After its inaugural issue in 2018, “The Best American Food Writing 2019” is back. Although The Best American Series has been in existence for over a hundred years, there have only been two issues featuring food writing. The newest volume spotlights a collection of 25 writers, including Ian Frazier, Soleil Ho, and Helen Rosner, whose food writing has been plucked out of a myriad of publications, from The New York Times Magazine to Thrillist, and pasted into one concise book to showcase the best of the best.
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The 2019 edition, which has been guest edited by Samin Nosrat (the chef and TV personality behind the beloved book “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat”), covers a host of topics: exploring how vegans of color are ignored, a touching tribute to Jonathan Gold, and how indigenous hunters are reclaiming traditional foods in Alaska.
The Best American Food Writing 2019, $11.59 on Amazon
To get a sense of the book, “The Food of My Youth,” by Melissa Chadburn is excerpted below. The essay chronicles the kinds of Filipino foods she ate growing up, her resulting separation from her mother and the lowly foods she was served in her first group home, and how America and the system have since changed to overlook those who suffer and need it most.
Excerpted from “The Food of My Youth” by Melissa Chadburn as seen in “The Best American Food Writing 2019.” Copyright © 2018 by Melissa Chadburn. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
The Food of My Youth
From The New York Review of Books/Economic Hardship Reporting Project
By: Melissa Chadburn
When you are always on the run, from the bill collectors or the Man, or people in suits checking up on you, you need foods with a long shelf life. When the lights went out in our apartment and so did the electric stove, we lived on saltines with peanut butter and beans from a can. We ate like miners. There was a certain pride to be had in eating like men who were prospecting for gold, because the prospect of a better future is what had brought my family here to Northern California. Later, in the early eighties, Ma’s pursuit of higher education plopped us in our small apartment in Los Angeles along the 405 freeway.
Meanwhile my grandmother’s garage back in Seaside was lined with MREs — Meals Ready to Eat. I fingered those army-colored cans and felt safe. Their sturdiness, the security my Filipino grandfather gave us by earning them when he was in the U.S. Army. He’d brought us from the hungry jungle to a decent house in a small town by the ocean.
Growing up, I drank powdered milk and ate Spam, Vienna sausages, “new potatoes” (small peeled potatoes in a can), and rice with butter, salt, and pepper. The vegetables were jaundiced, green beans made salty and chewy in chicken stock or sweet, thick creamed corn. For dessert we had Halo-halo, an array of tropical sweet beans and chewy strips of orange jackfruit served over ice, with sweetened condensed milk, a Filipino treat — the most complicated act of love. To get the ingredients we had to go to a special Filipino market, but once we had them, they would last on the shelf all year long.
We did our best to get enough food. We tried to get in front of the hunger by eating casseroles, greasy noodle dishes, and white bread covered in that sweetened condensed milk. Or SOS — “shit on a shingle,” toasted white bread with white gravy — ground beef when we could afford it, a block of Velveeta cheese in the freezer, and a plate with softened butter on the table.
We ate quickly and with our hands. Raised plates to our mouths and made a trowel out of chopsticks. We lived as people without money do, with a sense of impending doom that everything as we knew it could end at any time. Despite the end-time anxiety, we ate as often as possible. Ma and I left my lola’s house for Los Angeles so she could go to college. When we ran out of money one Christmas, we ate the free, sticky vegetarian treats handed out after dancing with the Hari Krishnas.
We ate at people’s homes in the evening before reciting the rosary, in soup kitchens, outside churches — sometimes after playing musical chairs around a cake, it was called the cake walk . . . a game played at street fairs. And we drank coffee at all hours to quell our appetites. Not real coffee but the International Delights kind, a powdered sugary drink. I’d say that this felt like junk or that I felt like I had a strong stomach, or that it felt like decades of poverty running through my veins, but I don’t have much else to compare it to. I knew other kids in our apartment building who walked around with a sandwich baggie filled with Kool-Aid crystals, we’d lick our fingers and dip them in, suck the pink, purple, blue powder off, all of us a gaggle of dyed tongues. It wasn’t until later that I felt ashamed of the things I put in my body.
When I was fifteen, I was taken out of Ma’s care. There was abuse and there was resistance and there was a single parent trying her best, but her best wasn’t the same as Department of Children and Family Services’ best. I walked into my first group home. After scavenging through a bin of donated clothes, worn T-shirts with summer-camp slogans of places I’d never been, I encountered in the kitchen a new world of locked refrigerators with dated food in plastic containers. On the doors was affixed a detailed meal plan:
Monday: meatloaf, rice, and green beans
Tuesday: spaghetti with garlic bread and salad
Thursday: taco night . . .
It was lonely there, but at least I didn’t have to worry about going hungry. I didn’t like to eat food prepared by other people — I was afraid I would taste their emotions — so I learned to cook the food provided by the county. It was largely frozen, prepared in bulk. Salad was a sturdy iceberg with sliced carrot slaw; the ground beef came in a fat tube. The group-home kitchen, with all its canned food and dates on plastic containers, resembled a bunker in the Midwest, as if we were all preparing for the apocalypse.
Only for us the explosions had already happened. The places we’d called home had been lit up and burned to the ground, with nothing left save for the blackened foundations of our past. We kids were screaming for love, for touch, for home. But we found ourselves in limbo, guarding our hearts, biding our time before the Unknown, waiting to see where we would end up. In that place of permanent temporariness, food was the only thing we had some control over; the rest was all court dates and social workers and group therapy and anger management.
It was there that I became a numbered girl. No longer Melissa, or Missy, or Missy Ann, or a girl who preferred the name Randy or Andy, but a girl with a case number, a file, a social worker, and a court date.
Read the rest of this story and more of this year’s best food writing by picking up a copy of “The Best American Food Writing 2019.”
Header image courtesy of "The Best American Food Writing 2019."