Other than the Italian food my grandmother made, we ate the staples of the 1960s: meatloaf made with Lipton dried onion soup, canned vegetables, and hot dogs and hamburgers cooked on the backyard grill. My parents drove Chevys and watched "Hee Haw." They drank whiskey sours and Michelob, line-danced, and played bingo.
Yet in 1979, my safe, predictable parents bought a truck, converted the cab into a kitchen, and sold meatball and sausage-and-pepper sandwiches from it.
I had forgotten about Sausage on Wheels because, frankly, I wanted to forget it; their business venture had embarrassed me. I was 22 that year and trying on a new self, a more worldly and sophisticated one. I drank Chablis and wore Gloria Vanderbilt jeans. I dated young lawyers who drove Porsches and took me for dinner at expensive restaurants. How could two parents who drove a truck to a flea market every Sunday to sell sandwiches ever fit into the world I was so carefully trying to create?
But last summer, in Portland, Oregon, I followed a map carefully marked by the hotel concierge to a parking lot where people sold food out of their trucks. I stood, surrounded by trucks selling weinerschnitzel sandwiches and sushi and Thai noodles and Mongolian beef and sliders and tacos, all from their windows. Truck food was hot. It was hip.
On that sunny day in that parking lot, I remembered Sausage on Wheels and the energetic hope and pride with which my parents ran it.
Sausage on Wheels made money. Not enough for them to quit their real jobs working for the IRS, but enough for them to take trips to Las Vegas, to give my brother and I both down payments for houses. “Even if it didn’t make a dime,” my father told me, “I would still do it. I love it that much.”
I had smiled tightly while he dreamed of expanding. “Couldn’t you see a Sausage on Wheels downtown?” he said, his eyes gleaming. “All those people on their lunch breaks?”
I could imagine it, and the idea made me shudder. What if someone recognized them?
My parents never did expand. Instead, life got in the way, as it has a habit of doing. In June 1982, my brother Skip died suddenly.
A few days later, we sat, stunned, on the back porch of our house. Sausage on Wheels was parked in the driveway. My father got to his feet and went into the house, returning with the restaurant-sized bowl he used for mixing the meatballs. My mother joined him.
Together, crying, they sliced peppers and onions and rolled hundreds of meatballs. The next day, they drove the truck to the flea market and sold the food they’d made.
I did not understand it then, but I see now that the only relief they had from their grief that summer was the ritual of making that food, those Sundays when they could escape their pain and feed people.
Eventually, I lost the veneer I so carefully tried to construct as a young woman. But by then, Sausage on Wheels had retired. My father died without ever parking it in downtown Providence.
I have a Polaroid picture, though, of my parents smiling out from the truck on its first day in business. The words “Sausage on Wheels” are painted in fat letters on the side. They are happy and proud, holding sandwiches out the window. When I look at it, I wonder what they would have thought had they been able to see the future: food trucks parked everywhere, feeding us.
Or perhaps they would be satisfied that in their ordinary way, they taught me something extraordinary. That even in grief, we must take tentative steps back into the world. That even in grief, we must eat.
And that when we share that food with others, we are reclaiming those broken bits of our lives, holding them out as if to say, “I am still here. Comfort me.”
As if with each bite, we remember how it is to live.
Based in Providence, Rhode Island, Ann Hood is the author of many novels and works of nonfiction, including the bestselling The Knitting Circle. Her most recent novel is The Red Thread, published in 2010.
Related recipe: Sausage on Wheels Sausage and Pepper Sandwich
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