Coming home to Atomic Foods, Pasco, Washington (aka Atomic City)
Today kicks off my 26-day, 26-letter food writing challenge. And in true gemini fashion, I hedged on where to start. Do "A" for ampalaya (bittermelon), I thought. Maybe atis, to be sweet, or even artichokes, almonds, aphrodisiacs, or arugula. So why "atomic" - the opposite of anything you'd want to eat - on a food blog?
Beginnings choose themselves. The inspiration comes from a recent visit to my birthplace in eastern Washington, where my nomadic parents dropped anchor long enough to have me. Driving through a mythical landscape of tumbleweeds, strip malls, sacred sites, the wide Columbia, and the toxic Hanford nuclear wasteland, we spotted Atomic Foods. "Turn the car around!" I begged my Uncle Sim, a local resident who had seen this place hundreds of times.
Atomic Foods was tiny. Inside, Gatorade bottles and cold turkey sandwiches were side-by-side with Virgin of Guadalupe votives and mass-produced dreamcatchers. Outside, it was just one more place to feed your car some gas.
Facing the atomic bright mural, I wanted to laugh out loud its absurdity, even as I felt a shade of furious. Not at the store, but at history. I had learned that here, in WWII, the atomic supply chain became a deadly part of the food chain, poisoning fish, land, people and water. Toxins like beryllium, asbestos and plutonium joined the menu, as Fat Man and Little Boy A-Bombs were cooked up to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Once a top secret nuclear site, this history is written loud on the landscape. Next to Atomic Foods is Atomic Laundry. Our Filipino family left in 1987, when the Hanford Nuclear plant shut down plutonium production. But if I went to high school here, my local high school mascot could have been "The Bombers." If we stayed until I turned 21, a few miles away at Atomic Ale I could've tossed back some Plutonium Porter and Proton Pale Ale.
This past can't be taken back, but hopefully it will be learned from. As we left, driving into a sunset bright as some kind of radioactive Western, I told my uncle this was the first Atomic Foods I had ever seen. "Maybe its the only one of its kind," he said. I wish it were true.
On the road.