Wednesday, January 26, 2011


A favorite story of my mother's ran thus: mere weeks after I was born, long before I was supposed to be on solid food, I cried all the time. She took me to the doctor, who took a look at me and simply said, "he's hungry." (Dr. Davis, my pediatrician, had already demonstrated great wisdom by pronouncing, as soon as I made my entry into the world, that I would grow to be 6 feet, 3 inches.  I beat him by a mere inch).  So my mother hauled me home, filled her baby bottles with oatmeal, cut the nipples off the bottles to allow me easy access, and I shut up.  I've been eating on demand ever since.

I was lucky in that my mother, while not a "gourmet" cook (this was a rarefied designation during her 1940s and -50s heyday) was adventurous.  She loved onions and was never afraid of garlic.  She gave us milky oyster stew and smoked finnan haddie as a matter of course--these seafood delicacies were things she herself had grown up with.  I can remember when oregano made its first appearance in our house--she called it or-a-GA-no, thinking it had come from Oregon, I guess--and it went into anything Italian.  She loved eggplant but nobody else in the family did, so she went without until those breaded eggplant sticks went on the market.  We all loved them.  And then there were Chef Boyardee Raviolis. (Yes, raviolis.  Who knew "ravioli" was the plural in Italian?)  She opened up a can of them for lunch one day and I was hooked for life--I could barely stop eating them then, and as a guilty pleasure I will very occasionally snarf down a can even now.

As I entered my double-digit years I became interested in the sandwiches my parents made for their weekend lunches.  There came a day when I decided I was tired of cream cheese and jelly and I asked my mother to make me a sandwich like the ones the grownups were having.  She came up with a comely pile consisting of Lebanon bologna, Swiss cheese, onion, mustard, and lettuce, encased in two big slices of pumpernickel.  It was my favorite sandwich for years.  It's only in retrospect that I marvel that these exotic ingredients--smoky and sharp Lebanon bologna, pumpernickel bread--were regular fixtures in our suburban 1950s kitchen, but then again, they were always available in the plain old A&P store where my mother shopped.  (So was liverwurst, another relative rarity today.)  Maybe these foods were entirely run-of-the-mill back then and they only seem exotic now, since we have become so conscious and afraid of cured meats.  Nobody eats these things any more.  More's the pity, but I have to admit we are having fewer heart attacks.

Given this happy and loving relationship with food,  it's only natural that I should have become a cook.  My mother started me off down that road, too, leaving dinner ingredients in the kitchen for me to prepare when she and my father went out on a Friday night.  I started cooking for myself in earnest when I finally got into off-campus housing in college.  A favorite recipe was the "Pepper Steak" in a Good Housekeeping meats cookbook I found at a grocery checkout counter somewhere in the 1960s.  I put the name of the dish in quotes because it wasn't fancy French steak au poivre--no, this was just round steak cut into strips and cooked in a tomato sauce with green peppers.  Over rice.  Delicious!  And I had a favorite comfort food decades before that term ever even came into use: beef stew.  I clearly remember calling my sister from my attic apartment on Maxwell Street in Lexington, Kentucky, where I was going to school, asking her how to make it.

As I moved into adulthood, I became friends with people who were actual gourmet cooks.  They helped me put a few fine points on my native appreciation for good eats. And then came Julia Child and her inestimable influence on American foodways.  She ushered in a true culinary revolution for which I, for one, was completely prepared.  I and millions of others have been kids in the candy store (no pun intended but it is cute) ever since.  

The very best part of this love affair with food, for me, was the fact that for the first three decades of my life I maintained the metabolism of a teenager. I stayed rail-thin no matter what I ate, or how much--there was never any penalty to pay for these profligate eating habits I was born with.  It was only as I entered my 40s that I began to notice that my clothes were becoming tight in all the wrong places, and I was presented with a problem many people have always had but I was flummoxed by:  I was gaining weight.  At first it was a novelty, but soon enough it became a nuisance and a grave matter of vanity.  Ralph Cherry?  Fat?  No way.  My first encounter with the word "slender" was when I overheard my Aunt Grace use it in reference to me.  I was less than 10 and I had to ask what it meant.  "Thin" isn't just what I am, it's who I am. 

So I came to sensible eating habits and exercise relatively late in life--and again, I was helped in these endeavors by the national revolution in health-consciousness that seemed to come hand-in-glove the fore-mentioned culinary awakening.  I have ceded a few pounds to the years through compromise:  I am not a natural exerciser, and if the weather doesn't allow me to take my usual strenuous walk I go without; and, dammit, I love my food!  I've come to a way of thinking that sometimes allows food to be mere nutrition: breakfast is always nonfat yogurt with some fresh fruit (unless we are splurging on a Sunday brunch), and lunch is usually a salad, even when dining out.  We do not have the usual American snacks in the house.  No cookies, no crackers, no crunchy grease flavored with salt in plastic bags.  My reward for all this discipline is dinner, which most times is cooked by me, and I let myself go with it.

