A Letter to My Unborn Son Passing down bread, butter, and stories
by Caleb Johnson
Illustrations by Marisa Seguin
I’ve never been a picky eater, but, like many kids, I didn’t care for the food served in the cafeteria at my elementary school. When I was six years old, your grandmother began packing a lunch for me every day. She has always indulged my appetites. Even now she will drop everything to fix a special meal on request.
That year, first grade at Farmstead Elementary, my teacher Ms. Miller sat with us during lunch. This made an impression on me. Many of my classmates got free lunch, and Ms. Miller often shared her food with them. She always asked us lunch-bringers what we had to eat. No one had ever expected me to consider the food I put in my body. Your grandfather was a coal miner. He and your grandmother, who quit an hourly job at a downtown bank to raise me, concerned themselves with how to feed their family; less so with what we ate. Shopping for groceries involved calculations, compromises, clipping coupons. There’s power in an adult showing interest in a child’s thoughts. I likely wouldn’t be writing this letter to you—writing anything at all—without Ms. Miller’s early encouragement, nor would my interest in food be quite the same if I hadn’t sat across the lunch table and observed the unmistakable pleasure she took in buttering a hunk of bread.
Before that day, it never crossed my young mind what other people ate. Something about the way Ms. Miller buttered her bread struck me as sophisticated and foreign. My deli meat, crackers, and cheese seemed boring in comparison. I felt an urge to understand why, to try something new. That afternoon I described Ms. Miller’s lunch to your grandmother and asked if I could have the same. Credit your grandmother for recognizing my curiosity and encouraging it. One fall day, she picked up a huge French-style loaf from the only bakery within forty miles of Jasper, Alabama. It was inside the Walmart Supercenter. The next day, she packed me a hunk along with a Tupperware containing a generous helping of Country Crock. For years, I thought this vegetable-oil-based spread was actual butter made from cow’s milk because that’s what we called it at home—butter. There was also a Ziploc filled with green grapes.
I’d never been so excited, so proud to get to the cafeteria and open my lunch box. Your mother now laughs at this image of me—a chubby, shy boy in rural Alabama—tearing apart that bread and smearing on margarine. Between bites I popped a green grape into my mouth and smiled at Ms. Miller as though we shared a miraculous secret. And we did. Eating, I began to understand for myself, can be a joyous act.
You will also eat for joy. Your mother and I believe doing so is essential to living well. We show our love through cooking for and with each other. As soon as you can stand on a chair, you will help in the kitchen. Eventually, you will wash mushrooms, peel potatoes, slice onions, season lamb. You will spoon dumplings, grate beets, stem greens. For dessert, we will bake blackberry cobblers and your mother’s pavlova. We will plant a garden, knowing our small actions ripple far beyond our home. In warm weather we will feast on a porch with our old dog, Hugo, panting until we share off our plates.
For generations your family has gathered at tables inside Soviet apartments and suburban Philadelphia homes and single-wide trailers across north Alabama. Over creamed corn and shashlik and casseroles and pelmeni, they have told stories and jokes, prayed and cried, celebrated holidays and births and deaths and marriages. In a few months, you will take your seat with us. One grandmother, I suspect, will feed you salty orange caviar on buttered white bread. Your other grandmother will feed you buttermilk biscuits drowned in chocolate gravy. Your grandfathers, who don’t cook unless given no choice, will hold you in their arms. They are funny men who speak with strong accents. From them you will learn to tell a satisfying story.
Your family doesn’t own expensive heirlooms, but we possess stories and understand how to pass them down. Lately I’ve been thinking the stories I’ll tell you. Fathers especially want sons to know where they come from. I have embraced and resisted my origin in the rural South. I imagine you will do the same. This is important work, especially for someone like myself who writes about the region and the people and animals living here. The Swedish writer Patrik Svensson puts it this way: “…a person who doesn’t know his origin will always be a little bit lost. If you don’t know where you came from, you can’t know where you’re going. The journey away from home and back to it follow the same given route.”
