I grew up eating white bread in the suburbs.
When my parents got married and had me and my little sister, they were not yet very experienced at feeding themselves. Dad wouldn’t learn how to do much more than simmer water for a baby bottle until our mother went back to work in the early ‘80s, forcing comparisons to “Mr. Mom.” His own father lived his whole life never learning to cook for himself, always catered to by Grandma and before that, no doubt, his own mother.
My mother says her own mother was a lousy cook, and that dinner hours were fraught, plagued by lumpy mashed potatoes and spilled milk. Between them, these two Baby Boomers, our parents, decided that when they had kids and a home of their own, they would make dinner more pleasurable: they would eat what they damn well pleased. No liver. No spinach. And no more lumpy mashed potatoes.
At least one of the problems was that neither one of them had much interest in cooking. My mother was expected to take on the responsibility, so she learned to make a ragu from an Italian girlfriend, and set to burning toast and making too much macaroni and cheese from the box for her new husband for the next decade or two. Christmas morning pancakes came from a Bisquick box. In second grade, my teacher, Mr. Conway, hosted a breakfast potluck in the classroom because he wanted us to taste real maple syrup, only he couldn’t find any. At home, weekday dinners were Shake N’ Bake pork chops or chicken, or a London broil that set off the fire alarm, with sides of boxed au gratin potatoes and frozen broccoli. When I was little, we’d have Jell-O chocolate pudding or gelatin with Cool-Whip for dessert.
My parents only liked a few vegetables---corn, broccoli, green beans, potatoes---and always prepared them in the same few ways. Green beans always came French cut from the can, served cold with a vinaigrette. Salads were composed of iceberg lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes, and maybe some carrot shavings, croutons, or fake bacon bits from a shaker.
I didn’t like raw tomatoes as a kid. (I do, now.) I didn’t like a lot of other raw things, because they were served year round, without regard to season. I didn’t know that a ripe Bartlett pear is yellow, not green, and so to wait for it. I didn’t know when to anticipate tomato season.
On first taste, I didn’t like homemade macaroni and cheese, preferring the kind that comes from a box. I preferred cakes made from a mix to those from a bakery, or from scratch. (Who made a cake from scratch? I didn’t even know how. No one I knew made them.) My taste in cheese hasn’t strayed very far from the flavors of my childhood. I still don’t like them very smelly, or with visible mold (and yet Gorgonzoloa remains so trendy), or too tangy. I stick to the soothing textures of ricotta and Cheddar; for dash, a sprinkling of queso fresco, or a grating of Romano.
Someone told me about their childhood of eating only white food: white bread, white pasta, Saltines, chicken breast. I was saved from this fate by other people. Besides the parents of friends and classmates, and teachers eager to broaden my horizons, we went to restaurants where I was allowed to order off the adult menu from an early age, and I had neighbors, and grandparents who liked strong flavors, things like smoked eel, steamer clams, calamari, mashed turnips, and pickles. I associate the smell of sauerbraten with my maternal grandmother’s kitchen. Her parents kept a bowl of mixed nuts in the shell in their parlor, and I always wanted to play with them and eat them: to use the nutcracking tools, or just to sift my hands through the bowl, feeling their smooth and rough shells. My father’s mother made spicy sauces, kept a broad array of charcuterie on hand for snacking with crusty Italian bread, and served a traditional seven seafoods meal on Christmas Eve.
Except on holidays, I never ate turkey, fish, sweet potatoes, or olives. If it wasn’t too much trouble, and was wholesome, my mother might indulge me in odd requests. I asked for spinach after watching “Popeye” and got it, out of a can, with butter. I’m surprised I ever went back to it. (Thank you, saag paneer!) Once I tried prunes, I decided they were a superior version of raisins, and started snacking on them. I was still too young for my peers to tease me about their association with old age.
After school, I would watch syndicated sitcoms and eat American cheese slices folded into quarters, atop Saltine crackers. In the mornings I had cold cereal with milk. School lunches were mystery meat, more bread and milk, granola bars or bakery cookies, ice cream. Sometimes I ate a piece of fruit or some raisins. Treats came wrapped from the store, bought for guests or with allowance money: candy bars, cookies, cakes.
When I got a job in a supermarket as a teenager, I bought myself other treats: olives, root beer, fried potato sticks (in a can), herbal teas. I was trying new things as well as indulging old comforts, finding out what I liked and who I was, which I thought of as being more or less the same thing. Some of what I tried in my twenties didn’t stick, but a lot of it did.
There are a few foods here and there that I still get the same comfort and enjoyment from as I did---ice cream and cheese are at the top of the list---but for the most part, I eat different foods from what I ate as a child. There are the things I didn’t like and do now, but mostly, there are the foods I wasn’t exposed to very often or at all, that I’ve developed a taste for and now enjoy.
