Sylvie Lubow (SL): Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve heard lots of people say it’s the little things that are helping them through: maybe a phone call with an old friend., or listening to a favorite song. But for some, they’re finding solace in the kitchen.
It’s the StoryCorps podcast from NPR; I’m Sylvie Lubow, filling in for Jasmyn Morris.
This week, we’re sharing stories about our connection to food, and ultimately, each other.
It’s a link that Private First Class Roman Coley Davis knows well.
Roman was born in Douglas, Georgia, and joined the military shortly after high school. By the time he was 20, he found himself stationed in one of the most remote US outposts in Afghanistan.
At StoryCorps, Roman remembers the one thing that helped him feel closer to home during his deployment.
Roman Coley Davis (RCD): I served in the United States Army as a human intelligence collector in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan. We were essentially in a black zone. If you walk outside of the wire, there’s almost a 100% chance that someone is dying or coming back wounded, if you come back.
We were tracking Osama Bin Laden and people like that; high value targets, for almost a year and a half, and we were involuntarily extended. I remember during that time being incredibly homesick and just lost, if you will, in the middle of a war.
And one day, a Black Hawk helicopter flies into the valley and they kick off bright yellow US mail bags. And the sergeant called my name: “Peaches.” I was the only one from South Georgia so my radio call sign was “Peaches.” And they said, “Peaches, come up here. You got some mail.” And I wasn’t expecting mail, and it was this box from home.
And I cut it open, and it was this big huge thing wrapped in, uh, aluminum foil. And so I take off this layer of aluminum foil, and then there’s more aluminum foil, and, like, 30 layers of foil and plastic wrap and this, that and the other.
And my meemaw had baked this sour cream pound cake. And I’ve seen my meemaw bake this for people whose mothers have died. It’s something that she takes to those who grieve.
And then here I am and I’m in a foreign country in a hostile environment, and that same pound cake is now sitting in front of me. And my 12-man team is there and I pulled out a Ka-bar combat knife and I hack into this thing and I cut it into like 12 massive chunks.
And I ate mine first and I cried. And everyone got a chunk. And I think that, if we had dined in her kitchen the moment that it cooled and she took the towels off of it, it could not have been as fresh as it was there on that mountainside.
And for that one moment, I felt loved, even though I was lonely. The poundcake was clean, even though I was so dirty. It was cold, and that pound cake warmed me. It was just like Meemaw was there.
SL: That was Roman Coley Davis talking to his friend Dan Marek at StoryCorps.
After returning from Afghanistan, Roman used the G-I Bill to attend culinary school in Atlanta. And even though he’s now a chef, who can make his own pound cake, he says he still prefers meemaw’s.
Our next story comes from two sisters—Estela and Candi Reyes—who were raised by their father, Juan Reyes, in El Paso, Texas. Juan had grown up in a small town in Mexico and moved to the US in the 1940s.
In Juan’s later years, as his struggle with diabetes intensified, Estela and Candi took care of him. At StoryCorps, they sat down to remember his final days.
Estela Reyes (ER): Our dad was a tough guy. Very formidable. Very strong-willed. Very commanding figure. His nickname was el canillón. The big-wristed man. I remember being a little kid, Papi just reaching down and lifting me up like I was tissue paper, this delicate little weightless thing.
Unfortunately, you know, in his later years, he became almost like a little weak bird to me.
About four days before our dad died, he was still able to speak. And he let me know that he was very hungry. But you know, how do you make a healthy, strong meal for somebody that you know is in incredible pain?
You and I had gone shopping and stocked the fridge with all sorts of foods that, throughout our family history, we always associated with deliciousness. You know, camarones, frijol…
Candi Reyes (CR): The Mexican comfort foods. [Laughs]
ER: Exactly. Mexican comfort foods. And one of my dad’s favorite things was just plain beans. That morning, early, I had put on a pot of black beans. I looked in the fridge and I noticed you and I had bought a pack of shrimp.
ER: And so I set about the task of making the best batch of shrimp enchiladas I had probably ever made in my life. I don’t think I’ve ever diced anything so slowly and with so much care. And when I took that little plate, I remember physically feeding him; watching him close his eyes with each spoonful.
He looked up at me and gave me a little wink. And I asked him then, like I always would, after every meal that I would serve him, you know, “¿Le gustó, Papi?” You know, “Did you like it, Daddy?” And he gave me that little gesture that he would make when he liked something. He’d make a tight fist and just sort of shake it next to his chest, with one good blow to show that it was so good, it was so rich. There didn’t need to be any words. And I was so happy.
The next day, that was when he slipped into his coma and he never spoke to us again.
CR: We knew that, although he was going to pass, he wasn’t really leaving us. He’s in our soul.
ER: Papito era lo máximo. He was everything to us. And my daddy knew, until the moment he left this world, that we adored him.
SL: Estela and Candi Reyes at StoryCorps in El Paso, Texas, remembering their dad, Juan, who died in 2010.
Coming up, a man who traded his suit and tie for an apron. That’s after this short break. Stay with us.
SL: Welcome back.
