Tasting the Past

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Original Air Date: 
May 25, 2024

Maybe it’s your grandmother’s molasses cookies, the garlicky tomato sauce your spouse cooked when you were first dating, or the chicken noodle soup you made every week when your kids were little. The sights, smells and tastes of certain foods can instantly remind us of a person or transport us back to a particular time in our lives. In this episode, we’ll meet kitchen ghosts from Kentucky, hear how religion and food are intertwined, and talk about how flavor evokes emotion – from grief to joy.

stacked up biscuits

Growing up in Appalachia, Crystal Wilkinson learned that food was about community and family. Now she is passing her stories and recipes down to her own children and grandchildren in her new book, "Praisesong for the Kitchen Ghosts.”

sliced mango

Aimee Nezhukumatathil takes us through the layers of food emotion and nostalgia, encouraging us to slow down and experience taste and all the wonder it brings with it.

Jumbo's Good Food, c. 2001

When Joe Hardtke was a kid in the 1980s, Jumbo's Drive-In in Kewaunee, Wisconsin was the place all the farm kids hung out. 40 years later, people still talk about their fries. Joe went back to his hometown to investigate what made those fries so perfect — crispy and filled with flavor — and how the story of Jumbo’s is a reflection on how we all see our hometowns. 

Kenan Kitchen

Religious groups have long had rules and traditions that become part of the fabric of a lifetime. Master food preserver Christina Ward set out to find those histories in her book "Holy Food: How Cults, Communes, and Religious Movements Influenced What We Eat."

cookie dough

Three authors share recipes that anchor them back to history, both shared and personal.


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- [[Anne] It's "To The Best of Our Knowledge". I'm Anne Strainchamps. What is it about food and cooking that makes memories come to life? Walk into a kitchen, fill a pot with water, and you can practically feel the ghosts hovering in the air. Crystal Wilkinson does.

- [Crystal] When I string green beans, I spread my legs wide and let my dress dip between my legs like my grandmother did, and use the skirt cloth to place the strings in as I go. Everything was a tool in my grandmother's house, even her clothing. Mine too. I snap each green bean three times, once to take off the stem, once to take off the tip, and once to break them in half before I place them in a pan of cold water on the floor in front of me. The rhythm of work like this is cellular. A memory my body carries. Our connections to food are ancestral. Sometimes I hear myself saying, "Law me, or Lord have mercy." I shake the strings from my dress tail into an old newspaper and reach for more. I scrub the new white potatoes, pour any dark spots from the flesh, and dunk them into the pan of water too. I rinse them for dirt, then run more water and rinse them again. I put a little vegetable oil and a large sauce pot and add a smoked turkey leg or thigh and a chopped onion. I let the onion get soft, then I put in my green beans and new potatoes. Pour just enough water to cover the vegetables and let it simmer. I am always motivated to cook. When something that smells good is simmering in the pot, the aroma floating through the house lets my children know their hard work will pay off. They come one by one and ask, "Mama, what you cooking?" I shoo them back to their chores. Smile, wipe the sweat from my brow and keep at it. I am always thinking of the big mamas, the aunties and the grannies who were doing the same thing with similar rhythms in their bodies, their elbows bending, their fingers gripping, their cooking spoons like this. The steam rising to coat their faces. Cooking is meditation. Cooking is communing with the kitchen ghost long dead. These Sundays are church.

- [Anne] In her kitchen, Crystal Wilkinson can feel the presence of five generations of black women who came before her. She grew up in rural Kentucky making buttermilk biscuits and blackberry cobbler with her grandmother. And now the former poet Laureate of Kentucky is passing her family's stories and recipes down to her own children and grandchildren. Shannon Henry Kleiber is a big fan of her book, "Praise Song for the Kitchen Ghosts."

- [Shannon] Crystal, I love how you talk about hanging up your grandmother's dress sometimes when you're cooking. How did you think about that? Did you just see it and you thought, I need a little inspiration. I'm going to take her dress and I'm gonna actually hang it up in the kitchen and have it be an inspiration to me as I'm cooking?

- [Crystal] It was just something that I did in a moment of grief. After she died, my cousins who are like siblings and my aunts and uncles, we always gathered down home. And so she had passed and we were thinking we were all in deep grief and thinking about how we proceed from here. It was Thanksgiving and I was struggling. I mean, I'm a good cook, but I was just sort of struggling against the grief and not sure that I could do it. And I remembered that I had her dress in the closet, and I just went back there and grabbed it. And my intention was just to touch it. But I brought it into the kitchen with me and hung it up on the back door and sort of felt her presence there and could almost hear her voice saying, "Okay, get it going. Get your pots out. Let's go."

- [Shannon] Who else are the kitchen ghosts in your family?

- [Crystal] Well, I imagine... I talk about my mother being a failed cook. She's there and my grandmother, Christine and her mother, and most of all, Aggie. Aggie of color she was called, that was born in 1795 in Virginia and brought to Kentucky as an enslaved child. She haunted me so greatly. Just the idea of being able to go that far back and touching that part of my history in such a deep ancestral way.

