Monday, February 11, 2008

In Praise of the Humble Saltine

I don't quite remember when it happened. First there were Ritz crackers, then Wheat Thins and Triscuit. Then "water biscuits" and pita chips and lavosh and rosemary-scented crispbreads of every stripe.

But somewhere along the line, the humble saltine cracker was tossed aside as old school, as passé, as soooo last century.

The saltine was the go-to snack of childhood camping trips and interminable car rides to visit relatives in the southern part of the state. The package held up well, and served as deferential companion to cans of Armour potted meat, vienna sausages, and sardines, along with a little bottle of Louisiana hot sauce: a long, rectangular, waxed paper bridesmaid.

My dad would pull the Rambler over to a roadside picnic table, and we would all peel our sweaty skin from the car seats and race over to get spots on the end. My brother was terribly fair-skinned, so my mom would secure a cloth diaper around his little shoulders with a diaper pin to prevent "blistering"--it was never just a sunburn, always the apocalyptic-sounding blistering.

The saltine tin came out, then the cans (the potted meat can was wrapped in white paper), the bottle of hot sauce, and then--finally--the metal ice chest with bottles of Nehi grape soda and Big Red. If we were lucky, there would be a bag of orange slices or marshmallow circus peanuts to round out the repast.

My stomach churns to think about most of those things today. It's a wonder we survived.

But saltines, I feel, got a bad rap. Tossed aside for no reason other than fashion, they did yeoman's work for years and years as vehicle for peanut butter and pimiento cheese, as binder for salmon croquettes, and as the lunchtime accompaniment to chili or tomato soup (the night time upgrade was cornbread for chili and grilled cheese for the soup).

I, too, passed them by for more glamorous starch, until I got sick in December. I was eating lots of soup, and, well, being sick just calls for comfort any way you can get it. No mom here, no grandmother to dab at my fevered brow, no dad with a brand new coloring book and crayons from Woolworth's... I reprised the saltine, out of sheer nostalgia and desire for something that hearkened back to home.

And now, by God, I'm leaving Oz and its fancy crispbread, and returning, unapologetically, to the saltines of my youth.

There's no place like home.
There's no place like home.
There's no place like home.

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