I believe in Mama’s Sunshine Salad.
Sunshine Salad was my mother’s recipe for a mixture of orange gelatin, shredded carrots, and chunks of pineapple with its juice substituted for one cup of the water. It’s a recipe common to many families, but special to mine. This concoction and its simple ingredients exemplified how Mama always said she lived her life: “I did the best I could with what I had.” Mama often joked that although she had been born in Prosperity, Missouri, she had lived in poverty all her life.
My first memory of Mama serving Sunshine Salad was Thanksgiving, 1964. That past year, my father died of cancer, leaving Mama with eleven children. The same week he died, our house was consumed in a fire. Despite living through the darkest time of my life, where hope seemed to be a luxury for those more favored, Mama saved her money to make sure this first Thanksgiving meal was something special. I remember eating that scoop of orange salad with its cold, tangy sweetness. Because it was cheap to make, my siblings and I could eat as much as we wanted. It was pure joy. It was hope dished out in plenty.
Mama served it every Thanksgiving thereafter. As my siblings and I struggled to overcome this lean existence, Mama’s Sunshine Salad was one of those constants that always bound us. We took for granted it would always be there, like Mama. Some years, Mama would suggest she try a different dish, something more creative. But at least one of us would beg, and she would give in. It was a symbol of the foundation of our family—of knowing that in our family, we could find the hope to carry on.
To feed us Mama worked up to three jobs at a time. She even went back to college at age fifty-one to work on her master’s and PhD in English. After graduating, my mother went back to our hometown to teach college, a lifelong dream fulfilled. For us, she had always been the ultimate teacher.
Most of us put ourselves through college and graduate schools. We individually worked to become successful in business, teaching, and law. We introduced Mama’s Sunshine Salad to our children and made it a staple of our families. It is one of the things they can count on now: a constant reassurance of hope, love, and faith in family, and a remembrance of Mama’s struggles to overcome.
Last year, Mama passed away a week before Thanksgiving at the age of ninety-one. We all agreed to honor her by celebrating Thanksgiving dinner the day after her funeral. Of course we served Sunshine Salad. We smiled as that orange joy soothed our throats. She may be gone, but we can still taste her love every Thanksgiving.
It is not a gourmet dish, but it keeps her part of what we are. That is why I believe in Mama’s Sunshine Salad.
David E. Cowen, the tenth child of his mother, Virginia Cowen, lives in Houston, Texas, with his wife and two sons, and practices law in Galveston, Texas. He has published a volume of poetry about his childhood in Brownsville, Texas. Mr. Cowen and his wife make their own version of Sunshine Salad every Thanksgiving.
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