- [Shannon] What do you mean she haunted you? Did you hear her voice?

- [Crystal] I did hear her voice. I was at a writing retreat in Florida, and I had been given this task by an editor. I was gonna do this series of little short lyric essays around my matriarchal lineage, and I just decided, well, let me see how far back I can go. And I found her, and she was listed as Aggie of color. And Charlton Wilkinson, who is my fourth great grandfather, a white man, and Aggie of color, who was my fourth great grandmother, appeared on a court document where he had deeded her kitchen utensils or household items like a feather bedstead, a table, pots and pans. And the top of my head blew off. And I thought I had never gotten so close to the period of enslavement in my lineage. As an intellectual, as a professor, as a black woman in America, I knew the history, but I had never gotten so close to it with my lineage to realize that that's where the Wilkinson name came from. And the fact that Carlton was a white man and he had never married a white woman and had 10 children with her. Each little bit of archival research unearthed another wonder to me, and I was really focused on Aggie. And I went to sleep wondering about her life. And I woke up and I heard a voice that said, "My mother calls to me, but not in your language." My eyes, it got popped up, and I just began sobbing knowing that she was my relative. And it seemed to be a call to me that she was asking me to tell her story.

- [Shannon] Oh, and so she is a character in this book, and she is a voice in this book, and you've brought her back in so many ways. What is particular or really vibrant about the food ways of her time and her life that came through generations later in your family?

- [Crystal] I think for me, what happened was when my grandmother passed, I came up with the idea of the kitchen ghost, but I realized that almost nothing we do is sort of isolated in our time. Everything reaches back. In the bread chapter, I say there has always been bread. And I started thinking about how important it was for my grandmother to have bread, and it was always homemade bread, so it was biscuits and it was cornbread. And I began to trace the lineage of bread. What would bread have looked like in Aggie's time with the rations she would've had available to her as an enslaved woman? I started thinking about that and just why we do a certain thing or why... Saw flour that can only be found in this region to make the perfect southern biscuit. It's not that northerners can't make biscuits. They can, but it's in the ingredients too. So sometimes even the ingredients are regional.

- [Shannon] So tell me about some of the things that you cook if you have a certain emotion? Is there some time when you're feeling, I don't know, if you're feeling sad or if you're feeling disconnected, do you turn to a certain thing you want to cook?

- [Crystal] I think bread making brings it all back, the quickest way to sort of commune with the ancestors, if you will, or to sort of meditate through while cooking. I've got what's been wonderful social media is to see all of these attempts at the biscuits that people send me. And I think biscuits are really simple to make, but they also help me sort of commune with the ancestors when I'm making biscuits or cornbread and the smell of the cornbread, the sizzle of it going into the skillet.

- [Shannon] When you were doing the research, is there anything that surprised you?

- [Crystal] Well, perhaps thinking about my mother and her need for birthday celebration. And thinking about sort of the history of black people not being able to celebrate during enslavement, not knowing their birthdays. That was a surprise.

- [Shannon] That was a lovely part. You tell a little bit about your mother loved her birthdays. She just-

- [Crystal] Yes.

- [Shannon] Right? So tell us about what would that be like?

- [Crystal] Yeah.

- [Shannon] And it's actually-

- [Crystal] Valentine's Day. My mother was a Valentine's baby, and so was one of my uncles. February 14th was her birthday, and she would start around Thanksgiving. That's when we would all be together. She would start and she'd say, "You know what's coming up. Guess what's coming up?" And we all knew what she was doing. Or she would call me and say, "My birthday's coming up in a few months." I mean, I think it started as early as July sometimes. But she was always talking about her birthday, and then when I did the research and I connected the history of birthdays for black people in America, I was like, well, maybe she sort of innately knew this. And I think it also... I hadn't realized how important I also thought birthdays were because I always tried to make my children's birthdays special when they were little, even to my own detriment.

- [Shannon] Well, I think it's worth it. You only have it once a year, right?

- [Crystal] That's true. It's true.

- [Shannon] Yeah. I also really... I like how you talk about recipes as being like poems, and you're a poet also. How does it seem like a poem to you? How do you compare poems and recipes?

