Food

My Childhood Dream of Running Away—and Eating Like an Absolute King

I was sure that food would taste better, out there.

A drawing of a hobo's bindle with a bottle of milk, a sandwich, and blueberries inside.
Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo.

The most substantial and immediate result of reading novels as a child was the shoring up of a dim yet tenacious conviction that somewhere out in the world was good food, good food of a type and quality and quantity that was either being consciously denied me in the present by certain unknown insurgent agents or whose preparation and provenance had long ago been forgotten. The best literary foods always appeared in the process of running away, that ceaseless and shared imaginative project of childhood everywhere.

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My family lived in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, roughly equidistant between a Piggly Wiggly and a Jewel-Osco supermarket, which supplied my parents with sufficient material to feed us regularly and, I have no doubt, with the best of intentions. This meant skinless chicken breasts, sometimes with and sometimes without a sheet of Coca-Cola–colored teriyaki sauce blurted over them; Hamburger Helper (usually the beef stroganoff variety, but on at least one memorable occasion the cheeseburger macaroni made an appearance); massive and perpetually out-of-season raspberries in plastic clamshells; blue glasses of skim milk; foil-skinned triangles of Laughing Cow cheese; steamed broccoli; jealously guarded green boxes of SnackWell’s diet devil’s food cookie cakes and Healthy Choice diet ice cream; Trix pink-and-purple-swirl–flavored yogurt; a newspaper-clipping recipe for coffee cake; Jif peanut butter (smooth, always; the primary texture of my childhood was smoothness); Little Caesars pizza on Friday nights; Oroweat whole-grain bread; a tusk-colored tub of Country Crock margarine; Eggo mini waffles on Sundays, two flats apiece, each flat containing four mini waffles, for a total of eight mini waffles per person, with Log Cabin maple-flavored syrup, microwaved for 15 seconds before pouring.

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But the type of book I liked best as a middle-grade, middle-class, middle-risk child always managed to combine the independence of running away with the conveniences of a secure household: Lucy Pevensie bolts out of England through the wardrobe and straight into afternoon tea; the Kincaid siblings tuck themselves into the Metropolitan Museum of Art and subsequently tuck into pie and coffee from the automat (a true flower of the Midwest, I was overwhelmed by the glamour of the very idea of automated coffee); Liza and Annie of Annie on My Mind share baked beans and cheese sandwiches at the selfsame museum a decade or so later; Jesse’s terrifyingly extravagant three-dollar lunch in Bridge to Terabithia; even Ramona Quimby’s “tongue surprise” had an otherworldly appeal, as the only tongue I’d ever chewed had been my own, to say nothing of her basement feast of apples; the hoarded blueberries and river-cold bottles of milk available to the Boxcar Children, whose tenure in the boxcar was disappointingly brief; Heidi’s endless supply of toasted-cheese sandwiches; the dizzying array of savory pies available to Bilbo Baggins and the mice priests of Redwall, which often melded together into a single feast in my imagination.

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Unlike my own ziplocked lunches, the sandwiches in these stories always seemed to arrive wrapped carefully in either waxed or buttered paper, often with a single ingredient: cheese sandwich, egg sandwich, ham sandwich. Cakes wrapped in napkins, stored in pockets that by necessity must have been bigger and more capacious than any pocket I’d ever worn in my life. Bread and cheese featured heavily in these fantasies, mostly because I didn’t really know how to work the stove by myself yet, unlike A Wrinkle in Time’s maddeningly precocious Charles Wallace, whose ability to make hot cocoa at age 5 liquefied me with envy. The dream of running away to a world of greater freedom and even greater convenience! I knew I was destined for a life of automat baked beans, of thick squares of pie, of cheese-only sandwiches, of loaves of bread not yet sliced, of buttered wedges of bannock cake, of a thermos of coffee with Cremora, whatever Cremora was—food that came only in the form of wedges and squares and fat slices, bound up in napkins and blotting paper and string, good corner food, food with an edge and a base and a foundation, food designed to hold its own structure right until coming to rest in the happy basement of the stomach. To be responsible for one’s own coziness was the most ambitious promise of these books, to store up one’s larder with future treasures, to catalog and memorize the scale and remit of all future meals in a fat lump wholly unrecognizable to the carefully apportioned, managed, and throttled allowance of pleasure of a SnackWell’s cookie.

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Then there was the food the television promised, mostly through reruns of old Merrie Melodies and Little Lulu cartoons, Dickensian plenty filtered through Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, what I thought of at the time as “king food” and later came to think of as “Renaissance Faire food”—a big hot onion at the end of a jeweled dagger, a brace of partridges, little hot pancakes tossed in the air and then down the throat in exaggerated gulps, roasted apples with skins too hot to handle by hand, the sort of food where one claps at servants for more, with candles guttering in the background, bread ripped open and steaming, goblets of red and purple, big spiced halves of beast, chestnuts and sweetmeats, geese and gooseberries, a table riddled with plenty, set for both the wild man and the king, crying welcome.

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The closest I came to such a table in real life was a fourth-grade field trip to Medieval Times, where we were encouraged to eat a tin plate’s worth of rotisserie chicken with our hands, an experience so pleasurable to my 8-year-old appetite, I nearly blacked out before the joust. Boston Market’s rotisserie chicken, until that moment the height of my culinary experience, would forever pale in comparison. I knew then, and tucked the knowledge safely away, that there was glory and satisfaction to be wrung from the world, if only for those willing to leave home in order to find and eat it. There were a thousand SnackWell’s cookies to be chewed through first, but I had strong teeth from all that skim milk and could already see my way through to the other side.

Excerpted from My First Popsicle: An Anthology of Food and Feelings, edited by Zosia Mamet.

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