Always a sucker for a meme, I’ve been prompted to dig into some of my long-buried food memories thanks to a tag by Julie. Remembering things I ate as a child is always a bit of a mixed bag for me, bringing up simultaneous feelings of fascination, revulsion and incredulity. I would love to tell you that I grew up eating just-picked peaches from the orchard, homemade pies and preserves straight from the kitchen stove, and succulent meat from the farm next door, but let’s be frank. I have a remarkable lack of memories about things like that. Most of my memories revolve around cheese, ketchup and sugar. I was not raised in a food household; we ate what was easy and nutritious. Chocolate was Hershey’s and bread was pre-sliced. I can’t really put the blame elsewhere, however – I was also a notoriously picky eater. I’m sure I drove my parents crazy (uh Mom, any comment?). If it didn’t have cheese or frosting on it, chances are I wouldn’t eat it. If it had anything green in, on, or under it, I most definitely wouldn’t eat it. I hated beans. I was ambivalent about fruit. Veins, tendons or anything that reminded me that my meat had once been living would send me screaming from the table. Not really what you’d expect from a future lover of fine cuisine, but what can I say? Parents of picky children take heart: obviously things DO change.
But then again, it wasn’t all bad. In fact, some of what I remember eating was downright wonderful. So, with long-overdue apologies to those who suffered through these years, here are a few memories that just might give you some inkling of the conflicting forces at work on my tastebuds as I trudged up the long and torturous road to maturity.
1. The Sugar Box
Sugar, when I was growing up, was a rarity. Nowadays I have difficulty distinguishing my parents’ freezer from a Haagen Dazs wholesale outlet, but back then my doses of sugar were regulated with methodone-like precision, and to keep my wandering fingers from encountering anything harmful in the cupboards my parents simply did not buy anything sweet. Or if they did, they hid it too well. "Eat fruit" they used to tell me when I would appear in the kitchen, brow sweaty and eyes glazed from insulin withdrawal. In desperation, I turned to the only thing I could to satisfy my cravings: the pure stuff. One day, feeling I would die if I didn’t get something sugary into my system and conveniently left alone at home, I opened the baking cupboard and proceeded to fill a tupperware container with sugar. Not just any sugar, mind you – already showing a precocious flair for experimentation, I mixed every different type I found on the shelf – white, brown, and powdered – into a mixture I thought would be more exciting. Or maybe I took some of each just so the absence in any one kind would be less noticeable. In any case, I ceremoniously hid the container in my closet along with a big spoon and for the next few months used this as my emergency stash, taking a gritty mouthful straight whenever things got desperate. Luckily, I think I got tired of it pretty quickly, but I still equate the slightly stale, musty smell of old sugar with that taste of pure tooth-aching sweetness. I shiver at the memory.
2. Chips and Ketchup Sandwiches
At a certain point, perhaps around the age of ten, I was allowed to start making my own lunches. This was truly exciting, and sent me on one creativity binge after another. One of the first two recipes I invented (see below for the other) was the following: take two pieces of fluffy white or brown bread – it doesn’t really matter which, since that really fluffy brown bread that we used to buy was actually just white bread in disguise – smear one side with mayonnaise and the other with a thick layer of ketchup. Fill with a double layer of corn tortilla chips. Close the sandwich, pressing down until you hear the chips start to shatter. If you’ve picked the right kind of bread and chips, the sharp corners of the chips will actually poke through the soft sides of the sandwich, forcing up some ketchup and mayonnaise out with them, thus smearing all over your hands as you eat and requiring a good measure of finger-licking between bites of the crunchy-doughy-sweet-and-salty sandwich. I had all the bases covered for the full gastronomic experience, believe me.
3. Quesadilla Volcano
My crowning glory, this was reserved for ‘special’ lunches, though I suspect I would have eaten it every day if I could have. Take two flour tortillas and lay them open. Lay a cold hot dog down the center of each, and cover completely with shredded orange cheddar cheese. Roll up the tortillas around the hot dogs and microwave on a plate until the cheese is melted and oozing out the ends of the tortillas. Remove from microwave. With a sharp knife, cut the quesadillas crosswise into thin slices. Now take a fork and stir everything together – you should have a rapidly congealing mass of tortilla strips, hotdog slices and melted cheese. When you have achieved a well-stired, vaguely mountain-shaped mass, stop stirring and sprinkle the top with more grated cheese. Microwave again just until this cheese has melted and glistens like snow covering the ski slopes. Remove from the microwave, drizzle with plenty of ketchup, preferably in such a way as to resemble a viscous flow of lava, and eat with knife and fork. Is there any nutrition in there? Did I care?