- [Crystal] Well, I think it started with hearing my grandmother. Recipes are both, at least in my family, they're both oral and oral. So there's a storytelling element that I think makes them very poetic. And of course, where we're from, the accent and the cadence of the voice is melodic. And in giving me the recipes, she would say, "Now what you're gonna need is a bowl about the size of that white one down in that cabinet. Reach down there and you'll see what I'm talking about." And if I pulled out the wrong one, "Law me, Crystalline, that is not the right one. The white one, the one with the rim around the top." And then I would grab that up and she'd say, "And you're going feel that about half full, then you'll need a pinch at this. You'll need a dab of that." And just the rhythm in her voice. And I think all the women of her time from down home sounded that way. I mean, I think it's like in that passage that I read, I mean, I think it's cellular memory, right? It soothes me. It's almost like a meditation when I think about them making it. And then I've sort of become... I feel like in many ways, I've become my grandmother. Not only do I see her doing it, when I look down at my own hands, my hands are moving in the same way with the same rhythm that she had. I make that sort of joke of when she would stir things by hand so hard that her breasts would be shaking in her house dress and the meat on her arm would be flapping. And now when I'm beating a cake by hand, I'm like, oh, there she is. Like, there it is. That same sort of rhythm, that same motion. Not only can you look at old pictures and see the faces of your children or your siblings or your aunts in this generation, I would like to think that some of the things that they did or how they spoke, things we can't see in a photograph are also present.

- [Shannon] That was Crystal Wilkinson, author of "Praise Song for the Kitchen Ghosts", talking with Shannon Henry Kleiber. The funny thing about food is that no matter how vividly you remember the taste of something, it can be nearly impossible to put into words.

- [Joey] Is there any way that you can articulate to people who can't taste this anymore, what the hell was so special about these fries?

- [Angela] Joe, you're really trying to spark my memory here.

- [Joe] Did you just call me Joey?

- [Angela] Joe, I said Joe. I said Joe. You're really trying to spark my memory. That was how many years ago?

- [Joe] It was just 30, Angie.

- [Joe] Just 30, God.

- [Anne] Joe Hartke runs into a former classmate on the way to the drive-in later this hour. On "To the Best of Our Knowledge" from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. You could tell the story of your whole life in food, from the taste of home to that first trip on the wild side of the flavor palette, maybe in a big city.

- [Aimee] So it's back in the early 2000s where you could hop on a flight to New York City for $88 round trip.

- [Anne] This is writer, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, author of the new memoir, "Bite By Bite."

- [Aimee] I was single. I had my first job. Most of my friends were in New York City. Most of my friends at the time were living in kind of cramped apartments. So restaurants would host us. Restaurants would actually have fruit on hand, and miracle fruit is a great little jellybean-sized fruit. And if you eat one, everything you eat afterwards taste sweet. So if you eat a saltine cracker after you've had a miracle fruit, you would never know it's saltine. It would taste like a graham cracker. If you eat a lemon, you would swear that you were eating an orange.

- [Anne] That's amazing.

- [Aimee] Yeah, yeah. So it would be flavor tripping, that's what they call them. They were kind of this niche outing that you could do, and restaurants serve up either kind of sour or spicy foods. It was more of like a light buffet. But the grand finale was a Guinness.

- The gist of it is, is you have a miracle fruit, take a drink of Guinness, and it tastes like a chocolate milkshake. You would have to be convinced that that was you drinking beer. So it's a wild deliriously, exquisitely a bully at night. What is going on in my mouth? And it was all from fruit. It was all from fruit.

- [Anne] So I wanted to talk with Aimee because her new memoir is all about food and memory. She began it during the pandemic when cooking was a way of staying connected to the family she couldn't see. Parents in Florida, grandparents in India and the Philippines. And I think family recipes became more precious to a lot of us during lockdown. When I told Aimee that I have some old recipe cards handwritten by my great-grandmother, a woman I never even met, she knew right away what that meant.

- [Aimee] Oh my gosh. Do you have them in a safe place?

- [Anne] I do, yes.

- [Aimee] Good, good.

- [Anne] Yes, they're some of the first things that get taken out in the event of a fire.

- [Aimee] Yes, yes.

- [Anne] So I wanted to ask. Your father's from India and your mother's from the Philippines.

- [Aimee] That's right.

- [Anne] How did the foods of those geographies affect the way you grew up, the way you cook?

- [Aimee] Well, it's interesting because first of all, I love both cuisines. What a lucky upbringing, right? In some ways. Oh my gosh, the fact that I had lumpia and various curries really without ever having to leave the house from such a young age, it just seems like magic and so much care and love wrapped up in that. But I also think too, it's slightly different, my story, because we were the nuclear family. My mom came here, none of her relatives were here. Same thing with my father. They had each other. Both of them come from tropical areas, India and the Philippines, and they met in Chicago. And I have to wonder how it kind of breaks my heart a little bit to think of these two immigrants from such tropical hot countries trying to make food that they remember in the middle of a blizzard for their American children. They definitely made it a point that we grew up knowing their food from their various countries. But at the same time, I also know how hard won that was.

- [Anne] And growing food was a big part of your family also. Your parents always had a garden, it seems like.

- [Aimee] Absolutely. It was almost considered wasteful. You have a yard and you're not doing something with it? You're not helping grow fruits and vegetables that you can share with neighbors, that kind of thing.

- [Anne] You write that their love language is their garden. And in particular, you write so beautifully about mangoes, and they have this wonderful kind of back and forth about whose mangoes are best. The Filipino mangoes or the Indian mangoes.

