Wednesday, June 16, 2010


"Where there was good food, there were usually good people. When I made food, I made a tribe."
--Kim Severson, Spoon Fed  

I realized last night, as my friends cooked up the plans for a marvelous white-trash picnic next weekend, that I'm a bit of an outcast when it comes to childhood food memories. As they waxed rhapsodic about everything from Beanie-Weenies to Miracle Whip, I felt decidedly left out, with almost nothing to contribute to the conversation or the culinary landscape.

We did not grow up in a processed-food house. I never tasted boxed Mac n Cheese until I got to college, and I hated it. I still remember all those little Rival/West Bend electric hot-pots clogging the communal sinks on Yerkes Third, all of them coated with neon-orange cheese-like powder residue. It was not a good memory. I don't want to imply any high-horse though -- I didn't try my first White Castle until college either. One of the fraternities hosted "Slider Night" and Jeff Seaman bought me my very first sackful, and I loved them. I still eat them once or twice a year.

But I have never (knowingly) eaten Velveeta (though it's possible it's been served to me). Fried baloney sandwiches made an occasional appearance in the kitchen growing up (as did Spam), but I was not a fan. Vienna sausages were sometimes packed in the "beach bag" that went to the pool with us, and I would eat them only when light-headed from hunger, and if I didn't have "my own money" to spend on the outrageously-priced but utterly superior pool concessions. (I was more than happy to eat junk food, just not packed from home. The stigma!)

I had fish sticks only one time, when my tween-BFF Cat had a group of us over for a slumber party. Cat's mom was a bit of an anomaly in our social circle -- a divorced, single, working-Mom -- and it must've been a financial strain for her to feed an extra set of mouths on any given addition to her own six kids (they were a good Catholic family, if you didn't count The Divorce). At the time, however, I was oblivious to those socioeconomic nuances and divided my friends' moms into two camps: Good Cooks, and Bad Cooks. She was a Bad Cook, because I didn't like the fish sticks (this was more than balanced by the fact that she was, however, a "cool Mom," because she insisted we all call her by her first name.) The other girls were drowning theirs in ketchup, which was quickly running out -- at which point, Marie took the bottle to the tap, added water, and pronounced, "There. More ketchup." Which I promptly pronounced, "Grossssss" and "the most disgusting thing I've ever seen" (I grew up on a farm, where I witnessed all manner of disgusting things every day, so that was obviously not true.) I can only cite the power of tween peer pressure when I think back to that meal and my unforgivable and simultaneous lapse of both manners and common decency. I was raised better than that, and I certainly knew to be appropriately grateful when someone went to the trouble to feed you, even if it wasn't to your taste.

My parents were -- and are -- tragically unCool, but they could absolutely cook and we had an endless supply of fresh/seasonal/local long before it was a fashionable trend. When my urban aunts and uncles would visit, they would fill up coolers with my grandmother's home-grown meat and vegetables, prompting me to ask them, on more than one occasion, "Geeeeeeez, don't they have grocery stores where you live?" I didn't think they were going all Alice Waters (not that I knew who she was), I just thought they were mooches. (And, in retrospect, I was probably somewhat right.)

That kind of surplus of food wasn't that unusual for a small town -- nearly every family (except maybe Cat's) had farm or garden staples to draw on. What my parents had that was unusual were extraordinary palates. I suspect if we had shown any signs of being picky eaters, they might have smothered us in our sleep. Any dish we could find in a restaurant, my Mom could come home and replicate after only one or two tries. And since there were no restaurants to speak of in our town (if you don't count Jerry's and TruckTown, which were admittedly awesome, but occasional treats), we often hit the road in search of something to eat.

The best thing that ever happened to us was our parents' best friends moving to New Orleans, where we then spent every Vacation.

It is a miracle I didn't explode on those trips, which were really just eating expeditions as far as I was concerned (I had long since grown to dislike this particular Family, and especially their daughter, who became My Arch-Nemesis... but that's another story). On any given day, we might wander the French Quarter for a muffuletta, followed by beignets; pick up some cayenne-injected fried chicken or a po' boy on the way home; and then spread newspapers on the picnic table that night for an outdoor crawfish boil. If it was Monday, we had red beans and rice for supper instead. Except for the beignets, nearly everything we ate in New Orleans --French, Spanish, Cajun, Creole -- worked its way into my parents' repertoire. I am sure we were the only house with a giant jar of homemade olive salad at the back of our fridge and I know we were the only kids who had muffulettas (substituted with pita bread) with our Saturday cartoons, because that was shopping day, and it was an easy sandwich for Mom to throw together while she put away the groceries.

Photo of a muffuletta I made a few weeks ago for Mom's birthday dinner, courtesy Chef Tom

That is not to say we didn't have our guilty pleasures (Chef Boyardee pizza!) or that we didn't eat the usual 70s era mainstays (meatloaf, mashed potatoes, pot roasts, Jello salads, and so on) -- but we never had TV dinners, and not much came out of a box or a can. My Mom has since said that wasn't out of any food snobbery -- most of the time, we couldn't actually afford that kind of "convenience" fare when real food was so much cheaper to make. 

But I am very much looking forward to this Picnic. I have appointed myself Dairy Princess, and I am going to make one of my Mom's cheeseballs -- they are demanded at every shower, wedding, and funeral within a hundred miles. I know Amy Sedaris is famous for hers, but I think my Mom's recipe is better.

My favorite line from last night's reveries came from our friend Margueritte who said, "We always had Spam in the house and Dad always has cans of Vienna Sausages and Beanie Weenies under the seat on his bass boat." Because that's just poetry.

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