Liberalism, Tobruk, and a Shared Woodbine

IMG_0118.JPG New Zealanders eating in Libyan desert 11588 - 1A LCIn food memories we store our autobiographies. In food memories, too, we find material for biography. Memories of empathy among former enemies reinforced my father’s liberalism: his hope for world peace; for the social safety net.

Born in the last months of WWII, by 1948 I was a strapping four-year-old in a country farmhouse kitchen oblivious of the food rationing that had ended two years earlier. Stirring up creamed chipped beef on toast, my mother, who remembered rationing well, painstakingly scraped the last bits of beef into flour and hot fat. Still, creamed chipped beef to me was simply pure waves of pleasure coursing through my whole body. A steady supply of balanced meals turned me into a robust teenager, and at the elite Eastern college my father scraped up my tuition to attend, a full breakfast set me up for the day. On Sundays a chef in white apron and toque carved roast beef and spooned out Yorkshire pudding.

Years later, on slim wages as an instructor in the New York City university system, I first learned how hunger intensifies food memory. Freeze-dried coffee heated on a hotplate lasted until tea at 3. Served by an elegant faculty wife in the graduate student lounge, I counted on it to tide me over until supper. Tea in that lounge was where I learned about fear and food memory. My fear was that the elegant lady would notice I had come back for seconds, even thirds, despite the politesse I mustered nestling as many cookies as I could beside my tea cup and gracefully balancing it all as I made my way past her.

Oh how hunger and fear made those Nabisco Snackwell’s Vanilla Crème Sandwich Cookies last! I savored the smooth curved edges and the soft sugar layer pushing against the crisp buttery shortbreads. If I kept my bites small, the burst of energy would stretch out longer.

Neurology tells us that evolution has seen to it that when we are hungry or afraid, food travels a swift path to memory. Our olfactory bulbs register food’s smell; the amygdala is the seat of fear. Both lead straight to the hippocampus, a delicate structure at the base of our skulls where long-term memories are formed. Primitive ancestors with brains like that hunted more successfully because food memories motivated them; they reminded them where food would be found.

From food memories, we can write biographies, too. That experience with Snackwell’s, mild though my hunger and fear were, helped me write about my father. I know that when he returned to wartime New York shattered by the bombs of Tobruk and sat in front of a typewriter surrounded by thousands of words scrawled in reporter’s notebooks, food memories flooded back. Rommel’s bombs, violent and dramatic, had rained down on his desert encampment. He remembered well the dreary rations of that day. Bully beef stew made with dehydrated potatoes captured from Gerry after a British advance. Salty tea made from water from the broken-down Tobruk water distillery. Tinned peaches the cook had ruined by adding canned milk, making the resultant mess curdle. Pineapple cubes in the canteen where he fled to escape the desert heat.

Night came. More bombs dropped. From dugout to dugout, he searched for men with whom he could share his fears. At least there would be cigarettes; all soldiers smoked hungrily and often. At last he found a dugout where two Tommies huddled. Listening to their fears made him forget his, but his hopes for cigarettes were dashed. One Tommy lit up but the other said, “Put that cigarette out. Don’t you know they can see a light miles up in the sky from an airplane?”

My own experiences of fear and hunger, mild though they were, helped me write my father’s biography. But there is more. Neuroscience with increasing conviction tells us that in the more recently evolved frontal and parietal lobes reside mirror neurons, which fire when we see another’s actions and emotions. There, some claim, lies the seat of our ability to empathize.

Rommel’s bombs continued on. My father was stretchered out of the battle with a lamed leg. He found himself in an ambulance next to a badly wounded German. As the ambulance swerved, the soldier winced. I know my father’s empathy came alive; the young German was in pain. They fell into conversation, and soon the whole ambulance was joking about the others’ rations.

“I say, the sausage and cheese wrapped in cellophane they issue on your side are bloody good. I ‘ad some of your beer, too. Not bad.”

“We have had some of your bully beef,” the young German said. “I myself do not care for it.”

The laughter became hearty. Tommies came in to collect tea mugs. “Here, Fritz,” one said, “keep this package of Woodbines. English cigarettes, for a change. Good trip, lad.”

My father’s war memoir tells of many instances of food sharing. A can of peaches shared with an MP who helped him set up his cameras to photograph the bombed out city of Tobruk. Endless cigarettes lit on the same match with a fellow soldier. Moe Levy on the troopship back home, serving up his first real American coffee, steak, French fried potatoes, real butter and ice cream. “You can have anything you want. Just ask for it,” Moe said.

The experience with the German soldier when empathy sprang up among former battlefield enemies was the basis for my father’s hope that the world would learn to live in peace. That hope remains.

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