- [Aimee] That's right.

- [Anne] Yeah. Exactly, that's the only kind of squabble they have in the garden is like, no, the Philippine mangoes are the best. Everything else they wish they could be better than the Philippine mangoes, you know?

- [Anne] How different do they taste?

- [Aimee] I didn't even really fully understand how many varieties of mangoes there are. So there's some that have a hint of almost cherry to it. There's some that have... That are really thready and that have a lot of fibers. It's kind of a pain in the behind to eat. Then there's others that just it almost like falls off your spoon as you scoop it up. So different levels of tartness, different levels of sweetness.

- [Anne] I guess I was wondering reading your book, how much it's changed to be writing about foods that you grew up with as the child of immigrants. There's a story you tell at the very beginning of the book about you were in grad school and you wrote a poem about mangoes. And I mean, rather than me telling your story, I'll just ask you what happened.

- [Aimee] Oh, yeah. And I mean, boy, that's exhibit A of how far we've come with food discourse, how we treat difference or anything. I mean, the gist of it is I took graduate courses in creative writing, and there's one class period. We spent the entire kind of half hour all just debating whether or not I should put the word mango, which I used in a poem, in italics or a footnote, because it was too, so-called, and I'm using air quotes here, too foreign or too exotic.

- [Anne] Wow.

- [Aimee] And people may not know what it is, so you might need to explain a mango with a definition or something. And it's just-

- [Anne] My God, do you need to footnote mango?

- [Aimee] I know, exactly, exactly. Where I grew up, even in Chicago or Iowa, my parents found ways to find mangoes. Somehow it did not seem exotic or weird or bizarre. It was weird and bizarre that other people did not have mangoes. But I can't say that in a class full of white folks who were all telling me how foreign and strange this fruit was.

- [Anne] I mean, it's funny now, but it sounds really painful.

- [Aimee] Yeah, I'm absolutely laughing and smiling recalling this time. But at the time it was like, wow, can we give me commentary on the content of the poem? What else can I do with the poem? I wanted feedback. I wanted helpful feedback.

- Yeah. It's changed a lot. And don't you also think in this one area, we got it right?

- [Aimee] Yes.

- [Anne] Food and cooking, embracing diversity in this just makes everything richer and more fun and more joyous. And so if we get that in the world of food and cooking, maybe we can manage it in other arenas also.

- [Aimee] I know, right? That's exactly it, Anne. Oh my goodness.

- [Anne] I'm curious, is the mango poem in your book, is that the one you wrote in that class?

- [Aimee] It is not.

- [Anne] Can I ask you to read it anyway? Do you have your book with you?

- [Aimee] I do, I do. Let me see.

- [Anne] Okay.

- [Aimee] All right. This is called "The Origin of the Mango". "Of course, my parents can't agree. My father says one of its flat, stringy seeds floated all the way from India and just happened to land on the Philippine shoreline. Anything good comes from India according to my father. Swirls of calligraphy, the darkest, purest gold hammered into rings and loopy Bengals, paprika and web thin silks that send hundreds of pirates in a frenzied search to the east. But mangoes, my mother doesn't buy it. She says the queen fruit of her beloved islands came from a tree growing in the spot where a Philippina named Malanga pierced her heart through with a knife. The girl's parents wanted her to marry someone. She did not love a regular Juliet. The tree grows bold and thick in the swell of winter, pushes out a dozen heart-shaped fruits so we won't forget. I think of my parents, their hands slip into mangoes with a knife blade, fingers fly lightly over the skins. Different countries, same blood, hungry for this fruit. It's flesh like cold, sweet meat, fiber spun gold, sweet pulp in the teeth. The fight over the seed, and who gets to suck each sugary fiber from the pit. It only curls their wet hands together even more, only gets more gold juice the right story.

- [Anne] Oh, I love that. I love that. The way you bring the story and the juice and the mango all together at the end. That's beautiful.

- [Aimee] Thank you.

- [Anne] So your earlier book was about wonder, but it does seem to me that you're writing in this book is also so much about wonder, but in this case, it's the wonder of exploring the world with our mouths and tongues. I don't know, I'm just wondering what you'd say about the way wonder and taste come together in how we apprehend the world.

- [Aimee] Oh, I love that question. It's so expansive, and gosh, that sounds like almost an essay prompt for a whole nother essay, an extra coda to the book. But I guess I would just say that to tackle that question, it would have to be remembering that memory is so tied up with smells, and smell is therefore tied up with taste more than any other scent. Biologically, and I'm not a scientist so scientists can weigh in, but the place in our brains that processes memory is also coincidentally the same place that processes smell. And so I think there's something about smell and food that brings us together because we wanna share our memories. Oh, that reminds me of my grandmother. That reminds me of my first kiss. That reminds me of a not great date. Whatever it is, it conjures up memories just when we least expect it more than any other sense. So I think there's definitely something about the sharing of food and food moments with each other that makes us feel not so alone. We can't help but wanna share these stories with other people too. So yeah, I love that question. But in a big nutshell, that's what I would go for.