Our next story comes from New York City. That’s where Len Berk spent nearly 4 decades working as an accountant.
But as he told his friend Joshua Gubitz at StoryCorps, he eventually developed an appetite for something else.
Len Berk (LB): I never loved it, but accounting provided a decent living, and it was very important for me to take care of my children. So after I retired I looked for something to do next.
I got a telephone call from a friend of mine who said that she saw an advertisement that a large gourmet food store was looking for a lox slicer, and I thought I could do that.
I had been a customer of that store for many years and I used to buy chunks of salmon and take it home and slice them myself because I’ve always enjoyed slicing salmon. So I applied for the job. I sent the owner an email listing ten credentials, uh, I’ve been one of your best customers; I’m reliable; I’ve always been a fish person.
Joshua Gubitz (JG): You actually listed these as credentials?
LB: Yeah, I didn’t really have any lox slicing credentials, but I felt very comfortable with the salmon. And he called me immediately. ”What kind of a CPA wants to slice lox?” And I’ve been slicing ever since.
When I started, one of the things that I loved was my ability to deal with the most difficult customers. A customer would say, ”I don’t like that slice.” I would say, ”Oh, I’ll be happy to take that slice off and, not only that, I’ll give you a free slice.”
JG: And what makes you want to be nice to those people?
LB: Well I no longer want to be nice to them.
JG: Ah. [Laughter]
LB: This is when I started. Now I have a hard time controlling myself. When I’m slicing, I’m slicing. Very often I get lost in the lox. Somebody will say, ”Do you hear what I’m saying?” And I would say, ”Yes I do, but I’m very involved in slicing your salmon now.”
I would say fish in general is in my blood, and now that I’m there for a while and I feel my oats. I want my slices to have more style, more character—
LB: More panache.
LB: But I’m 85 years old and, the other day, my wife came to me and she said, ”Have you ever thought about how you want to spend the rest of your life?” And I said, ”Yeah, I want to spend the rest of my life doing exactly what I’m doing.”
JG: Why mess with a good thing?
LB: Yeah. I’m working toward the perfect slice.
SL: That was Len Berk, lox-enthusiast, speaking with his friend Joshua Gubitz in New York. And even though Len is taking a break from work during the pandemic, he’s still getting lost in the lox, just from his own kitchen.
Our final story comes from Chloe Longfellow, who was just three years old when her father died.
That’s when she and her mom moved to Arizona to be near family, and Chloe grew especially close to her grandmother, Doris.
Chloe Longfellow (CL): She had red hair—it was red hair out of a bottle, but it was still red hair. And she was a spitfire. If you messed with her and she didn’t think it was right, she would tell you. But I do remember that she always smiled with her eyes. Even when she was angry, even when she was tired. She was my very first best friend.
It’s really surprising the amount of life lessons you can learn in a kitchen if you have the right teacher. She used to try to tell me about acceptance and how to be a good human being. She’d get all the ingredients for a soup and she’d look at it and she’d go, “Now see honey, this is how the world works: some people are onions, some people are potatoes. It would be a really boring soup if you just put potatoes in there, wouldn’t it? But if you add leeks, if you add some bacon, then you make this wonderful thing. And all these different people come together to make this wonderful thing called our world.”
And one time she had grown some beets. We brought ‘em in, cleaned ‘em off, and I got to move the page in the cookbook. And I had beet juice all over my hands and I left a little tiny handprint on her cookbook. And I started to cry ‘cause I thought I had ruined it; that was grandma’s favorite book. But she took a piece of beet and she covered her hand and she put her handprint on the other side and made our thumbs touch in the print. And said, “It’s perfect now.”
If I really miss her I just open the book and go back to that page. She touched it so often that it still smells like her, even all these years later.
She used to tell me that the sky was black velvet and the stars were holes that had been punched in the ceiling of heaven. And that was how our loved ones looked down at us and saw if we were doing wrong, or if we were doing right, or just check in on us every so often. So every time I look up at the sky, she’s there.
SL: That’s Chloe Longfellow remembering her grandmother, Doris Louise Rolison, at StoryCorps.
You can see a photo of Doris’ beet-stained cookbook on our website www.storycorps.org.
And we asked Chloe if she’s been using the cookbook during the COVID-19 pandemic, turns out she has. And she also told us what she thinks her grandmother would say about all this.
She thinks she’d be “looking at the positive side of this pandemic. She always hoped that we would be better to others than others have been to us, and I think this will remind us, as a species, how close we truly are and how we really do need one another.”
That’s all for this episode of the StoryCorps podcast…it was produced by Jud Esty-Kendall and me, Sylvie Lubow. Edited by Jasmyn Morris. Our Technical Director is Jarrett Floyd, who also wrote and produced our theme song. Natsumi Ajisaka is our fact-checker.
And special thanks to facilitators Vanessa Gonzalez-Block, John White, Anaid Reyes, Nicolas Cadena, as well as producers Liyna Anwar, Aisha Turner, and Mia Warren.
For the StoryCorps podcast, I’m Sylvie Lubow. Thanks for listening.