The making of Life in EL—A story of two cousins

Our grandmother, Betty Foss, smoked Virginia Slims and served us homemade ham and cheese rolls when she gathered the family together every season in her Milwaukee home. She had a sign on the wall:

What I do right, no one remembers, what I do wrong, no one forgets.

Our grandfather, Art Foss, died when I turned five, so while he got to see that first ten years of grandkids, he missed out on the second decade of these gatherings. Either way, his pendulum clocks hung on all the walls keeping track of us with their chimes and ticks. After he retired, he found solace in the act of fixing time, and Josh and I wound his passion into our thesis in this comic. 

Gathering at their home meant lawn darts for the kids, and a lot of Coors Light for the adults. Josh and I played together quite a bit, but since there was a three year age gap, we bonded more to each other’s brothers who were closer in age. My most vivid, teenage memory of Josh, is the day he showed up to one of these gatherings in a Led Zeppelin T-shirt, smoked cigarettes, and hung onto a girlfriend. I had been humming songs from 

A Chorus Line, and awkwardly made a joke about his smoking. He mocked my dorky laugh, smoke coming out of his nose. That one gesture broke my heart in the way only boys seem to know how to break each other’s hearts—instantly and below radar. Not long after, he got kicked out of his house or sent to rehab or both. I couldn’t even imagine his hell. His sensitivity made him angry. My sensitivity made me easily hurt and sad. A few years later, I headed off to college thinking I could fix everything if I became a pastor. We forgot about each other. 

Providence blew my mind with a well timed trip to Indonesia, and by my second year of college, I bailed on my seminary plans in exchange for art in every form possible. But while I left god in the dust, I held onto shame. For the next fifteen years, I found that the only art I felt like making had to do with heavy hitting stuff like white genocide against indigenous Americans as performed by my distant ancestors. Existential shame of this nature drew me to anarchists, to artists like Bob Dylan and Patti Smith, and I protested the World Trade Organization when it descended on Seattle in the late 90s. In that time, I smoked a good number of cigarettes myself, got sent to jail once, and abused my share of alcohol. Still, I loved making art. I chose to make pottery because I enjoyed the thought of people kissing my cups when they drank from them, and cleaning them when they were done. It  helped me feel closer to humanity at the same moment that our president prescribed shopping as the cure to the recession.

Then our grandmother died. I saw Josh at her memorial in Milwaukee. He came in a suit and tie, and talked fondly about family and roots. We promised to stay in touch. But while I watched his career from afar, it took another fifteen years and a family reunion in Wisconsin to reconnect. Within minutes after watching our kids meet for the first time, Josh and I got to talking about making a book. The biggest surprise is that we followed through, and the result is the pages that follow. 

The next three years went something  like this: Josh calls me up, hoping I’ve done more drawings than I have. I keep trying to draw faster. This led to a lot of phone calls and an epistolary of text messages. But his many years of collaborating with chefs served us well. He respected my process, held onto his passion, and waited as I fell more in love with the book he wanted to create. As a result, it became our book. One day, we will write a book about making this book. What we discovered was each other—who we are, and who we came from. There are drawings and snippets of dialogue sprinkled throughout this book that we imagine to be the voices of our ancestors. While we can’t speak for the dead, we hope we were true to what they would want their descendants to hear.

Along the way, we repaired that unspoken thing we broke in adolescence, and became more like brothers. Josh started having dreams of grandma Betty, and I started bugging my dad to talk about what she was like during his childhood. It’s hard to share stories like this now, and he told me about gardening in the city, hearty breakfasts, and a lot of laughter. But he also told me that sometimes when she got mad, she would pack a suitcase and start for the bus stop, threatening to leave her kids forever as they ran after her in tears. Eventually one of them would convince her to stop, and she would turn around. When my dad tells this story, he looks away and laughs. But I still feel like I’m chasing after her. Now I’m a parent, and I wouldn’t mind packing my own bags on occasion, so that means I’m chasing myself. 

This is the notorious suffering of mid-life that Josh and I began to share. But somehow, our conversations made it less depressing. As we became interested in our origins, Josh taught me that people you love can survive even if you get raging mad sometimes, and I taught him to lean into sadness. Out of desperation we had to start meditating more, exercising more, and going to therapy.  

Stephi Wagner describes it this way:

Pain travels through families until someone is ready to feel it.

We felt it. But it would have been too hard to feel without a book as our proxy. We discovered how much we carried the pain that lay under the sarcasm, the Coors Light, and the obsession with productivity and success. For the sake of our children and spouses, it was time to reverse the mechanisms of our past, and try to unwind the clock a little bit. I know I’ll never feel enough of the pain to keep it all from my children, and my parents saved me from some by bearing the pain themselves. I am grateful to them all.

Anthony Bourdain died right at the peak of our process. The urgency of our project hit us like a 24-pack of Schlitz Tall Boys. We discovered more people discussing sobriety and cooking in the same sentence. What this means for the culinary arts we can only wait to see. One of my favorite things about eating at El ideas my first time, is that I came alone and found myself directed to a table where I dined with a stranger. Like that simple challenge, this book is about connecting despite our fear. Food is best when it reveals people to each other, not when it buries them under a pretense of indulgence. That’s when food is hope.

Yesterday, I asked Josh why he’d named this story Life in EL. I had assumed he just took the name of his restaurant and added the old familiar pinch of Foss family sarcasm. 

Instead, he said this. 

The word EL is about elevating. But it’s complicated. It also means God in Hebrew. It’s the masculine in Spanish. The ‘L’ is a train in Chicago, but beyond all that, it is about the elevation of life, masculinity, food, a place that connects people to one another. It’s nothing like hell.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Josh had said many things as profound from the first day we started talking about making a book. 

But here’s what happened, I woke up today and changed the cover design from something dark and brooding to the one you see now. OK, it’s still a little dark and brooding, but there is a tiny bit of light coming through. Life has enough suffering without making the front of our book a celebration of darkness. I will be forever grateful that Josh entrusted me with his story, and helped me learn to suffer out loud, and in turn, to elevate my life. I hope it elevates yours even just a little.

Timothy FossComment