The theme of October 2017 prose of the month is "Food & Costume." 

A teacher friend of mine tells me that every October, she asks her students to write an essay about what they’d wear for Halloween if they could pick out any costume in the world.

How do you inspire them to think big, I wanna know.

She says, “You ask them, ‘What’s your dream?’”

Groan.

No wonder I was so confused when my mother dressed me up as Aunt Jemima in the third grade.

In case you missed her in grocery store aisles, Aunt Jemima is a brand of pancake mix and syrup that’s been around since 1889. The Quaker Oats Company didn’t invent her; she was a character in a minstrel show, a stereotypical Southern mammy played by white actors in blackface and believe it or not, a popular Halloween costume at one time.

At eight, I knew Aunt Jemima only from the picture on the bottle of syrup and advertisements in my mom’s Woman’s Day—a pretty lady smiling as she presents you with a steamy, dreamy stack o’ hotcakes. She was big and round-shaped and wore a kerchief. Something associated with her—an apron? a tablecloth?—was a cheery ketchup-red gingham. And even her name alone—the double Ms conjuring up a gooful soup of mm mm good and M&Ms—had me wanting to eat sticks of butter.

Me being seven and this being the 1970s, I had no idea this bearer of start-your-day-off-right goodness represented a disrespectful portrayal born out of racism. What had me confused, was why my mother wanted me to be someone so obviously (in my seven-year-old mind) …fat.

Already I had some issues surrounding my female-ness, love-hating my Malibu Barbie because she was blond, tall and tan, while I was chubby and pale and dark-haired. Oh sure, I played with her—I pulled her long, silken angel’s hair, popped her button-nosed head off her neck, filled up the bathroom sink with water and drowned her in it. I couldn’t figure out how either of us could change, even after lopping off said hair and scribbling on her smooth, Hawaiian Tropical limbs with a blue Bic pen.

No, I didn’t look like Malibu Barbie. But I didn’t look like Aunt Jemima either. So you can imagine my bewilderment when my mom stuffed a pillow under my nightgown, burnt a cork and rubbed it on my face, tied one of her aprons around my waist and handed me a bottle of syrup and a wooden spoon.

Silver dollar, chocolate chippy, apple spice or buttermilky:
Anyone can see you’re flat-out happy,
likkered up to your ears in the golden sweet-sticky.
Why do they call it pancake makeup?

Syrup…hmmm. I did love pancakes, and breakfast was my favorite meal of the day (Sugar cereal! Toaster strudel! Jelly donuts!). Clutching my wooden spoon, I stepped right into character, aligning myself with an overweight woman who used food to express love. At least there’d be an endless supply of butter pats.

I think now of what I must have looked like, standing next to the princesses and ballerinas in my class at Most Holy Trinity school. Most likely weird (“Why is there dirt on your face?!), any racist and sexist connotations lost in our small, cluelessly conservative Long Island town.

I wanted to be a ballerina or a princess, too, but it seemed to me you had to be small and graceful and have pierced ears. Luckily, I was born with a king-sized dose of Pollyanna. I know I stood there grinning amongst my classmates, clutching my plastic pumpkin filled with candy, because I was naïve and it was Halloween.


Pune Dracker is studying creative nonfiction at the New School. She writes, runs and dances, and is a huge proponent of sauerkraut.

Featured image via Flickr.

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