The first time I ever tasted lamb was at a friend’s house when I was eleven. Her mother offered me a platter of cold chops so casually, I didn’t realize that they are expensive. It was delicious, but I mostly forgot about it until many years later, and had the resources to learn to cook lamb at home. Now I can’t remember when I first bought it, but I do remember the one time we bought a whole lamb from a farmer and it was handed over fresh and whole, not frozen and butchered into roasts and chops and ground meat, like we usually get. When we were done, we ate the mysterious breast roast, broiled with salt and pepper, that we had hacked out whole and researched later. I’d get another whole lamb just to have that roast again, the one I can never find in grocery stores.
A platonic boyfriend took me to my first Indian restaurant (my first favorite: saag paneer, spinach with homemade cheese), and then my first Vietnamese restaurants. He had more than one favorite: there was the proud chef with a small restaurant in a strip mall, who served both Vietnamese and French dishes, and then the large place, very popular, where I ate a memorable dessert of red beans over chipped ice. A girlfriend introduced me to Ethiopian cuisine. My first mother-in-law taught me volumes about Southern food. With my full faith in her abilities, she served me the first liver I ever ate. At her table, I’d learned that even okra can be delicious. I am confident that I don’t like liver, as much as it would fit my ideal of myself to enjoy organ meat.
I began to knit together what I knew: the relationships among Greek and Turkish and Italian foods, and in the other direction, Italian and low country French. Why Ethiopian food was so familiar to me, the first time I ate it: because Southern food is in large part African. It happened to me again when I had Nigerian food that reminded me of Cuban, Ecuadorian, and Puerto Rican meals I’ve eaten: yellow rice with peas, fried bananas. When I branch outward culinarily, geographically, from the Mediterranean into the spice blends of north Africa and Asia Minor, I think of India, and trade routes. I learned to make sausage while working a meat counter, and made more connections: the need to preserve meat, the trade routes again---Rome, and the word “botulism,” which derives from the Latin for “sausage”---and the spices that recur: ginger, cinnamon, black pepper, coriander, and the most important of all, salt.
I make my own yogurt, and ginger beer, and pickles: not always, but I know how and can do it, for fun, the ability to customize, or to control the quality. I can make dishes from my childhood that I want to recreate, or make with better quality ingredients than is available in their store-bought alternates---lasagna, beef stew, chocolate pudding---but they’re not the bulk of what I eat. I eat brown rice, beets, pickles, lamb, duck, fresh herbs, arugula... I never ate any of these until I was an adult.
Thanks to market forces, there are foods in the world now that simply didn’t exist in my childhood: innovations in fast food, energy drinks, genetically modified foods. I avoid these in favor of the discoveries I’m still making, in the world of traditional foods I’ve yet to discover or master. I had my first tamales at a high school potluck. A classmate’s mother made them, and I was partway through my second when someone told me that you don’t eat the cornhusks. (That’s how good they were.)
Projects like making sausage, or trying tamales for the first time, or harvesting tomatoes for a pot of sauce, can be learning experiences that lead to more change, or one offs, blips in the stream of your steady diet. Sometimes I have to learn to make something more than once. White sauce was one, for me: a friend taught me to make Alfredo sauce, and then I forgot again, until I learned again to make a cheese sauce for baked mac and cheese. It was worth trying again: like tamales. You risk destroying long-held assumptions, as when I learned from Mark Bittman that one of my old favorites to order in Italian restaurants, shrimp scampi, isn’t an authentic Italian dish: “scampi” means “shrimp.” Losing the magic is a small price, in my book, for gaining the power to make a dish myself.
“Shrimp served in the style of shrimp” is one Bubba missed
What did you eat when you were a kid, and was it good? Do you still eat like that, or has your diet changed? For better or worse? How do you define “better” or “worse”---is it flavor, convenience, nutrition, or something else?
What I eat is what I’m made of, and it’s what I sit down to. I face it, then put it in my face. I identify with the food I eat. My parents got an extra freezer so they could take deliveries from the Schwan’s truck. Our extra freezers are for deliveries from the local farmers who raise our meat, and where we tuck extra servings of farm share vegetables, put up fruit from the u-picks, and keep homemade cookies we bake ahead, and give away at the holidays. I’m proud of what’s in my freezer. Our values are in there.
For some, the image of success is an individual who hardly needs to eat: someone who lives on Red Bull, or salad, or who only eats when it’s elegant and convenient to do so. For others, success equates with hedonic reward: the boss is the one who gets to have whatever he wants for dinner, and dessert, too. Do you still eat the way your parents ate? Do you eat the way other people think you do? Do you eat what you want, when you want it? Do you eat the way you want?