Why Are We What We Are?


My wife asked me why, when I eat yogurt, I eat it slowly, taking small spoonful after small spoonful and pausing between each. I thought about it; I eat nothing else that way.

When I tried to take larger amounts in my spoon or eat more quickly, I discovered it was uncomfortable, that the eating just wasn’t right. And I couldn’t figure out why.

So I went back to eating it the way I had.

But that didn’t stop me thinking about it.

Eventually, I uncovered what I think is the answer.

48 years ago, during the summer of 1968, when I was 16, I found myself in Munich, Germany with a non-changeable ticket for a flight from Brussels to New York City five weeks later. In my pocket, I had about $100—about $3 per day. I was planning on hitchhiking, so didn’t need money for transportation, but I would need to eat, and money for the youth hostels where I planned on staying. I worked it out; with care, the money could just be stretched far enough.

I would buy my food each morning, combining it with what I had left from the day before—usually bread. My breakfast—because it wouldn’t keep—was a container of yogurt.

Yogurt was new to me. In fact, I don’t think I had ever tasted it before, though I don’t at all remember who introduced me to it. I don’t think I liked it much at first, but I did like the fruit I stirred up from the bottom—and I was told it would be good for me. The fact that I hadn’t yet developed a taste for yogurt was part, I am sure, of why I ate it slowly. But, also, I was hungry all the time. Stretching out the meal, especially the first meal of the day, made it a little easier to bear.

I’d forgotten about that.

Yogurt has been part of my life ever since, though it is only over the past few years that I have made it once more my breakfast food. I look forward to it when I wake up, even more than my morning coffee. But I had never made the connection, not consciously, with my diet that summer.

Over the past few years, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the influence of the past we don’t remember, though never on that small yogurt level. My roots are in the Scots-Irish culture of Appalachia. Though I only lived there for a couple of years, we went back there frequently when I was growing up. We moved about a lot—a common pattern, I know now, for people with roots in or around the hills. The one stable place was my grandparents’ house in Lenoir, North Carolina. Many others I have met across the country have a similar sense of grandparental stability back “home.”

Since 1970, the place I’ve been most likely to call home is Brooklyn, New York. I’ve moved away from there five times, for periods of three years, a year, ten years, two years and then two years again. That leaves about twenty-eight years in Brooklyn. Though I have long been a strident defender of this place my Manhattan friends once wouldn’t go but where they all now live, I have been becoming more and more aware that there are essential differences between me and people who have never felt the sense of relief and comfort we of Appalachian roots know, the one that simply starting up a tree-lined dirt road between two ridges can bring.

When I try to bring up that I feel more and more Appalachian the longer I live away, all I get from the people I talk with up north here are snorts of laughter. “You’re a New Yorker now. You look like one; you talk like one. You are one.”

I can’t really explain it—have tried to pass it off as wishful thinking—but the feeling I get when I visit my aunt and uncle in Wilkes County is one of tensions melting away. That doesn’t happen in Vermont or Pennsylvania or Florida or anywhere but Western North Carolina. I can appreciate other places, but they just don’t feel like home.

The question I ask is, where does that feeling come from? Are our early memories—forgotten memories—really that powerful? If I really do eat my yogurt the way I do because eating it slowly once made hunger more bearable, why can it not be that buried memories of Appalachia still influence my emotions?

We are creatures of our pasts, even pasts shrouded from our consciousness… even pasts of the generations before us. As I learn more about ancestors of mine who moved from the Scottish lowlands to Ulster Plantation to Cecil, Maryland then down the Great Wagon Road to settle in Salisbury, NC, I recognize in them elements of my own attitudes.

I had no idea that cultural formations could be that strong—but I am coming to believe that they are.

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