Cornbread Festival Essay Contest: Away From Home

Publisher’s Note: This year we are partnering with the Arkansas Cornbread Festival and the UALR department of English for a writing contest open to all UALR students and alumni. Each person is asked to write a short fiction, nonfiction, or poetry piece exploring the intersection of food and culture. The submissions were judged by a panel of UALR writers.

All entries can be found here


Away from Home by Ryan Reed

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My wife, Carrie, opened the cardboard UPS box deliberately with care and caution.

Our Brooklyn Apartment, on Warren Street, had a small foyer where the mailman would drop off packages. FedEx and UPS did not have a key into the foyer, so if they made deliveries when no one was home, they had to slide a small pick-up card through the crack in the door. I had informed my mother of this on a number of occasions, but it seemed that through some timeless loyalty to UPS she had forgotten once again. We had missed this delivery twice already and had to walk to the UPS office on 7th Avenue to get the package.

Carrie had set the box on the blue quilted comforter of our bed and gone to the kitchen for a knife to cut the packing tape. It was roughly the size of a shoebox and had been used for shipping prior to this occasion. Large, black, permanent marker strokes had redacted any evidence of previous service. You could still smell the fumes.

Outside, the large tree on Warren in front of our apartment was almost bare. The sound as the wind blew down the street reminded me of the ocean or a large crowd at a show. There was no real control over the radiators in our small rooms, so the windows were all cracked to balance the temperature with the cold outside. Our cats wedged themselves in the openings, their wet noses twitching with all the late fall smells.

Carrie returned with the scissors and cut the remaining piece of troublesome tape. The cardboard flaps of the box opened wide as if they were inviting your embrace. Inside the box was a mess of newspapers crammed to keep the contents in place. They were all from the sports section of a Sunday issue of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Prominent was a

night-time image of War Memorial Stadium hosting the Catholic High School football team. Beneath the first layer of newspaper was a small burnt-orange card from my mother. It read:

“We are very sorry that you two will not be able to come home for Thanksgiving. We hope that you are not too lonely up there all by yourselves. We miss you and we love you.” – Mom & Dad

Under the next layer were two small boxes of Jiffy Corn-Muffin Mix. We had mentioned in passing to my mother that it had been impossible to find any cornbread mix in New York City. We had searched all the specialty stores and ethnic food markets throughout town. There was, undoubtedly, cornbread to be found in the city, but it was not in any of the places that we had looked.

This was before you could get anything delivered online. This was before my wife and I became decent at preparing our own foods. This was in the beginning when we were too poor

to afford to take off work and return south for the holidays. So we would stay in Brooklyn while my mother cooked her turkey and her stuffing. We would miss my grandmother’s cranberry sauce and green-bean casserole. We wouldn’t be there to watch my mother wear herself out bringing everyone into her house and feeding them. When it was all finished and everyone had taken some food home with them, with the fridge still brimming with stuffed tupperware, she would turn to my father and say:

“It’s just too much work.”

“You always do this to yourself. You don’t have to host it.” He would respond. “I know.  Maybe next year we will go over to Shannon’s and just let her do it.” “I am sure she would love it.”

“But it’s so much work. I would hate to make her do all of that.” “I am sure she would love it.”

“It’s just too much work.”

If we had been there we would have lain on the floor or on the couch watching movies while we tried to return to a state where we were not miserable with overconsumption. Hours later, two or three movies into the night, we would venture back into the kitchen and remove the cornbread, the turkey, the cranberries.  We would make small sandwiches from the leftovers and resume our posts in front of the television. We would hold the line until sleep was no longer avoidable.

“I am going to miss your mom’s stuffing.” Carrie says as an afterthought, holding the small white and blue Jiffy containers in her hands, over the UPS box.

I smiled weakly at her because I could care less about the food. I knew that to my mother having her family around her and feeding them was just about the most important thing that she could do. She would wear herself down and go to unachievable lengths in order to put as much as she could on that table.

I know that she would never say it, but us not being there to feed was going to hurt her terribly.

Yet somewhere inside of her, no matter how hurt she may have been, was that need to provide us with food. Somehow she had remembered and found the Jiffy. It may not have been cooked or prepared, but subconsciously she knew that we would make the cornbread and we would eat it and she would have provided for us and fed us no matter how many miles and states there may have been between us.

And somewhere inside me, even though I knew that it was just some store-bought cornbread, I was comforted knowing that no matter how old I became, my mom would always be thinking about me in whatever capacity she was able.

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Cornbread Festival Essay Contest: Away From Home