- [Anne] Well, that's interesting 'cause I think of wonder, it's such a hard sensation to... It almost feels wrong to try to define it in a way, because wonder to me is all about expansiveness, about making whatever experience you're having right now in the moment, bigger, and that's what you just described with food or with scent. The way you can be standing right here, I don't know, I can take a carton of raspberries out of the refrigerator. And even though, okay, they're refrigerated raspberries that were picked 10 days ago somewhere far away from me. Nevertheless, I can stand there and smell them and be transported back to my grandparents' berry patch in Springfield, Missouri, standing on a summer vacation picking berries straight into my morning cereal bowl.

- [Aimee] Oh, that's so sweet.

- [Anne] Tasting that warmth of the sun. I mean, nothing I can buy in the store if it comes in plastic is ever going to taste remotely like that. But I can get just a little tiny hit of it. And so for that moment, I'm in two places and the world is so much bigger.

- [Aimee] Absolutely. I love that. Even in your sharing of that story, I'm here in a hotel room in Minnesota, and suddenly I'm in that field with you, and I can almost taste the sun ripened berry on a tongue. And that's what I love about food writing. That's what I love about sharing food stories, is that no matter where you are, if you are descriptive enough, if you are specific enough, you can bring along a friend for the whole journey and never lose them. You get this trust and it becomes interactive. It becomes reciprocal. It's not just me lecturing you as a professor. It's me taking your hand or nudging you along to say come with me. Come with me.

- [Anne] Thank you for talking. It's been lovely.

- [Aimee] Thank you, thank you.

- [Anne] Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of four books of poetry, a collection of nature essays called "World of Wonders", and a new memoir, "Bite by Bite." And now come with us on a trip down Highway 42 to Kiwanis, Wisconsin, where in the 1980s, farm kids like Joe Hartke used to head to Jumbo's drive-in after a long day in the fields. 40 years later, people are still talking about its legendary fries. And for Joe, the story of Jumbo's is the story of small Town America.

- [Speaker 1] I mean, it was a drive up.

- [Speaker 2] I don't remember it not being there.

- [Speaker 3] Car hop came out to your car.

- [Speaker 4] Like an A&W, but...

- [Speaker 5] Cooler.

- [Speaker 4] Yeah, yeah. Yes.

- [Adam] You get like a burger fries and a root beer would be $6 or-

- [Speaker 6] Yeah, and that was a big order.

- [Adam] Yeah.

- [Dave] Probably open from May 1st through October.

- [Cindy] That could be. Well, I'm Cindy Hartke.

- [Dave] I'm Dave Hartke,

- [Cindy] And we are the parents of Joe Hartke who's making us do this.

- [Joe] Mom and dad graduated from rival high schools.

- [Dave] I drove from Kiwanis to Luxembourg to pick her up, and then we'd have to go back to Kiwanis to eat.

- [Cindy] That was a good place to go for some fast food.

- [Dave] Yeah, we went to Jumbles more after we were married.

- [Cindy] Well, why are we talking about our dating when we're supposed to be talking about Jumbles?

- [Joe] No one I talked to seems to remember when it opened.

- [Dave] Probably in the mid 60s. Ask Adam Cole Morgan. He would know.

- [Adam] Late 60s until around the turn of the century. Right around '99 to 2000.

- [Speaker 7] Yeah.

- [Adam] My name's Adam Cole Morgan. I worked at Jumbo's drive-in from 1992 to 1997.

- [Sue] I am Sue Worked at Jumbo's from 1972 to 1980.

- [Joe] The original owners were Carl and Viola Lawrence.

- [Adam] They were great.

- [Sue] Oh, they were wonderful. They were so much fun.

- [Adam] Yes.

- [Sue] And Carl was an ag teacher at Manitowoc Lincoln.

- [Joe] Eventually their son, Lynn, will continue in the family's fry making excellence.

- [Adam] Everyone called him Jumbo.

- [Sue] Yeah.

- All the Kiwanis kids came into Jumbo's. The city kids and the farm kids in my family.

- [Cindy] We be having a long day of bailing hay, unloading, stacking in the hay mow was-

- [Dave] Started bailing maybe 10 in the morning and sometimes at eight, nine o'clock at night, we quit.

- [Cindy] Yeah, you were working all day. You had to eat something. And even mom was too tired to cook. That was a big treat.

- [Joe] For me, Jumbo's represents a big, long, deep breath after a long day of bailing hay. You are a townie, right?

- [Angela] Yeah, I grew up in the city. My name is Angela Niamandero. Used to be Angela Shipper. Kiwanis High School class of 1995.

- [Joe] Angie lives in Appleton, Wisconsin now, a Kiwanis expat like me.

