I’ve just finished reading Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, possibly the best novel I have read in years. On the surface it has to do with the lives of various characters connected in some way to music or the music industry. In its larger sense, it is a meditation on identity and existence as creature of time.
Pickled pigs feet. I haven’t thought of those in a number of years but this morning as I was thinking about Egans’s book, they popped into my head. I think they are one of those foods like chitlins and scrapple that if you are not raised eating them, you have no desire to try. They really belong to a different time and place, to a different you. As a boy I can remember my father bringing home big jars of pickled pig’s feet. When the jars were opened and a pigs foot was pulled out a sort of gelatinous mass clung to them. It was not a pretty sight but the vinegary taste and crunchiness as you chewed the meat off of the bone was addictive. The thought of them still invokes the ghost of those memories on my tongue.
The pigs feet were a calque of my father’s boyhood like those words that crept into his speech from time to time from a mysterious time and place that I knew little about, somewhere in the tributaries of the Little Wicomico. Words like “gunny sack” and “doggone” joined words for food such as hominy, fried green tomatoes, poke and squirrel. I’ve never tasted squirrel myself and, I don’t think as an adult my father had either - he said it was good but a bit greasy. Egan begins her novel with a quote from Proust to the effect that when we re-enter memories of the past we are trying to recapture something of that self we were at the time and that it is a dangerous journey. It is certainly true as a scientific fact, that every atom that constitutes my body now is different from the ones that made it up when I was a child. In that sense, you can never go home. Whatever we were then, is not what we are now. Even so, in looking at those residues of childhood in our words and foods, we can get some sense of the landscape that formed us.
I don’t know what my father’s childhood was like. His parents were both dead by the time he was eleven. But the foods that he liked were a form of transmission. Something that carried over. When I unexpectedly hear pickled pigs feet come into my mind, I recognize without knowing it that I am a carrier, too. Words fill my mind of the foods I once ate that I doubt turn up on any of my children’s menus: tongue, oyster stew, Cool Aid, Navy beans, mapeline syrup, liver and onions… I wonder if when my children search their minds they feel the same; those forgotten foods of the past bringing to life once more some aspect of the past and of themselves that they have forgotten. Proust is right, it is dangerous to try to reclaim an Eden that perhaps only exists as such in our minds. Our lives are composed of many selves. Even so, those clues about what we were at one time are tantalizing and in some ways still a part of us. As a matter of fact, there is a certain item that I would like to add to my shopping list.