Loving through Food

Sunday, 2018 August 26
Mel Tidwell
Loving through Food

>>>Click here to listen to audio<<<

Hi everyone! I am actually a bit nervous. I’m not sure if I’ve ever given a public talk before. Trying to write this has been an emotional journey for me. Thinking about my parents and grandparents… So many gone but so many memories….

How many of y’all are from the South? Raise your hands….

OK you guys will probably get all of my jokes. Everyone else? We will see….

In 1976 I was the last person you would imagine to become interested in food. We were the typical Florida redneck family. You know; Cars in the yard with grass up to the windows. Half nekkid younguns running around like heathens chasing the mosquito truck down the road. After all I am the first generation in my family to have all their own teeth!

Any way I was a boy that was so finicky he wouldn’t eat macaroni and cheese! If there was an onion in the room I ran, but the hard work of my parents and grandparents were quietly “planting the seed” inside me.

At that time they could tell you where every bite of our food came from. We grew potatoes (oh the dreaded potato house. I hated having to get potatoes. When you have a large stash of any vegetable in a shed out back it attracts…rodents. Well, if you have a lot of rodents you’re gonna have snakes. In the 60s and 70s Florida marsh I grew up in that was venomous snakes. Rattlers, moccasins etc Dang I hated that potato house) We grew beans, okra, corn and greens among so many other things. We picked peas at a local farm by the bushel and strawberries in Plant City by the quarts. We raised cows and pigs for our meat and the chicken coop was in my grandparent’s backyard for the eggs and chickens for frying. We would travel to Alabama twice a year to visit relatives and always made a stop at a local smokehouse to buy slabs of bacon my daddy loved.

My mother and granny canned and froze the bounty all summer. Certain things were canned and other items frozen and I didn’t know why. This would last the family all winter until the cycle would begin again the following spring. Many of these years I was a small unaware little boy, however when I became a teenager I found this life quite embarrassing. All my friends shopped at the grocery and went out to eat pizza. We couldn’t afford that.

I remember the first meal I cooked was oven barbecue chicken. Since I am the baby of our family all my older siblings had flown the coop. So my mother went to work outside our home for the first time ever. One morning out of the blue, before leaving she told me I had to have supper ready when her & my daddy got home. I was 14 and up until that point I had stirred a pot a few times and maybe scrambled an egg. How in the world was I going to cook supper? Granny to the rescue of course. She lived on the same property and was about 50 yards away. I spent the afternoon running back and forth asking a million questions but I made that darn chicken and it was good. I cannot say delicious because back then we cooked everything to death. You know in that old southern way? Well done steaks, dried out chicken, anything cooked in a pressure cooker and mushy green beans? Remember what I said about the teeth? 😉

One of my teen jobs was at a fancy supper club called the Foxfire Inn. Even in 1979 it cost $50 for dinner. I worked as a busboy 5 nights a week and on the weekends I would bus tables until the dining rooms closed. I then would switch over to bar back. I made a lot of money for that time as a teenager. Many weekend nights I would make over $100…which was a lot of money in 1978/79.

This is where I acquired my first fancy food memory. It was cherries jubilee.

The servers made it right at your table. My favorite waitress, Miss Brenda, was the best at this. She would take a scoop of the cherries and starting low to high drizzle it into a pan. That pan would go onto a flame burner. RIGHT THERE ON THE CART!!! Can you imagine nowadays having an open flame burner on a food cart draped in a white linen cloth? That would be considered a fire hazard. Then came the brandy that was generously poured. WHOOSH! The fancy cigarette lighter had appeared from nowhere and set the booze to flame. The dessert was a dream delight. I think the display of showmanship is what really captured me.

At this point in life my food habits were still stuck in my childhood. Then I joined the US Navy.

OH CRAP! I didn’t even know foods like that existed. What in the world was cream chipped beef? Not to mention pancit, meatloaf with whole hot dogs in it (I jump ahead but in the latter part of my naval career my mom and dad joined me on a family day cruise aboard one of my Navy ships. They served meatloaf and my dad’s piece had a slice of boiled egg in it. Most likely the concoction wasn’t mixed well enough before cooking. Needless to say he wondered what in the hell I had been eating. You see he and mom had been sending me care packages of food items when I was deployed overseas. Cans of tuna and chicken, Granola bars and home baked cookies from my granny Hallman would arrive about every other month). They still knew that picky little boy…

