Sometimes I close my eyes and just remember, remember being in ___ [name of place] and then it was just (pause) sit at the table, and I got a lot of brothers and sisters, you know. My dad’s there and I just sit at the table and it’s like, eat and laugh and talk and drink and enjoy with my family . . . There’s very few feelings like that in the world and a person can experience that through food. (Participant 5)*
Food reveals its meaning in the direst of circumstances.
War and famine and natural disasters demand a form of submission, an adjustment of both mind and body to a new physicality.
And so does imprisonment.
Recall, for example, the Jewish women at Theresienstadt/Terezín, the Nazi concentration camp in Czechoslavakia. Immortalized on brittle pages, in the changing handwriting of whoever could hold the pen on any given day, In Memory’s Kitchen witnesses the place of food in the human soul / mind.
Or take Hunger for Freedom: The Story of Food in the Life of Nelson Mandela, by Anna Trapido. While in prison on Robben Island, Mandela ate the diet fed to black prisoners: porridge, boiled corn, a yeasty drink, and bits of gristly meat. All the while he longed for his wife Winnie’s macaroni with mincemeat.
The words of condemned men and women tell things about food and its meaning. Their words convey a truth unknown to those who wake every morning, free to move about, choose their companions, read whatever books strike their fancy, eat as they wish, or at least in whatever manner they can afford.
An interesting letter, written by convicted anarchist Bartolomeo Vanzetti in October 1926, nearly a year before his execution on August 23, 1927 in Massachusetts, concerns his family’s garden in Villafalletto, in the Piedmontese province of Cuneo in northern Italy. By the time he wrote the letter, Vanzetti knew that no hope remained for his release and exoneration. In quite remarkable English, learned during seven years in prison, he tells his correspondent, who’d mention wheat farms in a previous letter, about his love for his land:**
As for our garden, it takes a poet of first magnitude to worth speak of it [sic], so beautiful, so unspeakably beautiful it is. … We have fig trees, cherry, apple trees, pear trees, apricot trees, plum trees, rhubarb shrubs, and three hedges of grapes in it — two lines of black and one line of white grapes. We plant one-third of it with potatoes, and make enough potatoes for the year round, even sell some sacks of them. Another 1/3 is planted with corn, also of it we produce more than we need yearly. The other 1/3 is planted with vegetables: onions, garlic, red and yellow peppers, carrots, spinach, cabbages, rhubarbs, anicettes, tomatoes, parsly, lettuce, asparagus, cucumbers, etc. We sell all these things and fruits also.
And poetry comes with his homage to the birds and the wildflowers that flourished on his farm:
And the white and red clover and all the other scented, sky bestowed and beloved wild flowers of which I do not know the names.
Food is the key to so many things …
*From Rebecca Godderis, “Dining In: Power of Food in Prison, The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice 45 (3), 255–267, 2006.
**From Letters of Sacco and Vanzetti, edited by Marion Denman Frankfurter and Gardner Jackson (1928)
© 2009 C. Bertelsen