Corn Cakes & Memory Food

My mom sent me an e-mail this week with some news:

I had my first corn cakes this morning!!!!

She was pretty excited, as you can tell from the exclamation points, and I was, too. Though we live in different states, only a few days earlier I’d meant to call her with the same news. For real.

corn cakes

I, too, had made corn cakes for breakfast.

Maybe you’re thinking, “What the heck are corn cakes?

That’s okay. My grandma used to make them. As my grandmother’s health was declining, I wrote an essay about her–about Alzheimers, about memory, about generations, about the beautiful things I see of her in my mom and in myself.

And in that essay I wrote about corn cakes. My mom and I have been perfecting the recipe every summer since. They’re kind of like pancakes except they’re primarily fresh, raw corn, with only a little bit of flour. The corn cooks on the pan as you fry the corn cakes. Amazing.

One of the things I love about food is the way 
memory gets so attached to it: memories of people, 
some long lost, and memories of places, some far away.

For example, when I think of what my family called “red beet eggs”–hard boiled eggs that turn pinkish purple from being soaked in jars of pickled beets–I always think of my Grandma Lehman’s house. It’s not like I never ate red beet eggs other places growing up, but that’s where I am transported on the inside when I see a red beet egg. It’s not a concrete memory either, just a feeling in the gut about a place, about a person, about days spent at Grandma’s house during the summer.

Or like when I eat Swedish fish, even now, and I’m instantly taken back to my Pappy Sands’s campground in New Hampshire, the cool cement under my feet while playing ping-pong in the rec hall, the hot cement under my feet around the chorine-strong swimming pool. The reality of that place and that moment becomes present to me in a way that’s impossible given the constraints of time and place.

But it’s real.

I love to cook and to eat memory food, don’t you?

Oatmeal 'skotchies, shoo-fly pie, and chunky 
applesauce remind me of Mom.
Fried eggs and cinnamon pancakes and hamburger-
macaroni-goulash remind me of Dad.
Eggs in the microwave remind me of my brother.
Super pulpy orange juice reminds me of Ty.
Grape jelly reminds me of Gail.
Dill pickles and ranch dressing remind me 
of Olivia.
Microwaved baloney sandwiches remind me of 
Uncle Larry. (Did I make that up? It seems 
real in my memory.)

And the list could go on and on and on.

Food connects us to our loved ones, to earlier generations, and to our own immediate surroundings–our children, our spouses, our neighbors, our local farmers.

Which is really what community is–connections.

What are some of your favorite memory foods?

11 comments on “Corn Cakes & Memory Food

  1. Erica says:

    I had to laugh while reading this because Raymond microwaved his bologna last night! He said that his Dad was the one who used to do that. 🙂

    • Elizabeth says:

      So glad you left this comment! I was thinking it might have been Uncle Raymond. My main memory of it is in the little microwave from the Family Circle bus… and the other adults complaining about it. 🙂

  2. Mary Lou White says:

    I have been a semi (fish eating) vegetarian for a very long time. But, as anyone who knows me has heard me say, if my mom could just hop down from heaven, I would eat a plateload of her fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy! And some of her homemade biscuits on the side would make it perfect!

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thanks for sharing, Mary Lou! Most people think of me as a vegetarian though I’m not strictly one, but give me a meatloaf or hamloaf (a Pennsylvania thing) or some extra crispy bacon and I’m transported to childhood… and I eat ’em. With joy.

  3. Tori says:

    Every time I eat pineapple rings in lime jello or homemade Swedish rye bread I think of my dad. Grilled cheese sandwiches and pistachios remind me of when I was dating and engaged to my husband – we don’t eat either very often any more, but they were staples at the time. Instant oatmeal reminds me of living in the dorm with my college roommate, and energy drinks, Cadbury buttons and gelato remind me of studying abroad with her. (I notice most of the items that remind me of college and my roommate aren’t exactly food…)

    • Elizabeth says:

      They’re close enough to “food” to count. 🙂 Thanks for sharing, Tori! My college roommate was a missionary kid who grew up in Australia and was born in Malasia, so I’ve got all sorts of food-and-otherwise associations from my years with her. It’s one of the blessings of college life!

  4. Katie says:

    McDonald’s chicken nuggets with sweet ‘n’ sour sauce remind me of my Mom: she used to take us on picnic lunches to Ft. Hunter park and playground and sometimes we’d get McDonald’s as a treat. Simply smelling them brings back memories of feet swinging from a picnic table 🙂
    PS – I think we should have a contest to see how many times we can mention Swedish fish on this blog 😉

    • Elizabeth says:

      Ah, Fort Hunter. How I miss thee. And I agree about the Swedish fish. I can’t find the small ones any more, sadly. They seem to only come in the bigger size, which isn’t quite the same gooey ratio when you eat them.

  5. My grandmother used to make “pirags,” a sort of pastry roll filled with ham, bacon, and onions. Because my mother never learned to make them, I realized sometime during my college years that when my grandmother died, her recipe would be lost forever. Shortly, after having this realization I spent an entire afternoon in her kitchen following her around and trying to write a recipe. Since she didn’t measure anything, but just knew how much was about right, it was a little challenging!

    Now, some twenty years later, I am the one in the family who makes them for the holidays. Often as I bake, I swear she is there with me. One of my very best memories of her!

    • Elizabeth says:

      Hi there! Thanks for stopping by and for sharing your story. i lived for awhile in Waco, Texas, which is near the Czech-influenced area of West, Texas. People there made kolaches (savory, not sweet) similar to what you’re describing. I wonder if piragi and kolache-like foods are of similar ethnic backgrounds?

      So glad to hear that you still make them!

      PS I looked around your blog a bit, too, and it’s fun! I’m a typewriter fan. 🙂

      • Thanks so much for stopping by my blog. I’m new to this whole blogging business, but I sure have found it interesting!

        My grandmother was Latvian and the pirags are a traditional food there. I believe there is something similar in Poland, but it includes using sauerkraut? I’m not sure. I am sure, however, that the afternoon I wrote down her recipe was one of my wiser moments.

        I enjoyed this post 🙂

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