Me and My Saltines

by Mara

Hey, emetophobes! Maybe don’t read this. Eat some Saltines instead.

So let me explain my deep, abiding love for America’s favorite soda cracker.

Saltines, to me, are more than a cracker. They are a lifesaver. It’s a bold statement, I know, and one that makes even less sense to those who grew up outside of North America and never knew the wonders of that miracle cracker. A Saltine is a tiny square made of yeast, baking soda, flour, and usually topped with salt. They are my favorite snack.

“Saltines?” People always say, when they find out. “They’re so bland!”

“Not just Saltines,” I say. “Unsalted-top Saltines.” Yes, I’m that boring.

Like most humans, I enjoy eating. But I have never been much of a foodie. It’s possible I’m a supertaster — I can’t stand anything extremely bitter or tasting too strongly of fish, alcohol, or artificial sweetener, and cilantro is the devil’s herb — but I am just not very experimental when it comes to food. It might also have something to do with my parents, who are not passionate cooks. My mother did make amazing chocolate chip cookies, my dad likes to grill, and my stepmother is good with a wok, but when I was growing up, meals were mostly made without enthusiasm. Cooking was to them what it is to me, a means to an end. They had to keep five kids fed, at the lowest cost. We lived off canned soup, frozen condensed orange juice, and powdered potatoes. Living near LA meant we could have authentic Mexican food anytime we wanted, but that was as interesting as we got. Bland food was what we ate, and we liked it. There was always a box of Saltines in the house, to complement whatever soup or chili we were having for dinner that night, and for one other reason: they are an excellent cure for nausea.

Mine is a nervous stomach. I had three brothers at three different schools, and that tripled my likeliness of catching a stomach virus. And catch I did, quite often. 23 and Me confirmed my lifelong suspicion that I am very susceptible to noroviruses. 1 Staying home sick was not fun. My mother was not the type to fuss over her kids when they were ill. We could read, but the only TV we were going to watch was old movies she picked out herself. (I liked this a lot more than my brothers did — there were a lot of musicals and a lot of Audrey Hepburn movies.)

The only comfort, the one constant, the one thing I could rely on, were my Saltines. Our father would go to Smart and Final, a warehouse of a store, and come home with dozens of bottles of Gatorade, twenty ounce cans of chicken soup, and giant boxes of Saltines. They were all I ate for those three-day periods of sickness, and they got me through it. They were as much a comfort object as my blanket and Pinky, my favorite teddy bear.

To this day, I hate being nauseated more than any other physical feeling. I hate feeling out of control of my own body, that this other force has taken it over. I would rather feel almost any of the pains I’ve ever experienced than be nauseated for a long period of time. 2 But the world does not care about what I want, and in addition to frequent stomach bugs, I also get terrible motion sickness. This would be manageable if I had grown up anywhere other than Los Angeles, land of the freeway. Many of my childhood memories are of being carsick. The only way I can read or watch something on a long car trip is by putting a coat backwards over my face so I can’t see the windows out the corner of my eye and make myself dizzy. I am lucky to have moved somewhere with reliable public transportation, although I’ve thrown up on every mode of transportation. And roller coasters are out of the question. 3

Whenever I was young and carsick, as soon as I got home I would grab a sleeve of Saltines and make the sickness go away. Reorient myself, settle my stomach, and remember that everything was going to be OK. It’s what I still do today, after cab rides or Lindsay Ellis driving me home after seeing Fury Road again.

I believe I am the only person in my family with this association. While I remember my brother Jon shoving a stack of Saltines into his mouth, one after another, as he read the newspaper, I haven’t seen him eat Saltines in years. Danny prefers Ritz crackers, and this is a taste his kid — known around here as Oxytocin Booster — has inherited. Joel’s comfort food is rice and beans, and Anna loves tortilla chips so much she eats a big bag of them on her birthday instead of cake. (“Cake is bullshit! Why would I want to eat some weird sweet sponge-bread?”) But they understand, as do my friends, who send me cake recipes and eBay sales for antique cracker tins. I’ve never been much of a fangirl for anything — the idea is a bit alien to me, probably because, as conceited as this will sound, I had fans before I ever was one — but everyone I know knows how much these little squares mean to me. Strangers may mock me, but I am secure and I am safe, as long as the grocery store is well-stocked.

Now here is a creepy gif of me evilly cartoon-vomiting.

Notes:

  1. Except for a stretch in my preteen and early teen years when, after being sick for weeks, I didn’t get a stomach virus for years. I thought I had become immune. The pestilence gods did not take kindly to my hubris and gave me the stomach flu at age fifteen while celebrating Christmas Eve with my stepfamily. For years, even the thought of Christmas cookies made me ill.
  2. Though, as I have never experienced severe or chronic pain, this can be taken with a grain of salt.
  3. I did OK on Ninja at Six Flags Magic Mountain, because it’s a smooth ride, and Space Mountain at Disneyland, because you can’t see where you’re going, and thus can’t throw off your inner ear. It’s possible that in addition to being motion sick, I’m also just a huge chicken.