Only When I Laugh
by Elouise Bell
High on Huckleberry Hill
[p.9]Nostalgia food. I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit lately. Nostalgia food engenders rich and cherished memories, so that the food takes on an aura quite separate from its objective reality.
I first learned about nostalgia food when I traveled to Wales, home of my father’s ancestors, and tasted the “Poor Man’s Cake” that my father had raved about for years. Well, “Poor Man’s Cake” is just what its honest title suggests—a make-do dish that barely qualifies as dessert at all. Why, then, had my father carried on about it throughout my childhood? Simply because it was a staple of his childhood, of those times when a growing boy’s appetite provided the tangy sauce for any dish, and because his adoring mother made it for him. His memories had virtually nothing to do with the austere ingredients of the humble cake itself.
Nostalgia food from the Intermountain region, according to people who have ‘fessed up to me, includes lettuce and milk (lettuce crumbled in a bowl, sprinkled with sugar and doused in milk), cake and milk (same scenario—with canned fruit added if available), and of course the honored Mormon tradition, bread [p.10]and milk. As for my own family, I was in college before I realized that many people never ate lettuce sandwiches—just lettuce and mayonnaise on bread. We also poured ketchup in a saucer and dipped bread into it. We did the same, I regret to say, with syrup and bread.
But the real nostalgia food of my childhood was huckleberries. Huckleberries and blueberries are first cousins-same family but different genus. One of the earliest memories of my life centers on cool summer mornings in northern Pennsylvania, before the sun had warmed the day, when a swarthy woman known only as “Huckleberry Mary” carne sauntering through the alleys of our childhood calling that wonderful chant, “Huuckleberries!” On her head she balanced a large dishpan filled with berries she and her children had picked before sunrise that day. My grandmother would give me a peck measure, and I would scoot out and get our morning’s supply. The deep purple berries were rinsed in cold water, covered with sugar and milk (not today’s 1-percent or even 2-percent), and slowly, almost meditatively, consumed. You could put them on cereal, of course, or in muffins or pancakes, but to me, such arrangements always obscured the point, which was the plump, perfect berries themselves. No fruit I know of is plumper than a ripe huckleberry—you might almost call it over-inflated. To feel the berries burst on your tongue and yield up their sweetness that was a pleasure that never lost its delight.
Now, in actuality, huckleberries have a rather … what can I say that will be honest yet not disloyal? … a simple flavor. I know that objectively, strawberries and peaches and other fruits are more impressive. But beauty is in the taste-buds of the beholder, so to speak. The other day at Albertson’s I saw cups of blueberries for sale. Not quite huckleberries, but family is family.
I took them home, washed them lovingly, and poured on some half-and-half. I expected a degree of disappointment. But no. Suddenly, I was ten years old again, and the morning was cool, the world fresh, and Huckleberry Mary’s street-chant was strong and alluring as ever, unmuffled by time’s long corridor.