- [Angela] So a lot of times, we would go play tennis down at Kiwi Park and then we'd say, "Hey, let's go to Jumbo's," most of the time on bikes.

- [Joe] Talk about boys.

- [Angela] Oh, I'm sure we talked about boys. That was always a conversation.

- [Joe] But you can't mention any of that here because there's a pinky swear.

- [Angela] That's what happens in Jumbo's, stays in Jumbo's, you know?

- [Joe] So what'd you order?

- [Angela] I remember they'd get a root beer floats.

- [Joe] Yeah, I remember the root beer came in these really big gallon.

- [Angela] Yeah, like a milk dog. Yeah.

- [Sue] Yeah. That was a good one.

- [Adam] It was beer sugar and that's why it was so good.

- [Sue] Yeah, yeah. And the kraut round dogs. I love those. Those were my favorite. Mrs. L used to make the tartar sauce.

- [Adam] Tartar sauce.

- [Sue] It was mayonnaise, sugar, mustard.

- [Adam] Relish.

- [Sue] Pickle relish.

- [Adam] Yeah.

- [Sue] You mix it all together. And that's how I still make mine. It was more sweet than tart.

- [Adam] You would slit it or cut it partially, deep fry it, which would make it curl. You put it on a bun. Wouldn't think a hot dog would be so good in a fryer, but it was.

- [Angela] I remember the cheeseburgers being good. And the fries, of course. The pound of fries.

- [Cindy] Pound of fries.

- [Dave] Couple pounds of fries, yeah.

- [Angela] You know what I would try to describe them as is you know the funnel cakes?

- [Joe] Yes, I do. Okay.

- [Angela] Okay. Funnel cakes, but no sugar.

- [Joe] Okay.

- [Angela] Crispy brown, crunchy. That's how I would describe them.

- [Cindy] There's a special recipe for those kinds of fries.

- [Joe] I hate to disappoint my mom, but there was no special recipe. That said, Jumbo's fries were made in an endearingly Kiwanis-like way.

- [Adam] There may or may not have been potato in it, but this was a powder that-

- [Sue] It was potato flake, sort of like Pringles type thing.

- [Adam] Yes. But to me, I describe it as pancake mix.

- [Sue] But it was thicker in that.

- [Adam] Yeah.

- [Sue] Pressing it through would give that little bit of texture with that. Mr. L would have a five gallon pale. He'd put the powder in it, add water. I don't know how much, I'm assuming it was by a pitcher. And he had a drill with a whisk on the end. And he'd whip that up to whatever the correct texture was.

- [Adam] Put in the refrigerator to harden. And then you would take it out, put it in the press, you would push it through knives or blades would cut it to about three to four inches thick, the length of a fry. And you would fry it.

- [Sue] I remember Mrs. L coming in looking sort of-

- [Joe] You still call her Mrs. L?

- [Sue] Yeah. Well, Mr. And Mrs. L, that's what it was. We were the girls.

- [Joe] Among the Jumbo's girls, Sue and her sister, Patty, they would travel on their bikes from their country farm down Highway 42 to get to work.

- [Sue] They kept their eye on the labor laws. So you could only work so much sometimes. But I was there all day, my sister and I. But I made a &1,000 a summer, which back then was huge. And we rode our bikes. If it was night, I think they'd drop us off and pick us up. But that was our main mode of transportation.

- [Joe] In 1974, there was an accident. Patty was hit by a car.

- [Sue] That day, it had been after I graduated from high school and I wanted to stay at home and work on my tan or something, I don't know. And we argued and I made her go in for me. So I still remember policemen driving in the yard and talking to my dad. And he just practically collapsed on the car. And then he told my mom and she just was crushed.

- [Joe] Patty was only 17.

- [Sue] It was sad. It was sad. Something you carry with you all your life. It'll be 50 years this summer. It was an accident, that's what happens, you know? There's all kinds of what ifs. So I'm here. She's not. It could be the other way around too. They still call me Patty. A lot of people still do.

- [Adam] Jumbo, the person that owned it and ran it when I was there passed away about a year or two ago.

- [Sue] Yeah. And Mr. L died quite early, but Mrs. L died-

- [Adam] And then I think it sold '99 or 2000 and then ran into the early 2000s and then it closed.

- [Angela] I miss things about Kiwanis. I think I miss my kids not growing up in a small town.

- [Joe] Jumbo's seem to be like a trusted space 'cause all the parents went there too.

- [Angela] Yep. Yeah.

- [Joe] Has our hometown shrunk to nothing? I don't see some of the stuff that we saw when we were kids. So is that on us or is that... Because everybody says that.

- [Angela] Yeah.

- [Joe] Everybody says that.

- [Angela] I don't think that's on us.

- [Dave] We have to remember there was a lot more farm families back then compared to there now.

- [Cindy] Well, we think that traffic was different then too.

- [Dave] Yeah.

- [Cindy] That was before I43, right?

- [Dave] Yeah.

