Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

Food nostalgia

I’m currently consuming two food items of great nostalgic value.

The first is the Hormel roast beef and mashed potatoes microwave meal kit. (It probably has some other more markety name, but I threw out the package already.) It’s a vaguely oval plastic tray with a peel-off lid, and it’s one of the most perfect meals ever designed. It needs no refrigeration. It’s a hot meal. You can put it in a backpack easily. It is hearty. It only contains 3 grams of fat. And it’s the kind of meal that I could eat regularly without getting bored of it.

My first memory of eating these constantly was when I worked at the Wrubel Computing Center in Bloomington one night a week. I’d trudge across town from my Colonial Crest apartment to the 10th and the Bypass building. It usually took an hour to walk there, an hour to walk back, the weather was usually shitty, and for the entire shift, maybe one person would call with a problem. On the walk, I was armed with the Konrath walkman, the Konrath black leather jacket, and a backpack of food, and usually a book to read. (I think I was working through Henry Miller’s Rosy Crucifiction trilogy for a good chunk of that semester, although I also remember re-reading The Grapes of Wrath in there, too.) Almost nobody was in Wrubel after five on a Sunday night, except for the machine room operators like Robin, who spent most of his night changing tapes and talking to me about Jimi Hendrix or chili. So I ate many a Hormel meal kit at a desk while bitnetting people on an outdated Mac IIsi.

(I’m pretty sure I wrote a short story about this, although it’s probably horrid. One of the things I tried to describe was the feeling of being isolated in this strange envoronment where I had to walk through a sterile, all-white machine room to get to my desk, and it always reminded me of something out of 2001. There was a very specific smell to the environmentally-controlled space, more than just a clean air conditioning smell. I recently ran across the same smell when I was in a hospital getting an X-ray or MRI or something, and it was one of those instant time machines that I always babble about.)

I must have bought my Hormel kits at the Marsh grocery store up the road from my apartment. And that’s the drawback to these Hormel things: not all stores carry them, and that adds to the nostalgia. I don’t think I saw the things once the entire time I was in Seattle, because if a store carried Hormel, they had the cans of stew, and maybe chili, and that’s not the same. The Duane Reade drug store by my old place in Astoria would stock them, and every time I went there, I bought all of them. Last night, I saw them at a SuperTarget, so I bought a half-dozen of them. I feel like Mel Gibson’s character in Conspiracy Theory, who always had to buy a copy of Catcher in the Rye every time he saw it.

The other food item on my desk is the 8-ounce glass bottle Christmas edition Coca-Cola. Those of you who knew me back in college knew I had an unhealty obsession with Coke. I collected bottles from around the world, I read books about the company, and I had one of the earliest web sites about the beverage. I had this shrine of cans and bottles from China, Japan, Italy, Greece, Poland, France, and a dozen more countries. And of course I drank the stuff every day.

When I moved to Seattle in 1995, I was in a really weird place. I had friends at my job, but I spent a lot of my weekends alone, going to movies by myself, going to malls and looking at stuff I couldn’t buy because I was broke. I didn’t have a TV, and I was basically living on changing phone companies every few weeks, and selling CDs I got from Columbia House. I didn’t even know how I would try to date, and by halloween, it was getting dark at like 4:00 every day. I was feverishly writing Summer Rain and thinking back too much to my days in Bloomington. I didn’t want to go back, but I wished the present was different.

I used to drive to Southcenter Mall a lot, just to look at stuff and look at people, and that got even more interesting once the xmas season started. Malls used to have a hypnotic effect on me, and I enjoyed going even if I didn’t need or want anything. (This isn’t true anymore, for a million different reasons, which can all be summaried as “I’m getting old”.) I was going back to ELkhart for the ’95 santa day, and had to gather up a few presents for the family with that month’s check from MCI thanking me for the switch. And when I was at Target, I saw they had a bunch of six-packs of Coke, in little bottles, with Santa on the label.

There’s debate about Coke in glass, and Coke with cane sugar, and I don’t care anymore about the non-HFCS version, but I do love a beverage in a glass bottle. This has become a big fad as of late, and many hipster doofuses in New York were paying top dollar for Hecho en Mexico Coke. But back then, aside from a trip to Europe or Latin America, the only way to do glass was the xmas bottle. I picked up two six-packs, one for the shrine, one for the fridge, and drove back to my tiny little studio apartment at 7th and James.

I’m almost certain I probably drank that whole six on that Friday night. I used to stay up all night writing, and listening to the same six CDs. I had one of those Kenwood 6+1 CD players (this was long before the days of MP3), and of the 6 always-loaded writing CDs were the soundtrack to the Naked Lunch movie, the first Tori Amos album, and the first two Nine Inch Nails albums. There were also two new age or jazz albums, maybe some Windham Hill artist like Shadowfax, or Chick Corea. All stuff I’m half-embarassed to listen to, but it worked, and I’m not in the “I’m more metal than you” mode anymore, so fuck it.

Anyway, I got another six-pack from Target last night, and just drank one. It reminds me of that whole Seattle xmas season, listening to one of those Windham Hill solstice albums, looking out into the darkness outside my patio, the big sky gone black, the Kingdome and the SoDo neighborhood just past the ribbon of I-5. I don’t get nostalgic about event-driven Christmas celebrations anymore, the opening of presents, the driving to grandma’s in the snow. But those little touchstones of nostalgia are something I always enjoy, and it’s even better when it’s something I can pick up for a few bucks at Target.