4. My Dad’s Fondue
My dad has always had a predilection for healthy things, so much so that I’ve often wondered if a faulty genetic code is somehow to blame for his preference for vegetables to sweets, and also enough to make me occasionally wonder if my mother has revealed the whole truth about my paternity. For him, the perfect dinner is a mound of steamed garden-fresh veggies adorned with nothing more than a pat of butter and a sprinkle of pepper. When I was a kid spending weekends with him this menu caused me tremendous consternation, which he would sometimes relieve by treating me to a hamburger, but the thing I looked forward to most were his dinner parties (because steamed veggies naturally didn’t cut it for company). True to his cautious culinary mindset, my dad found one tried-and-true recipe that was suitable for guests, and every time he had people over it went without saying that he would make it. I vividly remember the ritual of removing the 1970s-era blue and green paisley-print metal fondue pot from its spot on the dusty shelf, meticulously rubbing the insides with garlic, popping open the chenin blanc, shredding the precise quantities of Gruyere and Emmenthal cheese that the newspaper-clipped recipe called for, and beginning the slow, methodical process of stirring everything together that always made me feel like we were conducting an important science experiment. When it was ready, we would rush it to the table and set it down in front of the guests with much fanfare, and I would race to join everyone madly dipping cubes of french bread and spears of broccoli into the velvety mixture. I love a good cheese fondue as much now as I did then, and still, nobody makes it better than my dad.
5. Benedicte’s Mustard Vinaigrette
Shortly after the second of my three younger brothers was born, when I was eleven years old, my parents decided to hire a live-in babysitter so they could both go back to work. I don’t know how they found her, but she was the embodiment of everything children hate in a caretaker: austere, humorless, severe… and French. She could have been straight out of a Frances Hodgson Burnett novel, but in fact she was an exchange student studying at UC Berkeley for a y
ear and took the job because it offered her a free room. I don’t remember what she was studying or why she’d come to California; all that I noticed was her rigidly imposing cardigan-clad figure and her shrill voice that seemed to be always verging on hysteria. She and I fought constantly, mostly over my messiness and general unwillingness to do household chores. She also argued with my parents about their liberal ideals and nonreligious childrearing – I’m convinced she even protested the fact that she had been instructed not to smack us around when we misbehaved. I sabotaged her at every opportunity I got, squeezing out her shampoo and face cream into the toilet, and when that didn’t send her packing, vindictively taking bites from the things that she left in our fridge. She sometimes stashed leftovers from restaurants and cafes in there, but what I quickly learned to zero in on was a small container of liquid that despite being frequently replenished, I never actually saw her use. The first time I tasted it, I remember stopping dead in my tracks – this was no ordinary restaurant leftover, this was something she had made herself. And it was like nothing I had ever tasted before: the thick top layer was fragrant emerald olive oil, and nestled beneath was a layer of tart mustardy, garlicky, herby and slightly cheesy sludge that when gently mixed with the oil on top became the most delicious sauce I had ever tasted. Not knowing what to do with it, I put it on everything (including substituting it for the ketchup on the infamous quesadilla volcano), and spent hours pondering what exactly made it so good. Strangely enough, despite the fact that I regularly drained that cup dry when she wasn’t looking, I never heard a word of criticism for it. She was happy to berate me to no end for my cleaning habits and general rebelliousness, but when it came to that sauce she was apparently more than happy to continue facilitating my induction into the world of good taste.
And now, since we know a meme is only as good as those who pass it on, I would like to invite Michele, J., Pille and AJ & Michelle to the party if they haven’t already been. I look forward to your revelations, comrades!
And here are my links — when it’s your turn, simply move down the list, dropping number one from the top spot, moving the numbers down, and placing yourself in the number five spot (and of course, linking to each):
1. Tasca de Elvira
2. Cuisine et Compagnie
3. Chocolate and Zucchini
4. A Finger in Every Pie
5. The Traveler’s Lunchbox