- [Adam] The Milwaukee and Chicago traffic, they go to Green Bay and they can catch the four lane all the way, whereas that didn't exist years ago.

- [Dave] Business dried up when cars stopped going through. Kids leave, you know?

- [Cindy] Yeah. The schools aren't growing.

- [Dave] No.

- [Joe] But one thing that I learned is that our memories, our perceptions are a lot like our taste buds. They can trick us into thinking things are overly salty or sweet. And sometimes it just depends on how close you are to the flavor. Adam and Sue still live in town. They see it growing.

- [Sue] I think there are enough families. I just think the opportunity isn't there.

- [Adam] I miss it. But at the same time, I think there's a lot of good businesses here now.

- [Sue] Yeah.

- [Adam] Don't wanna see the local dollar spread too thin.

- [Owner] Those are the two original booths from what I was told.

- [Joe] The weekend I visited Kiwanis, news arrived that the old Jumbo's lot had sold. The new owner wants to turn it into an RV rental.

- [Owner] This part was added on.

- [Joe] She showed Adam and Sue around the old building

- [Sue] That was back in the 70s.

- [Joe] And a fancy new restaurant west of town had its grand opening. The owners are thinking of resurrecting some Jumbo's recipes. But will it ever become a local legend, like the original?

- [Angela] Not with the fries. They won't have the fries.

- [Joe] Some things you just can't improve upon. Sorry, world.

- [Anne] That's Joe Hartke, our technical director and sound designer. Today his home is just outside the big city of Madison, Wisconsin. But a piece of his heart will always belong to Kiwanis. I mentioned earlier that box of old recipes I have from my great-grandmother, mostly Christmas recipes. Fruitcake, eggnog, sticky sweet divinity. My great-grandmother was a minister's wife. So Christmas must have been an important season to her. But most religions have special foods that you only eat on certain days or certain times of the year. Holy food. What happens when you mix faith into food? And we'll talk about that next on "To the Best of Our Knowledge" from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. We've been talking this hour about how food has the power to supercharge memories. Take you right back to your roots. No wonder it's such an important part of so many religions. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, they all have food rules and traditions. Christina Ward is the author of "Holy Food: How Cults, Communes, and Religious Movements Influenced What We Eat." And also she told Charles Monroe Cain what we don't eat,

- [Christina] What is trife? What is Haram? What's acceptable? If you go back to the time period when a lot of those rules were made, they harken back to both food safety. So you're going to be a little healthier. It also becomes a way to identify who's in your club, who is in the tribe, who are your people. We all eat the same thing. We all donate the same thing. And that's why sharing meals, even in church settings, in religious settings, even as fundraisers, how many spaghetti dinners has everyone gone to in their lifetime?

- [Charles] Yeah.

- [Christina] These are acts of trust that help build community. And religion then has grown around that real basic idea.

- [Charles] The skeptic in me, I agree with you. And then the skeptic of me wants to add control. Let's use food to control people. Let's use food to have power over them. Right?

- [Christina] Yeah, and that comes a little bit later, this idea of once we identified who's our people and we get to say, are you following our rules? Because if you're not following our rules, then you're not our people anymore. And by giving tangible actions, like you eat this at this time on this day, or you can never eat this ever, you can only eat this at a certain time of year, all of those rules, if you're going to follow those food rules, that means you are probably gonna follow all the other rules that go along with being in a religious movement.

- [Charles] It's so interesting. Well, let's get into some specific examples. And the one I was really interested in, I really found fascinating because I didn't know the food connection here at all. It was the Nation of Islam. I guess I was really surprised to read how much food was part of the founding of the nation of Islam in America. And in particular, I was fascinated with Elijah Muhammad's book, "How to Eat Live."

- [Christina] Yeah, absolutely. If you're coming from that place where he did, which is with a memory, a familial memory of enslavement with his parents and grandparents, food was highly restricted. And you were totally dependent on someone else for the food. So he starts making the rules that reject the foods that are associated with slavery. They're not eating foods that are traditionally associated with black, southern food, soul food, all of those things.

- [Charles] His stuff was healthy and very specific.

- [Christina] It is healthy. So much so that if someone was following the Nation of Islam diet today, they would be following almost the ideal recommended by the USDA and all the health organizations.

- [Charles] That's so interesting.

- [Christina] He was convinced at the time when he was writing, and this is like post World War II, that American food culture, the processed food was out to kill black people. It was overly sugared. It was overly salted. And now we're standing back 50 to 75 years later. And not only is that highly processed food killing black people, it's killing everyone.

- [Charles] The rejection of meat particularly seems to be very high with these groups. Why? Why are so many cults and communes and other folks just rejecting meat?

