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Hamburger Pie

I was eight the first time I tasted Hamburger Pie. My mother left town for a week to attend what my parents called “GA,” shorthand for General Assembly: The Annual Meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. When she wasn’t caring for our family, my mom devoted herself to the Unitarian Church in Arlington, Virginia, where our family spent every Sunday morning, afternoon, and evening, and where she was codirector of religious education. GA was the place to be for Unitarians who liked to gather in groups to discuss Unitarian faith—a collection of vague, bohemian principles like “acceptance,” “compassion,” and “spiritual growth.”

When my mother left town, my dad was in charge of everything, including meals, which gave us a brief respite from my mother’s macrobiotic regime. In the early ’70s, my mother and father discovered health food, along with Marxism, environmental consciousness, and yoga. For my mother, radical health and nutrition became an obsession, and in our family, we followed the macrobiotic dietto the letter of the law. This meant no meat, dairy, sugar, imported fruits or vegetables, eggplant, spices, or salt. Nothing that comes in a box, and almost nothing that others eat. In our house we ate fleshy sea vegetables, such as wakame and kombu, which glowed green in the dark light of the dining room’s chandelier. Dinners were green veggies that, when chewed, formed fibrous strings that looped around my teeth; coarse grains like amaranth; and broiled, bland fish streaked with soy sauce. After dinner, my mother poured us mugs of kukicha, a thin tea made from kukicha twig leaf that promotes digestion and tastes like tree bark. Our pantry was stocked with carob powder, soymilk cartons, and miso—a salty paste made of fermented rice, soybeans, and fungus. [End Page 101]

Afternoon snack was pungent miso paste slathered on carrot rounds. I closed my eyes and balled my hands into fists in order to swallow the salty, slime-covered carrots. We were permitted one soft drink a year, a ritual that acquired religious significance. Before I left for the school bus each morning, my mother would grip my shoulders and remind me what I wasn’t allowed to eat at school: meat, dairy, and “white death”—her term for sugar—which pretty much left me with tater tots in the cafeteria. She chose not to prepare a bag lunch for me because she said she “believed in the public school lunch program.” Before I left the house for a languid summer afternoon at Chester-brook Swim Club, she issued a frantic reminder that standard snack-bar fare was off-limits. I was allowed one fruit cup, and that was it. Even though I reassured her I understood the rules, she worried I’d fall prey to the snack bar’s darker seductions: pizza, soda, Choco Tacos, and bomb pops.

In the summers, we visited Mompoo, my maternal grandmother, who lived in Fayetteville, Tennessee. She fed us Jell-O salad and sweet tea. My mother let us eat what Mompoo served, but if she caught me spooning loose sugar at the bottom of my tea glass into my mouth, I was in big trouble. Less frequently we visited Grandmommie, my dad’s mother, in Tiptonville, Tennessee. In Tiptonville, my father’s face was dark and lined with creases. He was tense and short with Grandmommie. I didn’t like that anger in him, but I sensed that his anger camouflaged a deeper feeling, even if I didn’t understand it. He doesn’t like to be here, in Tennessee. Tennessee makes him sad. In Tiptonville, I climbed on his lap to try to make him smile again. I trained my blue-green eyes on his and thought, If I can smile, then so can you. Grandmommie served caramel pie, and because it wasn’t her home, my mother let us eat it. An egg-white glaze made its gold-brown surface shimmer. As I filled my mouth with warm pie, I watched my father do the same. He took each bite slowly, as though it meant something important. He finished every sugary crumb on his plate...