Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Born Foodie

The story in my family is that before I was six months old, I cried all the time. My mother took me to the doctor, who had a simple verdict: "He's hungry." So to shut me up my mother cut the ends off of rubber nipples and gave me oatmeal from the bottle. It worked, and food has made me happy ever since.

Of course, we've now fetishized food to an extent that was unimaginable when I was growing up. I'm as guilty as the next pampered boomer, but I come by the trait honestly. My mother was a good cook for her time and took great pride in what she put on the table. Both my parents having grown up in Washington in families that took their vacations at the beaches either on the Chesapeake Bay or the brackish Bay-fed rivers of Virginia's Northern Neck, and my mother having been raised Roman Catholic to boot, we had our share of fish. Dishes that were commonplace on our table are now either rare or downright unheard of. We regularly had smoked finnan haddie (smoked haddock steaks poached in milk--it made me gag) and oyster stew (indescribably delicious). A lunchtime standard was sardines on crackers, which my parents washed down with beer, and there were innumerable all-day crab feasts and fish fries.

Aside from fish, my mother loved eggplant. She was a lonely minority of one in the family until those breaded french-friend eggplant sticks came out, and then nobody could get enough of them. (I don't think they're made anymore.) I loved her stewed tomatoes, sweet, with bread broken up into them, and her succotash. Her salads, made with simple iceberg lettuce and the standard chopped raw vegetables, were delicious, especially with Kraft French Dressing, which I called "red stuff." (I have never figured out what was "French" about it.) I especially liked the lettuce when it was slightly wilted--a taste I later discovered would not be found unusual at all by those self-same French, who serve braised lettuce as a standard green. (OK, the French would only bowl with a head of iceberg lettuce. But that's all we had.)

One day for lunch my mother bought a can of Chef Boy-Ar-Dee ravioli and gave me some. I was hooked for life, I devoured the things at first bite. (I still do when I want to indulge in a guilty pleasure.) I discovered another lunchtime treat one Saturday afternoon when my parents made a "grownup" sandwich full of strong flavors: smoked Lebanon baloney, sharp cheddar cheese, mustard, dill pickles, onions and lettuce on pumpernickel bread. They gave me a bite and for years that's all I ever wanted for lunch. Can you even buy Lebanon baloney any more? It's a Pennsylvania product (from Lebanon, PA), made with beef and garlic.

I was just about the only kid in the school cafeteria who willingly ate what was offered. Lunch was 25¢; for me that was a real bargain because I usually ate what my classmates didn't want as well as my own food. I especially remember the Willston Elementary School version of pizza: a slice of white bread covered with American cheese. The cheese was topped with a dollop of tomato sauce in the middle, and some dried Italian herb, either oregano or basil, was sprinkled over it. The whole thing was run under the broiler until the cheese was soft, and there you had it: pizza! (Since there weren't any pizza joints yet, we didn't know any different.) Yet another lunch favorite was peanunt butter and jelly sandwiches served wth tomato soup. I've no idea why, but one day I tried dipping the sandwich in the soup. Again, hooked imediately. I anticipated the sweet-salty-sour combination I'd later find in Asian food by decades. If I ever indulge myself these days with pb&j and soup, I still dip.

My mother and my own appetite encouraged adventure and I'm still game for just about anything at least once. The late explosion of food as a cultural phenomenon has been great fun for me as well as for our dinner guests. Steve has his garage and his workshop; I have my kitchen. I've cooked most of our dinners for the 30 years we've been together and enjoyed the exploration required to avoid monotony. Of necessity, I've broadened Steve's culinary horizons. When we met, spaghetti was ethnic food for him. Macaroni and cheese is his favorite thing, so I took that and made a one-dish dinner out of it and it's now a staple, which he enjoys. He's also learned to love Mexican food, at least the version of it available in local restaurants. He's not a fish eater (though he likes shellfish), so my early exposure to our local fish hasn't opened any culinary doors for me, and a gag-reflex aversion to cilantro keeps him away from Thai and Vietnamese food. I can indulge that occasional yen from one of the many carryouts within a stone's throw of our house, but I haven't bothered learning to cook it. That's small potatoes, though, to keep the food trope going. We're pretty well fed as it is.


