Food Memoir with Gina Rae La Cerva: Student work

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Earlier this spring we hosted Gina Rae La Cerva while she taught a Live Virtual Food Memoir Writing Retreat April 8-May 6, 2021.

Every Thursday Gina Rae and her group met to discuss the delicious, delightful and nourishing subject of food while they explored their inner worlds through personal essays.

As Gina Rae notes, “…Through writing about food you can access deep memories, connect to your childhood, examine your heritage, and write about your personal growth.”

With great admiration we’re sharing several student essays that were completed during the retreat. We hope you enjoy reading them as much as we did.

Jenna Erickson, Content Curator, Wild Rice Retreat


“It kills me, my mother says early last summer, “to watch you touch each other when I can’t.” I can empathize. I am so tired of touching the same three people over and over, long for the feel of new skin. Her universe is even smaller than mine.

“I get it. Should I give the kids some kind of special hug for you?”

She’s not interested. “I’m wondering if I could wrap myself in plastic somehow?”

“Like a full body condom?”


“I know you think Amazon will deliver anything, but this might test that theory.”

“Just come for dinner and I’ll figure it out.”

My mother, a suburban survivalist equipped for all disasters, seemed tailor made for a pandemic. When I spied two precious N95 masks at the hardware store and called with an offer to pick them up for her and my father, she declined because “I have plenty of those in my earthquake supplies.” Aside from having to prepare dinner in her own kitchen, a tradition that had ended upon the emptying of the nest, the transition to sheltering at home was almost seamless. After a technologically inept spring of Zoom dinners, evenings of telling my parents that the camera was pointing at the ceiling and talking over each other because of a persistent glitch in the WiFi, we have figured out a way to eat together. Now we have separate tables under the oak trees in my parents’ backyard, a pump dispenser from my mother’s cache of Purell placed where, in other times, there would have been roses from the garden. My husband and I sit with our children; my parents cannot sit with theirs. We each have our respective take out, pizza gone soggy, salads gone limp.

On this particular night, their table also has clear trash bags set out. I assume it’s for clean-up, but my mother has bigger things planned.

While my kids chase the quarantine puppy around the yard, my parents ask us what is new, as if anything is ever new. But we try; we discuss the newly unsealed indictment of my city councilperson, the long-term viability of downtown LA commercial real estate, a restaurant in our neighborhood, much beloved for its pretzel bread, shuttered and sold off. “Everything changes,” my mother says. In a nod to month four of her daily Duolingo class, I ask her if she can say that in French yet. “No,” she says, a little defensive, “I still have a lot of food words to get through. Want to hear me order a ham and cheese sandwich?”

When we make noises about leaving, my mother stops us. “My condom!” My parents pull garbage bags over their heads, ghost-like and filmy, and turn to us. The bags, meant for kitchen wastebaskets, are too snug, and neither of them can move their arms. So they stand still in their plastic casings, hands pressed to their sides, as we do all the hugging. They move as close as they can against the thin barrier keeping us apart, and when we step back, the plastic is stuck to their faces by tears.


When the winds are strong in the Mojave, they can blow your whole damn kitchen away. The Santa Ana winds start midday and settle down toward evening. The winds originate from cool, dry high-pressure air masses in the Great Basin and blow southwesterly towards the coast. When they are mild, they blow sand into every nook and crevice on your body, as well as into the food being prepped for meals giving a slight crunch with every bite. The popup tents are anchored down with 12-inch spikes hammered into the desert floor with a sledge. When they take flight, snapping or bending tent frames they scatter anything in the kitchen left unsecured across the desert. The tents are an absolute necessity to keep the relentless sun at bay while working in the daylight hours, when even the ants hide beneath the ground. We scour the desert for the pieces of the kitchen and monkey wrench the tents back together with bamboo spoons and duct tape to bring back the blessed shade to the kitchen.

The primary challenge for desert cooking is water.There isn’t any. It all must be trucked in and when you are providing for the water needs for 40 plus people, we need about 100 gallons a day-conservation is crucial. We encourage volunteers to swish a bit of their drinking water onto their plate and drink the residue before placing their plate in the dish bin. Disposing of the water also can present a problem. We dig a hole in the ground to pour the dirty dish water in filtering out any food particles, and if it is not covered properly, all manner of thirsty desert creatures will be drowned in it by morning mocking our leave no trace camping ethic. Some water is broadcast over the road and almost immediately large white moths will flock to the wet earth to drink from the unexpected bounty. In drought years, when there are no kangaroo rats to eat, the kit foxes come out to feast on the moths lapping at the dish water-dampened dirt.

When snakes come through camp, I call to interested parties, ‘There’s a sidewinder in the kitchen if anyone wants to see it!’ Snakes heighten my awareness while working in the desert just as bears do in Alaska and Montana. The Mojave Desert is home to 20 species of snakes, but only the Mojave rattlesnake, sidewinder, speckled rattlesnake and western diamondback are poisonous and their homes beneath the creosote and cheese bushes are everywhere. The rattling of the tails is a constant companion to any evening stroll.We keep arespectful distance from them unless they decide to take up residence. ‘Steve, please come get this cold baby rattler from underneath the generator’ I call the resident snake whisperer. My favorites are the sidewinders, who leave wave patterns through the sand. In all the years that I have camped in the desert, no one has ever been bitten.

