Smoked Fish Psychotherapy

Food Memories
Food Memories


I have a confession to make to you, I didn’t like my childhood very much.  Although I will sometimes talk to my siblings about those years, I more often just pack away the memories and I live in the present.  This has worked pretty well for me, but at a cost.

As I continue to grow emotionally it has become evident that my solution is not without flaw.  To coin a well worn cliche, You shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

To go further in today’s tale I must broach a topic that some of you may find uncomfortable. That is the topic of a Higher Power, specifically a Higher Power who has a direct interest and concern for us. It isn’t fashionable to talk about such things in the nihilistic world that we live in.  However, dear reader, this blog is a writing experiment for me.  For this experiment to have any personal value I need it to be real.  I’m less concerned about appealing to the masses than I am about my personal growth.

Over the years I have felt the power of something greater than me push me in various directions. Sometimes those directions have seemed nonsensical.  Other times I have had outright resistance to them, as they seemed contrary to my personal vision. However, when I give in, the reasons why eventually becomes very evident.

One push has been to rediscover who I am ethnically, which means that I also need to rediscover and revisit my childhood.  I am mostly Eastern European, with my grandparents on both side immigrating to the US in the early 1900’s. My parents could speak their native tongue (especially if they didn’t want us to understand what they were saying), and my mother cooked ethnic food. When I made a commitment to extricate myself from the discomfort that I called childhood I bundled together anything that reminded me of those times.  Along the way I packed away who I was ethnically.  I felt embarrassed that I had different customs and ate different foods than what I saw on the TV shows like Ozzie and Harriet.

Slowly, I have been given lessons in the importance of accepting my total self. That total self includes who I am ethnically.  That total self includes my childhood.

One lesson started many years ago when I reconnected with my extended family.  Another lesson has been more recent, the teachers being my children.  Their friends come from many ethnic and racial backgrounds.  Although all American, each group continues to celebrate their heritage with dedication and pride. When I see the value that they place in their heritage, it makes me want to value mine.

Recently I had another lesson, in the form of my friend Tom. Although Tom has lived in the US for many years he was born and raised in Poland, because of this he has a vast knowledge of Eastern European life .

Last Sunday I was visiting with Tom.  Our schedule, the usual. Coffee, talk of food, brainstorming big ideas, and an errand or two.  We finished a project and Tom looked at me with great seriousness and told me that he had a surprise for me.  Surprises always peak my interest, and I was finally clued in that he was going to (paraphrase) re-introduce me to my culture.  I’m not Polish, but pretty close.

After a very long car ride we arrived at Celina’s grocery in Lemont.  A storefront establishment in a strip mall.  After securing a grocery cart we proceeded. The immediate feeling that I had was an old one that was both familiar and comforting.  Celina’s was full of products that would be alien to most,  but  felt instantly familiar to me. Canned products, sausages, bakery, bottles of items.  Foods that I had forgotten for decades became immediately present in my head. Kiolbassa , kolach, jelly filled donuts, kapusta, brown mustard… on and on.

Tom moved up and down the aisles with the confidence that experienced shoppers have, as he tossed items into the cart. Some items for him, others for me. I returned home with two sacks of food.

That evening I prepared my re-found delicacies for dinner.  Two kinds of sausage, brown  mustard, dense sunflower bread, a smoked fish and a can of potted meat. Sliced and placed on serving platters, the taste test was a Kuna family affair.

I pulled off some of the smoked fish and placed in on my plate along with a thick piece of bread.  I first took a bite of the fish, and without swallowing it, I took a bite of the bread.  The process was automatic, as it was based on memories from childhood.  The smoky, oily flavor of the fish perfectly balanced by the flat denseness of the bread. Instantly I was transported back to my past.  

It is Saturday morning, I am sitting at our old chrome and Formica kitchen table with a melamine plate before me. The plate contains a smoked chub and a piece of solid rye bread with caraway seeds.  My memory takes a bite of fish, and without swallowing it, takes a bite of bread. The memory feels good and there is a yearning for more memories.

I have tapped into a happy time when my parents would come home from the grocery store with bags of goodies.  Smoked fish needs to be eaten quickly, as it quickly spoils. I can smell and hear the popping sound of coffee being brewed on the stove in a beat up percolator.  At my side is my dog Bowser, begging for a treat.  Our cheap Aiwa table radio sits on the old Kenmore refrigerator and it is playing music.  The old 1920s style sink is filled with dishes, and conversation is bustling.  Lively conversations, similar to those that I have with my own children.

The feeling is the feeling of belonging, not a feeling of being apart.  The feeling shocks me.  The feeling reminds me.  It reminds me that my childhood did have some balance.  It reminds me that  it did have moments of happiness and contentment.

Suddenly I am longing for my aunt’s poppyseed cake, my mother’s famous goulash, and to hear the old phonograph playing the Kingston Trio and Rogers and Hammerstein show tunes.  I want to experience the pleasure of Saturday morning cartoons and the Sunday funny papers.  

I want the excitement that comes with the thought of the endless possibilities of what I could become.  I want to phone my friend John on the old black rotary phone in the dining room, and have one of our many conversations whose only purpose was to let the other person know that we wanted to connect with them.  I want to ride my Huffy bike to the park, sit on cement blocks, and smell freshly cut grass.

This flood of feelings travels over me like a wave of warm water.  A wave that carries me off and away, if only for a moment.

The wave does not have the malice of the memories that I had buried.  Instead, it feels innocent and hopeful.   It reminds me of  a time when I could take junk from the basement and create something useful and unique.  A time when I could learn something for the very first time and be in awe of the information. The wave brings me closer to who I truly am, and further away from what people want me to be or expect me to be. 

I find it amazing how God brings people into our lives, and how those people can take us in a direction where we didn’t even know we wanted to go to. The psychotherapy of smoked fish and dense bread.

Today my goal is accept myself in my entirety.

2 thoughts on “Smoked Fish Psychotherapy”

  1. I truly admire your willingness to share your inner thoughts & feelings with anyone who finds your blog.
    Interestingly, I just came across your entries just yesterday. Another one of those “coincidences” God has scattered on my path over the years. There has always been something a little vulnerable about you & I think that’s what has made going to see you so helpful to me. You’re a safe person & kind & genuine. Qualities missing in the world today.
    You have been nonjudgmental & accepting & I have been so grateful to know you.
    Though I have jumped around your blog, I have found I identify with several of your comments.
    If I don’t tell you personally when I see you, please know you have touched many, many lives over the years & I believe each of us is a better person for knowing you.
    Now that I have found your blog I’ll no doubt start at the beginning & read all about you.
    Thank you!

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