Linda - SE PA said...

Hi Ralph,

Yes... Lebanon Bologna still available here in PA - sweet and regular. I like the sweet - it is softer. This was new to me as we didn't have it on Long Island.

I grew up with the daily dinner of mashed potatoe,veggie and meat. I have no idea where my adventure with food began or why - perhaps, just curiousity. As a child and teenager, when we went shopping, we had Chinese (chow mein or spareribs) or the luncheonette (hamburger or tuna sandwich). Neighbors were Italian so I had a love for pasta dishes, a spinach type soup. Sometimes, we had "real pizza" on a Friday as these were the days of no meat.

Chef Boy a Dee was a favorite - haven't had it in years although when I'm in the grocery store, I often see it on sale and give it a consideration.

I like most food - sample new ethnic variety by ordering whatever with chicken and mild flavoring until I taste.

I don't remember too much about the school lunch program. I didn't care for it that much - guess because my mother was a decent cook and my friends mothers were great Italian cooks who cooked from "scratch".

I like your sandwich idea and will try it.

By the by, I hadn't thought of those eggplant sticks and remember eating them frequently. They were good and you're right - they aren't available.

Ralph said...

Linda, your mention of restaurant lunches reminded me of another huge favorite of mine: egg sandwiches. Sometimes my parents would take me to nice restaurants downtown for lunch and all I'd order was a sliced egg sandwich. When I discovered egg salad I went crazy. It's another treat I haven't had in years and years.

Kat said...

We didn't have a cafeteria in elementary school. I brought my lunch every day, and my mother made great lunches. We never had PB&J, as we thought that only a snack and not lunch worthy.

My mother used to buy stick bologna, and I'd slice it, make a sandwich then top it off with hot peppers.I had a crazy palate even as a kid.

Linda and Ralph,

Ralph said...

Kat, to tell the truth pb&j wasn't a standdard in our house, eitheer. I think I really had most of it at school, with the souo, or at friends' houses. My mother was big on some kind of meat at all meals.

Thanks for that page on eggplant! So now it's kosher! There's a Wegman's about a half-hour drive from here that people have been telling me I have to go to. Now I have a reason!

Peewit said...

I think I learnt to cook purely because my mother was awful. There were two states to her cooking: raw or burnt (the latter being preferable) Once frozen food became the norm in the early 70's we never had a dish made from scratch again. (although she did a casserole with minced beef and gravy browning which when heavily caramelised was delicious. I have never been able to replicate this , however) Although I always helped her in the kitchen I really learnt to cook at University and when I returned home after University (as an aside the civil service job I applied for and got could have sent me anywhere in reality I got posted to an office a mile from Home so I returned home- it was cheaper) I took over the cooking chores.

When I got married I did a deal with Catriona: she gardened, I cooked. And that is the way it remains (although my eldest is increasingly asking to cook dinner; I have always encouraged the kids to help me. She is by far the better dessert maker than me but her main courses are pretty good, too. Lancashire hotpot from scratch on Sunday for example)

Linda - SE PA said...

Whew... egg sandwiches. I didn't get into them until I started going out late nights.

I didn't grow up in an egg household. My father was a strict fruit,cereal,buttered bread(rye-no toast) and donut breakfaster - my mother - black coffee. Me - I don't remember as a child but I know I didn't like cereal until I started putting juice in it. So, the big shocker was having egg salad (at a friends) with raw onion and american cheese. I liked it!

Fish - growing up on LI - you knew about fish. I didn't because my mother didn't make it. Again, once on my own, I found fish - loved fish and still do.

Ralph said...

Peewit, I can always count on you for a unique take on things, either because of your unique circumstances (your mother was a lousy cook) or just from the fact that your British traditions are different from my own. I always get a kick and learn something from them. I can't let a new (to me) food go past without looking it up. I found a recipe for Lancashire Hot Pot here how to make lancasire hot pot. Is this how you do it? Cubed lamb is a little hard to find here but I'd love to try it.

Peewit said...


that is more or less the "traditional" way of doing it. I'm going to e-mail you separately a scan of the quick and easy recipe we use. I don't want to post it here as A) I don't think you can easily attach scans to blogs and b) I'm just too lazy to type it all out!