Editor’s Note: We’ve gone on a search-and-rescue mission to find amazing stories and essays published in earlier print editions of Rootstock. Today’s throwback, “Food as Gift” was written by Kim Kafka for the Fall 2009 edition of Rootstock.

The gifts of food I have received over the course of my 51 years occupy the grandest vault of my memory. They surpass and run deeper into what we consider as “food gifts” – holiday confections, birthday cakes, donations to food banks and food pantries – to moments of dire need and to experiences that create the deepest of emotional bonds.

My friends tell me the lengths I go to for food, real food, are extraordinary. I think that’s as it should be. There is a complication, however, to my procurement of regular sustenance. Sometimes, I can eat like the rest of the world – at four-hour intervals – but more often my metabolic bell rings at two-hour intervals. You might think this problem is easy to solve. After all, cheese crackers grow on trees, don’t they? But remember, we’re talking about real food.

09-55014-RS_FALL09_FINALThis makes for layers of complication when traveling. When out and about in the real world, it becomes all too clear just how hard it is to find real, nutritious (translate: organic) food. To tell you the truth, I can’t stand to travel anymore because of it. When flying, at least, you used to be able to bring your own food. Now, you’re at the mercy of the food courts beyond the security checkpoint, and God help you if your flights are delayed, which they generally are. While they don’t have the actual cheese cracker tree in the airport, they have obviously harvested truckloads in preparation for our imprisonment in the labyrinth of airport concourses. Still, this particular food barrier is a fairly recent development.

In spite of meticulous preparations, there are times I have been caught off guard for one reason or another, and found myself unable to get food of any kind. Most of these incidents are gratifying in retrospect, because they occurred as a result of the kindness and generosity of strangers. I don’t know why this surprises me still. In most cultures of the world, it is considered an honor, if not a downright imperative, to feed someone in need; even if all you have for sustenance is a cup of water, it will be split into portions and shared.

There is a time in particular when the circumstances of a food crisis and the resulting gift of food from strangers marked me deeply. While traveling through Europe in my 20s, I found myself at the end of my trip on a train to London, where I would visit family before flying back to the States.

It was the high season in Europe, and there were plenty of delays. I had no food and I had run out of money. I was toting 50 pounds of the finest Swiss chocolate to bring home as gifts, but you can only survive on chocolate for so long, and it had another destiny, after all. So there I was, getting shakier by the minute, trying desperately to keep my paws off the gifts, when the train stopped in Paris.

An Italian couple with a little boy filed into my compartment. My very sketchy grasp of Italian led me to understand that they were on their way to London to visit relatives. The little boy was carrying a red metal lunch pail in which he had stashed crayons, pencils and little bits of cloth that he would twist and knot into the shapes of people.

The mother started unpacking food from one of her copiously laden bags. Out came baguettes, salamis, cheeses, wine, olives and fruit. I was spellbound. When the mother noticed my wolfish stare, she refused to look my way again. But the little boy, who must have been six or seven, stared back at me with huge, understanding eyes in that way only children can get away with. He knew instinctively that I wasn’t a bad person, merely a hungry one, or maybe he just put two and two together when he noticed the drool on my chin.

His mother drizzled a little olive oil onto a piece of sliced baguette, layered on some creamy mozzarella, olives and tomatoes, then handed it to the little boy. He took the offering carefully, in both hands, and looked at it, then looked at me. My eyes must have been big as his as I stared at the feast in his hands. Then, magically the hands moved across the aisle toward me, and I took his offering, mumbling “Mille gratzi.” In fact, “many thanks” was pretty much the only thing I could say correctly in Italian.

The mother stopped breathing for a moment, hovering between anger and pride. I looked at her gratefully and thanked her, and she smiled, blushing, before saying it was nothing. I ate very slowly, my eyes closed as I chewed, savoring every bit of the sacrificed repast. The little boy watched me intently, a small smile on his face.

By the time I got off the train, I felt great, and strangely lighter. But maybe that was because in return for the little boy’s offering, I had given him the only thing I had to give that I thought he might like, the biggest slab of the unctuous chocolate I had in my bag. The mother protested vigorously, but I pushed it back, saying only “Gratzi. Mille gratzi.”

So many years later this incident moves me to tears. Why? To feed and be fed by another has great weight in the human psyche, beginning with the first sustenance we receive in our mothers’ wombs. When we cook with our children, we nourish that knowledge in them as well as their bodies. Our most vivid memories consist of the act of eating together. From childhood, meals a la cucina di casa have a particularly important place in our personal histories. I share that food memory like so many of us, though the cucina in our casa was not exactly the stage setting for that sharing, and the memories consist mostly of my mother. The funny thing is, my mother could not cook worth beans, or even cook beans, for that matter, but she was undoubtedly a gourmet.

My mother and I were combatants from day one. A pattern began to emerge in our battles. Around the time we began to tire and it looked as if our horns were locked irrevocably, food would pop up. “Let’s have a little snack,” my mother would say, or “There’s a new Japanese restaurant over on Blanding. Let’s go there.” And off we’d go, steam still rising from our hides but joined in the desire to sample something delectable. Inevitably, our fight receded to the background, and we’d retire from our meal laughing and happy. Food was the unseverable tie between us.

While I was at college, we wrote to each other rather than go to the expense of using the telephone. If she did call, I knew the reasons were dire. Freshman year, she called to tell me my father had died. By the end of the conversation, I was consoling her on the matter of the reception after the funeral. “Don’t worry, Mom,” I said soothingly. “Other people bring the food.” She sighed and said, “What a gift.”

As her manual typewriter began to fail, she called more. After we’d fought for a while about whatever I was doing that she never liked, there would come a lull in the conversation which was always broken by her piping up with great excitement, “Guess where I went Wednesday night?” I would guess, wrongly, then she would tell me and proceed to list what was served. Whatever she had eaten sounded wonderful as she recounted it. She never lacked for adjectives when it came to food.

Fourteen years ago I was living in Maine in a log house. My mother visited me there and loved it. I served her meals that astounded her. “I can’t believe you can cook,” she kept saying. “This is wonderful.” These were the closest things to genuine parental praise I got from her. I melted. We made plans to reprise the visit the following spring.

A month before that next visit, I received a phone call from her one Saturday night that began with an argument over why I hadn’t called her. As usual, I explained that I had called several times and had to list exactly the times I’d called so she could be certain that she was, truly, out. Then we started in on my cigarette habit, which I had recently kicked. I said I still wanted one badly sometimes, and she flew into a rage. We fought about weakness for a while until we fell into the predictable stony silence.

She broke it, as I knew she would, with an excited gasp. “Guess where I’m going tomorrow?” I guessed, all wrong. Finally she said that she was going to her best friend’s wealthy son’s big bash at the beach. We had a good drool over the menu, which she told to me in unctuous detail, right down to the Cristal champagne. I told her to bring home a doggie bag for me, as was our custom over the years.

The following evening, I received an uncharacteristic phone call from my brother. It took him a long while to say it, but he finally told me in a very small voice that our mother had been killed in a car accident. We waited an eternity in silence while the phone line clicked and hummed. Probably, it was just my heart breaking in my ears.

Suddenly, I had to know where she was when it happened. Had she been heading west on Butler Boulevard or east? He allowed as how he thought it was west. “Thank God,” I murmured, closing my eyes.

“Why?” he wanted to know.

“Because that means she was coming home from the party,” I said. “She’d been given a wonderful meal.”

***

Kimberly Kafka has published two novels, as well as numerous articles for nationally distributed newspapers and outdoor magazines. She has been an advocate for water and soil conservation since childhood. She lives and writes in Wisconsin where the heart beats strong.