Food Memories

May 18, 2011

By Jessica Becker, Director of Public Programs, Wisconsin Humanities Council

Learning to eat is something I don’t remember. I remember that my now-step-sister was impressed that I, a sophisticated 10 year old, ate salad. I remember that before I ate salad and my mom insisted that I had a vegetable with every meal, I ate a lot of carrot sticks. I remember “breakfast for dinner” nights got more exciting when we got a waffle iron. And I remember learning about fish eggs and chicken livers by accident. I remember making boxed macaroni and cheese as a kid (I developed an expertise), but don’t remember the first pie I ever baked with my dad. I do remember making loads of pies, though. Point is, once you scratch the surface on the subject of food, it’s easy to roam down memory lane. The stories flow.

But I don’t remember figuring out how to use a fork or drink from a cup. As I watch my daughter negotiate forks, spoons, and sippy cups, I wonder about this process we all have successfully passed through. Much of the pleasure of eating for her, it seems, has to do with figuring it out.

I took her along to Brodhead this weekend to see “Key Ingredients: America by Food,” a Smithsonian exhibition on display at the Brodhead Public Library. Janet Gilmore, a folklorist with an interest in foodways, was there to encourage people to share their family food stories.  And she also shared stories of her own, and those of her students from the UW-Madison courses she teaches, about learning to eat. Specifically, learning to eat foods that one must develop a taste for. These foods tend to be associated closely with establishing a cultural bond and achieving a level of maturity within that culture. Many in the audience agreed and remembered learning to eat lutefisk or Limberger cheese.

The Author in cheesehead hat at "Key Ingredients"

The author in a cheesehead hat at "Key Ingredients"

The “Key Ingredients” exhibition is accompanied in Brodhead by a local exhibit called “Food for Thought.” Here you’ll learn food history and discover food stories from the region, such as the fact that all Limberger cheese sold in the country originates from the Chalet Cheese Co-op in Green County. You’ll also find out what popcorn, pickles and potato chips have in common (and I’m not spoiling anything to tell you it is not merely that they are snack foods). At every event scheduled during the six week run of “Key Ingredients” in Brodhead, I’m told there will be popcorn, pickles, and potato chips!

And cheese. Because it is Green County, and because Swiss Colony‘s history is entwined with the area, and because who doesn’t want to eat a little cheese after trying on a cheese hat (part of the “Key Ingredients” exhibition). The food story I will remember from our daytrip is of my daughter, just over a year old, getting another lesson in the hows and whats of eating. She was minding her own business, playing with her toy car under my bench, when I noticed her mouth was full. Of cheese. Some cheese she had dropped earlier. When I swiped it directly out of her mouth, she was more than a little displeased and made it loudly known.

If she remembers anything of our outing, I hope she remembers her first taste of popcorn (and not that I fished perfectly good cheese from her hungry mouth)!

I highly recommend making the trip. If you go, here are some suggestions from a local who really knows (and who had a huge part in creating the local “Food for Thought” exhibition currently with “Key Ingredients at the Brodhead Public Library).