Garner: Food and reconciliation
Sunday, June 3, 2018
The 15-year-old boy came to the house for dinner after a long morning of plowing behind a mule.
He washed at the hand pump on the back porch and decided on a quick smoke before being called to the table. There was just enough Duke’s in his drawstring pouch for one cigarette.
A younger sister crept up as he was painstakingly arranging the precious tobacco on the curled rolling paper — and mischievously blew it onto the dining room floor. The boy reflexively slapped her in annoyance.
When their sharecropper father began to remove his belt to administer a beating, the boy locked eyes with him and made it clear that he wouldn’t submit to the discipline without a fight.
A few minutes later, he found himself carrying a few possessions down a dirt road into banishment.
The year was 1931. The boy was my father. And Carteret County, his known universe, was in the fierce grip of the Great Depression.
I’ve tried to imagine how terrified he must have been. He never talked about that, nor told me much about how he held body and soul together during the six-year estrangement that followed. There were only oblique references to living in a makeshift tent while helping saw newly felled pine timber, a brief stint of prizefighting and working on an uncle’s shrimp boat.
He also never had a single bad word to say about my grandfather or told me the fault was anything but his own (although it wasn’t). I could observe for myself that there was no lingering bitterness.
That’s because, against all odds, they had been reconciled. My grandfather had finally come to his son and asked him to return home. And my Dad had readily agreed.
Forgiveness was so complete that the schism might never have existed. By the time I came along and was old enough to take notice, the two were absolutely inseparable and had been for years.
During a four-year enlistment, my father had sent nearly all of his meager sailor’s pay home to his parents. After becoming an officer and serving in World War II, he built a new house in town for my grandparents. They had always moved from one tenant house to another, but were finally able to live in their own home for the rest of their lives.
That home was the setting for a decades-long celebration of the resuscitated relationship, mainly through the pursuit and savoring of good food. Although I didn’t realize it as I observed them, impressions were created that ultimately resulted in my own later-life career as a food writer.
I came to discover that the enjoyment of food is inextricably entwined in relationship. Without that, the finest food is insipid.
My father’s life as a Navy pilot dictated that much of my growing up took place on the move. But his eastern North Carolina home town was always a family anchor.
Whenever we visited, which we did often, there was always some sort of expeditionary food activity afoot. Going in search of a big, sweet watermelon. Digging clams and netting crabs. Picking sweet corn. Buying oysters for a neighborhood oyster roast. Eating a Shore Dinner on the Bogue Sound waterfront, or perusing the catch at a local fish house.
My grandmother always put on wonderful feeds from her own kitchen when my Dad was home. But she was wisely content to let the father and son bask in their own special sense of restoration — in their own special way.
I am extraordinarily blessed to have shared the experience.
Bob Garner is a UNC-TV restaurant reviewer, freelance food writer, author of four cookbooks, barbecue pit master and public speaker. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Join Bob for some soft-shell crabs at a popular lunch spot in Beaufort.