MAY 2021

If I could eat anything right now, I would want to feast on platters of vulnerability and plates of courage and compassion. I want to savor each conversation. I want to sit and sip with women and men who are different from me. For the past year, I watched countless protests after the death of a Black man in Minneapolis. A death we — white people — are responsible for even though only one man murdered him. I have read books seeking guidance on how to change myself in the hopes of modeling for others. I’ve hung Black Lives Matter banners and rehung them when they were cut open or torn down. With spring and vaccines comes cocktails, soirees, and brunch. I want to include reconciliation and accountability among the invited guests.

I could choose to set the table with our fine china and best silver. I have three sets. I grew up eating special family meals on my mom’s china. It’s bone white with gray roses. Her silver pattern has a rose adorned to each fork, knife, and spoon. My aunt’s china, which I never ate a meal on until she gifted it to me just before she died she kept on display in her china cabinet. Choosing my own china pattern when I married felt like a rite of passage handed down from mom and her sister along with their strength, love, and service to others. Or, I could choose to set the table with paper plates, not even the sturdy kind. I know how we gather and why matters.

If I could eat anywhere right now, it would be around my dining room table in my home. That round table my husband and I had hand crafted with extra leaves so we could invite everyone. I wanted to keep it pristine.

The first scratch that came was a doozy. A silver urn filled with funeral flowers for his dad. I didn’t realize how heavy it was. Another of the big ones happened years later when a caterer slid a silver chafing dish over to make room for my husband’s 60th birthday cake. And there were more scratches and dents in between those. Our table carries countless memories and abundant laughter and a sprinkling of tears. Our table has heard longings and caught dashed hopes and felt a few fears.

Every time I look at those scratches I remember my father-in-law and the wisdom he shared with us around that table. Each time I catch that certain scratch out of the corner of my eye, I hum the song a dear friend wrote and sang for my husband’s birthday party. We’ve played games and assembled puzzles at this table. We’ve had tough conversations there, too.

There needs to be more gritty talk with guests whose ancestors slaved for my ancestors. There is no legacy of owning people in my family. My father was Canadian and my mother dirt poor the eighth child of 10 whose father was killed by a drunk driver leaving my grandmother to feed them all.

As the sun sets, I’ll greet you at the front door welcoming you in with open minds and hearts. It won’t be about the table manners or the prayer of gratitude or the hostess gift. I want my guests bringing questions with a side of curiosity and leaving judgement at the door beside the welcome mat. There will be no placards with engraved names and assigned seats. Come in and wander and graze and move in close — talk, listen — to know the other and be known by another.

We may cook the foods of our ancestors with love and care to sprinkle the right amount of this or measure the right amount of that from beloved family recipes, but there are some things we don’t need and shouldn’t pass to future generations. Like greed, hate, and too much salt.


You would not believe how many rules she has for herself. Like she should only eat that oatmeal if it’s been soaked in whey for eight hours. Otherwise, she might not digest it well. Nightshades could be causing inflammation, so she tries to avoid them. Maybe she should eliminate them and see how she feels. A bowl of raisin bran used to be her favorite snack, but she read somewhere that boxed cereal is terrible for her. So she rarely eats it now and winds up feeling bad about it when she does.

She fumbles with her phone in Whole Foods because she can’t remember, are melons on the clean fifteen list? She’s heard that her metabolism works best if she eats dinner by six and doesn’t snack between meals. Both these directives are a daily battle. She holds butter in the highest regard, but her cholesterol is elevated, so maybe she should switch to a no-fat diet.

She’s never once been overweight but instead swings on a seven-pound pendulum. She knows what end she feels better on and she’s exhausted thinking about it. So she should definitely give up flour and sugar. Never mind that baking makes her happy. Intermittent fasting? Maybe she should try that.

She loves strong black coffee but tries to limit herself to just one cup. Because it probably messes with her sleep and she struggles enough with that as it is. Let alone the random bouts of heartburn. Where does that come from? She eats so well. Clearly, she’s doing something wrong.

People tell her that she’s not actually designed to digest cow’s milk so she flirts with a vegan diet. Plus, it’s better for the planet, right? She indulges in a cheese-free pizza on Sunday nights but feels guilty eating leftovers the next day. Surely all that gluten can’t be good.

If there is an open bag of tortilla chips in the house, she will find it–their salty crunch temporarily filling some inexplicable void. She loves nuts too, but they’re so high in arginine, and she doesn’t want to do anything that might make the awful virus in her eye return. But the salt, the crunch. Virus be dammed. She can’t help herself. And peanuts. Every time she dips a spoon into the peanut butter jar she pretends that she’s never heard of aflatoxins.

She could open a bottle of wine and savor it over the next few nights, but does she really need to? She thought she was going to try and drink less. This too must be contributing to her sleep issues. But she’ll probably open it anyway, pouring out a tiny splash of remorse with each glass.

It’s easier to pick up a container of co-op humus, but the chickpeas won’t have been pre-soaked, so she’ll just make her own. It’ll be more nutrient-dense and with less phytic acid. She can’t really remember why this matters, but she knows it’s important. And even though tonight’s curry would be better with white rice, she’ll feel obligated to make brown.

You might never guess that this tortured eater spends her weekends pouring over the food section. That she plans dinner parties in her head while reading seed catalogs. That her Instagram feed is flooded with food porn. Or that sitting on the floor of her kitchen, propped up against the cookbook shelf is her happy place. How can something that brings her so much joy dish out such misery?

She tries to stop it all. The incessant voices swimming in her head. Because deep down she knows that she puts too much pressure on food. It’s not food’s job to fix her, to make her perfect. She thinks back to a time when eating was simpler and wonders if the sheer volume of solutions is the reason she feels so broken.