Radio Readers BookByte: City Food

Oct 25, 2017

Leslie Von Holton of the Kansas Humanities Council found similarities in the stories of food from her childhood through her city life.

Mark Kurlansky’s Edible Stories is an odd collection of strange characters and strange experiences. People fall into holes and go to baseball games and watch the stock market at the gym and argue with their neighbors. Throughout these braided stories of characters that criss cross one another is the food—pink salt, fattening muffins, wine—that punctuate misunderstandings and hurt feelings. It’s a book about people, mostly.

And yet the stories are about food. Food, really, in cities.

When I grew up in rural Kansas, food was at home on the table, with family, every night. Every meal, really. My mother or my grandmother made full-on meat and potatoes dinners, with canned vegetables in the winter and fresh vegetables from the garden in the summer. We were a religious family, so wine and beer were verboten. Even the communion wine was just grape juice.

We rarely ate out, and when we did it was a big deal—Pizza Hut in the next town over. For special occasions.

So reading Edible Stories, in its strange way, took me back to when I left my rural home to live in the city—first to Kansas City, and then Chicago. The noise, the people, the food—everything was different. Dinner was late, fast, super cheap or very expensive. I was wide-eyed, a little scared, broke, and more curious than I’d ever been in my life.

I remember the first time I had hummus. I had to whisper to the waiter—How do I eat this?

The first time I shared Ethiopian food with friends, served on a bent-up pizza pan. I had to sit on my hands to keep from eating more than my share of the red lentils. They were amazing.

At Tibet Café, I learned for the first time that food can be political. I had been blind to this in my own Kansas community.

There were countless bowls of Thai noodles, brewpub chips, hot dogs with celery salt and sport peppers. So many kinds of cheese. Cheap black coffee. Fancy capaccinos. The variations of pizza. There are so many ways to do pizza.

And now, just like Mark Kurlansky’s characters braided within one story to the next, the friends and neighbors who populate my food memories move from city to country and back again. Today I’m back home in Kansas, where my country friends and I eat curry from the gas station and hummus is everywhere. When my city friends visit, we talk about urban agriculture policy and trade composting tips and eat the same things I had from my parents’ garden when I was a kid. I’m a little bit country, and a lot more city, and the food I feed my family reflects that. Life, happily, is full of these intersecting edible stories.