The first time I had French toast with jelly, I was pregnant, a runaway teenager at a roadside café somewhere between the southwestern tip of Kentucky and the Mississippi border.
It was a chilly morning, April 1982, a colorless day that bloomed and warmed when the waif-like waitress plopped a bowl of assorted fruit jellies down in front of my plate.
“Here ya go, Hon,” she said and hurried away.
I eyed the bowl tentatively, wondering whether she had mistaken mine for traditional toast. I raised a finger in protest, but the waitress had already breezed through the swinging, stainless-steel kitchen doors. I shrugged and reclaimed the bowl, pulling it back to my plate.
The jellies brightened before my eyes, a panoply of processed sweetness–packets labeled with bright cherries, peach globes, grape bunches.
My boyfriend, Terry, and his buddy, Jimmy, sat sipping sugar-and-cream-laden coffee from melamine cups while I picked through the jellies in their little rectangular tubs with peel-off lids.
“Well, go on,” Terry told me, nodding at the toast. “You need to eat. For you and the baby.” He slurped his coffee.
I thought he must have really loved me — loved us, me and the baby. We had run off to get married, against my parents’ wishes. They didn’t think Terry could provide for a family. And here he was practically spoon-feeding me French toast.
I flashed him a smile and fumbled for the butter knife. “I’m eating, don’t worry,” I assured him.
Somewhere on that table, perhaps hidden behind salt and pepper shakers, the A1 Steak Sauce and the flimsy paper menu, I’m sure there was a carafe of syrup. For sixteen years, syrup had been the only rightful topping I’d known for the egg-battered bread my mother fried to perfection and sliced into golden isosceles triangles.
But now my gaze fixed on the jellies, vibrant and beckoning. My fingers came alive sifting through the rainbow of tubs — those smooth, sugary, hard-boiled fruits that softened as I scooped them out onto the bread’s warm surface. I scraped the tubs clean — first a strawberry, then a raspberry, now an apple. When I sank my teeth into the spongy, heated stickiness, I was surprised by the flavor, the thickness of it. I had never tasted anything as delicious as this. I wondered why this delicacy had never been offered at home.
I thought of my mother and her hands working, dipping the bread in a bowl of frothy yolks, clinching the crust with thumb and forefinger, lowering it into the sizzling pan.
At the time, I was certain I’d been denied the freedom to discover my own tastes. The truth was, my mother ran a utilitarian kitchen to feed the seven of us children and our father. She cooked in bulk and set a single utensil at each place-setting depending on the meal — spoon for potato soup, fork for spaghetti. It was up to us to forage the refrigerator and cabinets for extras, and, if we found something, to ask permission to bring it to the dinner table.
My parents grew up during the Depression. They knew the ache of an empty belly; they had mothers who worried over bare cupboards.
Although my siblings and I never went hungry, there were unspoken rules about food in our house. Experimenting was covertly discouraged; nothing was wasted. When we asked for smaller or larger portions of certain dishes, my mother would remind us, “This isn’t a restaurant,” and my father would bellow, “You’ll eat what’s put on your plate.”
It was out of necessity, but it was also out of love.
French toast with jelly never tasted the same after that day at the roadside café. It was only good once — like the taste of freedom on a pregnant teenager’s tongue.
Up to then, the world had been flat and dull for me, a dreary journey in a trucker’s joint that reeked of cigarette smoke and the sour-milk sweat of hung-over men.
But when we left, I saw the world through new eyes. I looked back through the glass storefront, and the men there were clean and polite; the too-thin waitress was suddenly pretty, scribbling orders onto a square pad that fit perfectly in the palm of her hand. I could see things this way. I could try French toast with jelly. Nothing could stop me from the power of my own desire.
I had no idea how much had changed and how much more was about to. Soon I would be seventeen, a mother. I’d return home reluctantly, fall out of love, be pulled gently back to my parents’ table.
I slid into the front seat of Jimmy’s fastback Charger, and Terry squeezed in next to me. With Jimmy behind the wheel, we sped toward Mississippi. Tall, orange daylilies fanned their flaming petals at me from the interstate median. The metallic blue hood of Jimmy’s Charger stretched out in front of us, gobbling mile after mile of asphalt. I swore I could see the curvature of the earth against the sprawling horizon.