Any way going back on point; I had never had real lasagna when I joined the Navy. My mother once spent an entire day making a pan of this food from the Italian gods of sustenance, big bellies and frying garlic… She was so proud of herself as she was walking across the kitchen to put it into a wall oven that was too high for her stature. PLOP! She slipped and fell with the pan and it splattered across the entire kitchen floor. She began to squall as I had never seen my mother do. Her sobbing and crying continued until my father arrived to see her in the kitchen floor. Surrounded by what looked like the remnants of a scene from a slasher film. He immediately came to her rescue by driving to the nearest store, which was 5 miles away (Gibsonia Supermarket), and bought canned Chef Boyardee lasagna. Every single one of us had the runs for 3 days! That was the first time of thinking someone had put so much love and effort into food. She had worked so hard to go outside her comfort zone to make something special. I was silly and still didn’t truly understand what love and devotion my parents and grandparents were putting into producing our bounty.

So as I began to travel through different places in the Navy I was forced to at least try new things, especially upon my arrival in Hawaii. Oh my goodness!  Now I was immersed into an entirely different culture.

I remember my first bite of huli-huli chicken. Back then there were guys standing on the side of the road with charcoal grills cooking and selling this sweet and savory blend of chicken nirvana. Then the Korean food; that kalbi beef with 2 scoops of macaroni salad, the Chinese steamed buns, sushi and sashimi. Oh! The scrambled eggs, Portuguese sausage and rice with shoyu for breakfast. I was now about 20 years old and hooked but still hadn’t experienced the love you receive by pouring your time and soul into creating a food experience for the ones you love.

That love happened for me in a two step process. I was living with some friends in an apartment in Waikiki. We were all hung over but as sailors back then do we mixed a jug of tequila sunrise and headed to the beach. After hours of baking in the sun we returned to the apartment famished but with very little money. So I go into the kitchen and I believe I grabbed every single thing in the fridge and pantry. Out came this delicious chicken casserole. Of course it was made with cream of mushroom soup. After all I am southern. (LOL) It was well received by the starving guys that were already lit from the booze and would have eaten Ellie May Clampett’s biscuits at that point. However the next time I visited my family back in Florida I made this same thing. Then I knew I could make people happy by giving them a little of my time and a few ingredients. They still love it when I make this casserole for them. I occasionally pull it out during a family gathering to feed the masses and they still love it to this day.

Though I still hadn’t found my absolute passion for feeding people I continued to explore the cuisines of the countries I visited. The kabsa and rice in Saudi Arabia. The lumpia and adobo in the Phillipines. The beet root on a burger in Australia (GAG). I was in a small town in Western Australia called Geraldtown in 1984. Small would be an understatement. Anyway I’m in a local little shop and stay safe by ordering a burger. That first bite hit my senses and I spit that out right away. Who in the bleepy-d-bleep puts a sliced red beet on a burger? Well come to find out the flipping Aussies do.

The passion I later realized was the result of a trip to the San Diego zoo many years later with my sister (the one love I’ve had since the day I was born). She was in her 40’s and still would not eat potato salad or any other thing mixed with mayonnaise. However that day at the zoo it was the only side item available at the sandwich stand we chose to grab a quick lunch. We were very hungry. Much to her amazement she loved the potato salad. It wasn’t the traditional southern style with mustard. It was made with red potatoes and a mix of fresh herbs. I decided that I could recreate this at home for my sister. She and the entire family were impressed. They had never had any other potato salad except the one with the mustard, pickle relish and the required boiled egg. To this day I still call it my sisters potato salad. She even makes it herself now…

This gave me the AHA moment and I began collecting food memories from all over the world. Like going out for a night of flamenco dancing and eating langostine and tapas with wine on the coast of Spain. I’ve had the best shwarma in Egypt along the Red Sea. I’ve had sea slugs in Hong Kong and rooster balls in Taiwan at a lavish Chinese wedding. My friend’s wife in Turkey would cook me karnyirik every time I would return to that country.

Then I found my food heaven in a tiny laksa kitchen no bigger than half the size of the one here in the church. It was in Sydney Australia inside a local pub/theatre.

My coworkers and I would slip down at least once, hopefully twice a week to enjoy this Indonesian ambrosia. The person taking our order standing at the kitchen “AIR QUOTES” door didn’t speak great English. He or she (we were never really sure of the gender we called them Pat) would look at my coworker as he ordered the bean turd laksa… Kevin is a wanker…first class! I LOVE LAKSA!! The best thing Ive ever eaten.