My route home snakes past now-closed Farmstead Elementary, its cafeteria, the memory of Walmart bread smeared with Country Crock. Your route will be knottier. You will be one of a small number on my side of the family born outside Alabama in more than 200 years. For at least a time, you will live in western North Carolina, a remote corner of the Appalachian South. You will walk mountains and swim cold, swift rivers. You will know the tastes of wild ramps and brook trout and sour apples and foraged mushrooms. You will hear turkeys talk to each other in morning fog, coyotes howl in pitch-black night. On your mother’s side, you will join a first generation of American-born, Jewish cousins whose parents left an oppressive communist regime that no longer exists. City folks. They will take you to Uzbek restaurants and Russian grocery stores. You will speak two languages and experience many cuisines from a much younger age than either of your parents did.
You are born into a time of great uncertainty and change. Protests, disease, wildfires, floods. Humans have spent decades mistreating the planet and each other. Now, we are seeing the results of this behavior in our daily lives. Some days are terrifying. The way you eat will change along with everything else. I hope there will be grapes, butter, flour for fresh-baked bread. But I worry you will not know the taste of a raw, wild Gulf oyster. I worry coffee will be scarce by the time you reach an age where you start anticipating the next morning’s cup when your head hits the pillow at night. I worry the delicate peaches of Chilton County, Alabama, will appear only in stories I tell you of summers past.
When I was in first grade, we rented a blue cinderblock house in Manchester, an unincorporated community halfway between both sets of my grandparents. Next to us lived three spinster sisters who fed me popsicles and ice cream, and helped your grandmother raise me while your grandfather worked long hours in a mine.
The coal industry no doubt escalated a climate crisis that will drastically impact your life, as well as the lives of those who come after you and I are gone. It may be hard to believe by the time you read this, but your grandfather wasn’t thinking about what burning coal does to the planet. I’ve asked him. He told me he thought of his family each time he descended a thousand feet underground. Mining coal was how he kept us housed and fed. It was a well-paying job that provided health insurance for doctor’s appointments in Birmingham, where sometimes we treated ourselves to shrimp cocktail at Red Lobster or fettucine alfredo at Olive Garden, which served all-you-can-eat breadsticks. An incredible luxury back then. At the end of a meal, your grandmother always asked for another basket. Then she discreetly wrapped the warm bread in napkins and hid it deep inside her purse to take home.
Because of your grandparents, and others, you will be privileged with a wide range of experiences and a broad base of knowledge, which means you will have choices. There are decisions we, as a family, must make and stick to going forward, especially when it comes to our relationship with food. Where an ingredient comes from, who grew it, who picked it, how it traveled to our plates, what it is, how its production adds greenhouse gases to a warming atmosphere. Your mother is more principled than I am. When she brings up the idea of no longer eating meat, a moral imperative to her, I wince. I want you to taste pulled pork, fried chicken, ribeye steak. This is a selfish desire, but so much about bringing a child into the world strikes me as selfish. However, to create anything—stories, meals, life—offers the kind of radical hope we need at the moment. So each morning I work on a novel about the existential distress caused by environmental change. In the afternoon your mother and I tend a small garden and, come evening, we eat homegrown tomatoes and cucumbers sprinkled with coarse salt. At night we place our hands on her stomach and wait for you to move. Each one of these acts feels miraculous and ephemerally sad.
Back in first grade, after I finished my work for the day, I often sat alone at a table and wrote stories for Ms. Miller. Sometimes she asked me to read one aloud for the class. I don’t remember what any were about. Probably dogs and family. It’s strange to stop and consider this letter, all the writing I do, as an extension of those first stories. Your mother and I now tell stories for a living. It gives us far more joy than wealth. That’s alright for us. Sometimes we tell stories together. Some are rooted in truth, others stray from it. On certain days I wonder what my classmates thought of me at that table, and what you’ll think about your father spending hours alone in a room, imagining people and places and problems in his head.
What I do know is folks have been smearing butter on bread for a long time. You will understand why when you’re old enough to eat solid food. Your mother likes to sprinkle nutritional yeast on hers; I prefer a big dollop of blackberry jam. You will develop tastes of your own. As we wait for you to arrive, we imagine all you will enjoy, and look forward to the ways you will surprise us. We can’t know for sure how that will look. The future remains unpredictable. This is the first of many things you will undoubtedly affirm for us. We can’t wait to live, learn, and eat with you, alongside family and friends. Sharing bread and butter and the simple pleasures we discover and cherish together.
Caleb Johnson is the author of the novel Treeborne. He teaches writing at Appalachian State University.
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