- [Christina] It converges in two places based on two different types of scripture. So really back in the 1800s where you start to see new religious movements reject meat, they're looking at the New Testament in what's called the Edenic Covenant. This notion that God has told man to care for the world, you are responsible for it. Some religions have interpreted that. Meaning you get to eat everything. Everything belongs to you, do what you want with it. Other groups have interpreted that as being you are the custodian of the world and it's a huge responsibility. And you must care for every living thing. And you're not gonna eat things that you care for. So it was interpreted that plants are the way to go. God's creatures are God's creatures. Don't eat them. They're your friends, not your food. And that you see that as Seventh Day Adventist and some of the smaller break off groups of that time. I'm thinking of the Transcendentalists didn't eat meat. There were people embracing these new ideas. Then it crosses over by the later 1800s with the influence of Hinduism and Buddhism, where there are long monastic traditions of not eating meat at all.

- [Charles] Right.

- [Christina] Their scripture says that's the notion of not doing harm in the world. Ahimsa. No harm. And so of course, to eat an animal, you have to harm it.

- [Charles] In the early 90s, for like five, six years, I lived in Prague, right? The communism ended, a lot of limited resources. And when I moved there, I was a vegetarian and there was just nowhere to eat and there was nothing to eat. What do you do? And then the Hare Krishnas came to town not far from my house, was free food every day. Vegan food presented in a yummy way. Things I'd never had before. I grew up working class and I was like, oh, if you don't eat, you die, right? We have to eat. And I realized how important food was when I started getting their food and how much I appreciated these people and their religion for the year I ate their food every day.

- [Christina] You have to eat. And that is why so many groups, they look at it as also a form of their belief system. Especially like the Hare's. It's a pros Saddam. It is holy food. And one of the tenets of the belief is sharing that food, is getting it out there. The Hare Krishnas are responsible for New York hardcore punk, because all of those guys in the squats, the Hare Temple with Buddha Bar, they were feeding all these kids that were essentially street kids and kept them alive enough for them to invent a whole form of music. But that was the Hare's everywhere. They were feeding people. Aimee Semple McPherson out in California, totally the opposite of the Hare Krishnas and 50 years before, believed the same thing, Father Divine in the 1920s in New York. So many groups felt that feeding people was their mission, mostly as a cultural reaction to seeing people starving. These were hard times. And so what could they do as a tenant of their belief of sharing their belief system and sharing their wealth is to feed people. There's also a dark side, a little bit like it's a recruitment. If you eat a hare at lunch every day for a year, you may be more inclined to listen to what they have to say.

- [Charles] When I think about anorexia and bulimia, and I think about that not being about food at all, but being about control. But control can also be defined as liberation. Right? So many of the cults and religions in America are wrapped up in food because of those issues, because of liberation or because of control. Would you say that?

- [Christina] Absolutely. For some groups, it is a liberation. It's a liberation from perceived norms. It's a liberation from oppressive cultures. It's a liberation from an oppressive past. But for other groups, and this is where all of these new religious groups are on a spectrum of control, and some of it is just about control. We think back to NXIVM, which is a secular cult, but very food-centric, is that the leader, for whatever reasons of his own, preferred his women very, very skinny. And so there was a high caloric restriction in that group that all the women had to keep under so many calories per day. And you'll see also conversely, in a high control group, is there's often a deficit of proteins. Because without a lot of proteins, your brain isn't functioning as well. You're slowing down and you are less likely to have the energy to rebel in any way, or to try to question what you're being told. So the food, again, acts access control in many different aspects of that specific group's culture. And we have to look at these groups to find out how they're using the food to control. But all of them are in some way.

- [Charles] In the end, I think what the cults and the religious sex show us, 'cause we experience it as well, food brings us together, but it's such a thin line between bringing us together and then oppressing us at the same time.

- [Christina] It is, because food is political. Eating can be a rebellion, and it can be also a part of going with the mainstream. If we make fun of vegans, because that's what one political party thinks, that vegans are weak, we're also using food in a weaponized way. I think it becomes such an important notion about identification about who we are and what groups we are, what we believe is because, as you said, it's so necessary.

- [Charles] Yeah.

- [Christina] We need it. We can't go without it. We can choose to issue cars. I'm never gonna drive a car again for that. Okay, so what? We don't need a car. We need food.

- [Charles] Yeah.

- [Christina] We can't go without it. So it becomes much more powerful. And how people harness that power is determining our outcomes as a society and a culture.

- [Anne] That was Christina Ward, author of "Holy Food, How Cults, Communes, and Religious Movements Influenced What We Eat", talking with Charles Monroe-Kane. "To the Best of Our Knowledge" is produced at Wisconsin Public Radio Mark Riechers and Angelo Bautista. Our technical director and sound designer is Joe Hartdke with help from Sarah Hopefl and Tyler Ditter. Additional music this week comes from Kayla Drew, Mark Wilson X, Sneaky Club, Kwikwid, Julia Winter, Ilia Monosaf, and Derek Clegg. Our executive producer is Steve Paulson, and I'm Anne Strainchamps, hoping this episode stirred up some wonderful food memories for you.

- [Narrator] PRX.

Last modified: 
May 30, 2024