to Colorado for a few weeks. The last part of that trip was spent in Wyoming at the summer dwelling of my fathers best friend who is a writer and was married to a pretty prominent poet. Jim ( my fathers friend) has written just as prolifically as his ex-wife, and has achieved just as much success as she has, but it was her that I was enthralled with. I think at the time she wasnít very well known yet, I think it might have been him that was enjoying success as a writer, but she was the one that captivated me. She was who I wanted to grow up to be. She was my first idol and remains to this day, my only idol. For dinner one night she made homemade pasta and homemade sauce. I remember sitting on a stool watching her roll the pasta out and she gave me one of the flaccid ropes to eat. It was still warm and it just tasted exactly like what it was, eggs, flour and water. But that taste forever brings me back to the beauty of that stay in her home. There was no electricity or indoor plumbing, it was all wood and nature. I even woke in the morning to find a squirrel under my bed. I remember one night I woke up needing to use the bathroom and I silently crept outside to walk to the outhouse. I could hear coyotes howling, little creatures scurried around me in the blankness of the night. I wasnít scared, I was happy. I was peaceful and content in the knowledge that I would someday have this for myself.

I never saw her again. I read all her books as they come out, I have a framed picture of her hanging above my computer that I cut from a magazine, but I will always remember her in her house in Wyoming. The way she was there but not really there, she always seemed to be escaping either by jumping in her truck and driving away in a dusty flurry of speed or just by letting her eyes soften and her voice halt as she escaped in her mind. I think the reason I cling so heartily to my memories of her is because she was the first and the only person I ever remember that grasped solidarity. I think she and I are kindred spirits somehow in the fact that we may be the only two people on earth that are happiest being alone, being utterly alone. Eating the raw pasta on occasion brings that comfort back to me, the comfort of the night and the comfort of having met and known briefly the one person on earth with whom I can identify.

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