I spent a lot of time in Sydney, about 7-8 months out of the year there for about 4 years. I learned a lesson about food love being a give and take experience there. When we completed the multi-year contract our Australian manager (Chris Anderson) invited me and my coworker Kevin home for dinner. I always felt it was a blessing to be invited to someone’s table. I stopped and bought wine and flowers for Kevin and I to give Chris’s wife. We arrived on time for cocktail hour. HELLO COCKTAIL HOUR!!! I’m not gonna be late for cocktails, right? As we were relaxing and chatting about life he informed us that his mom had slaughtered a spring lamb on their ranch that morning and had brought it into the city for our dinner. UGH!!! I did not eat lamb. The gaminess of the taste just didn’t sit on my taste buds too well… But I know the feeling of inviting someone to dinner and it not being well received. You spend so much time and energy planning, buying and preparing the meal. It comes from a love of wanting to gather with great people and share a common experience from time immemorial. So to see someone not enjoying your labor is heart wrenching. So over the next hour I was trying to maintain my composure and determine how I would get out of eating this lamb roast. Well HA! That lamb roast was delicious. I didn’t need to pretend or hurt anyone’s feelings. Not only did I get to experience that feeling of comfort in their home and see the delight his wife had knowing we loved the meal; but I also learned that I like AUSTRALIAN lamb. I still won’t eat American lamb. In America we allow them to grow a few months longer than down under. That extra time in the field develops more of that gamey taste I don’t like. Luckily Costco only sells Australian lamb!!!

All of these foods have a place in my heart. I still remember the families in Turkey taking me up into the mountains to their summer cabin. We grilled over a wood fire and the hostess had brought her homemade baklava. She came walking out of this tiny little cabin carrying a pan about 30” in diameter. The love just radiating from her eyes as she looked at me. After all; I was the very reason we were there. All of us just swooned over the crisp tender layers of honey and pistachio. Licking our lips in amazement that she had created this wonder in her kitchen that very morning. This woman didn’t speak a word of English. That really didn’t matter. We saw in each other that spark of knowing the love of food and the proud feeling of carrying on family traditions of food. Many of which are dwindling in our world.

I have brought many of these treats back home to enjoy with my family and friends. I usually eat something in a place that I cannot live without. So I must return home and learn to create it as best I can remember. I have put so many food branches on our family tree through my travels. It has all brought me here to my new heaven. The place I share with my one true love, John.

When I return to my family in Florida the first question is what night is Uncle Mel cooking? You see my family doesn’t cook for me anymore. My mother hasn’t graced me with her cooking in about 15 years. I still sit and talk with her and my sister about the foods from our childhood. The tomato or potato gravy with biscuits. A meal we often had when we didn’t have enough meat. Those fresh lady peas that were so tender and flavorful. We speak of Granny Hallman and how she always had a sweet baked good on her table. My granddaddy Melvin (where I get my name) wanted something sweet after every meal and she took care of granddaddy.

I don’t really believe in regrets in life. However regrets in food? Oh yes!!! I regret that I never learned how to make my Aunt Irene’s biscuits or my granny Tidwell’s collard greens. They put their foot in those things y’all! They were delicious…

Here are a few food quotes that I adore:

–   Frances Moore Lappé says

The act of putting into your mouth what the earth has grown
is perhaps your most direct interaction with the earth.


–   Elsa Schiaparelli wrote

Eating is not merely a material pleasure. Eating well gives a spectacular joy
to life and contributes immensely to goodwill and happy companionship. 
It is of great importance to the morale.

  –   Lewis Grizzard (that old southern humorist) said:

It’s difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts
while eating a homegrown tomato.

So In even simpler terms, community is built upon conversations. People like to eat, and they like to talk about it. Ask a stranger anywhere in the world what or where he likes to eat, and chances are he’ll open up.

You do it. We all do it. We love to chat about where we ate and how good (hopefully) or bad it was. But it’s more than the food. The atmosphere. The friendly waitress. It’s about that bind every human has to the other. FOOD and LOVE. We all experience it, right?

That’s my story. If you have ever talked to me for more than 2 minutes I’d bet we’ve spoken about food. It really never leaves my thoughts. Early on when John and I first met he would ask me what I was thinking. Now that he knows me he’s figured out it’s a silly question. Let’s see? I’m thinking about what’s for dinner?  What groceries do we need? A buttery scone or the Gelato I devoured at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. LOL It just really never goes fully away.  And I love it!

Well I now spend most days growing what I can when I can like my daddy and granddaddy. Then canning, pickling and freezing just like my mother and grandmother before me. I often tell people that I can channel the old southern lady inside me.

I grow lots of flowers for the table or your bedside nightstand if you stay over in the guest room. I cook mustard greens with bacon grease and hog jowl. And still occasionally get the chance to show my love of food and my love through food to my family and friends. I would love to get the opportunity to show every single one of you too…. Please join me at my table.

Thanks for listening….

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