The hardest things to deal with when you're perpetually trying to be "good" are the Christmas holidays, and visits with friends who are also good cooks.  I enjoy baking but never do it because there are only two of us to feed, and a typical cake or batch of cookies will blimp us out in no time.  I had great fun over the recent holidays making five different kinds of cookies to give away to our neighbors.  I exercised some neglected kitchen muscles and we even saved ourselves a few cookies.

Cooking friends are something else again.  How do you say "no" to the offer of yet more cookie recipes or a couple of jars of to-die-for home-made pimento cheese spread?  Politely, I hope, and in the full and respectful knowledge that we're all just trying to share the love.  All I have to do is try to button my pants to remember that too much "love" renders normal clothes downright uncomfortable and makes me short of breath going up the stairs.


Lonely Rivers said...

Loved this post - being of approximately the same vintage, I recognize the progression of foodiness over the past sixty years. Though my mom was good at many things, she saw cooking as getting food on the table and was pleased to take advantage of canned vegetables - I have often joked that I didn't really know about gardens except that iceberg lettuce must come from somewhere. A favorite meal in our house was dinty moore beef stew over rice, lettuce salad with "russian" dressing and fruit cocktail!

Ralph said...

LR, I know there were families in our neighborhood who ate like that I know I was lucky. Special memory of Dinty Moore stew: one day my cousin opened a can and said how good it was with a little lemon juice squeezed over it. Damned if it wasn't!

Cuidado said...

You could be writing about me here, Ralph. I was thin my whole life until about 48 when I had to start watching portions. I find it hard but don't want to get overweight so do it grudgingly. Good post. i LOVE cooking too.

Ralph said...

How GREAT to hear from you, Cuidado! Yep, I can see the same patterns--building purposeful movement into a life that didn't used to need it--and certainly, portion control is my biggest challenge. I have to admit, though, that exercising improves my mood exponentially, over and above the cosmetic results (and of course the cardio workout is priceless).

Peewit said...

Your mother pronounced oregano the European (correct(!)) way none of your O-reg-ah-no round here , don't you know.

As with the other commentators and yourself I remained slender till my mid 40's. my wife is constantly moaning at me to lose the belly but she'd moan even louder if i didn't cook every night (Leek and Fennel Risotto tonight yum!)

Ralph said...

Come to think of it, Peewit, I have heard the exported Brit cooks, Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver, mangle the "oregano" word but I never held it against them. Nor do I hold "onrientate" (ouch!) against you, either!

Brighid said...

My granny was a great basic cook. She often cooked tongue, head cheese, and assorted things. My x loved them all. The rest of us not so much.
We have always had a big vegetable garden and raise our own meat.
I'm not a good cook, which appears to be some sort of mortal sin for a woman. Love to eat the wonderful things that the good cooks around here make.

Ralph said...

Thanks for stopping by, Brighid. Actually, I view so many women no longer interested in the kitchen as an unintended and regrettable consequence of the otherwise completely necessary women's movement of the 70s. Family cooking is so much more than mere food. It's generations of tradition that is in some cases now lost forever.
And I never really got why the male model in this society was the one that needed to be emulated anyway. Women wanted equality, of course, and equality meant leadership and official responsbility. In other words, what men already had. There was never a separate and equal movement by any meaningful numbers of men in the opposite direction, which suggests to me that "womens' roles" continue to be devalued, unfairly, IMHO. Yes, we've thankfully moved toward more equality when it comes to child rearing and home responsibilities. That's a good thing (to quote a woman who has made billions off the "female role," Martha Stewart). But it's ironic that so many more men are upholding domestic kitchen traditions now. Oh well--as long as they're being upheld!

Nancy said...

I did the same with my children as your mother did with you. Starting at 4 weeks of age, each got cereal in the bottle, or just spooned in with a long-handled, rubber-tipped spoon, and each one slept through the night from that time on, and not one has ever been overweight - something the doctors swear will come from early introduction of food. I fondly remember Lebanon bologna and liverwurst as being staples, and being sent off to school on cold mornings, with Mom's version of Welsh Rarebit. Now if only someone could find me a recipe for Irish lamb stew, with the white gravy, not brown! Wonderful blog.
P.S. I have been to Rehoboth but never found Bev's.

Ralph said...

Greetings, Nancy. Thanks for the shout-out. Re: early food and weight problems: I have to admit I was quite the little butterball in my early infancy--I became "slender" by about the age of 6 and stayed that way pretty much until I hit my 50s. So the fact cells were always there, just waiting to fill up again. The problem with eating on demand for life is that you almost feel like it's a birthright, and as the body and metabolism slows it's got to be the hardest habit of all to break, especially if you love food, as I do. Now, at age 65, I really want to lose weight. But portion control is a huge challenge.

Sorry you missed Bev's at Rehoboth. She and her food and hospitality were gems.