Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A Food Autobiography

I have been thinking lately about why I am so interested in food. And I think that my interest is healthy, non-eating disorderly in nature. I think food is formative and our experiences with food as we grow up are very important. I think that many people rarely think about what they are putting in their mouths, and the result is at worst poor health and at best (but also bad) a seriously missed opportunity to really enjoy something.
I cannot pin-point an earliest food memory. It might possibly be making a Santa Clause out of an apple and marshmallows with my mom when she ran a daycare - I was probably five. Interestingly, many of my food memories are entertwined with reading memories. For example, I have a strong recollection of curling up in front of the heater with a Swiss cake roll and A Figure in Hiding (a Hardy Boys book - much preferred over the Nancy Drew books). The few candy bars that I ate as a child were carefully saved until I could enjoy them with a book.
However, even more than reading, my food memories are connected to family memories. Watching my mom, my grandmothers, my aunt cook. I was about eye-level with the countertop when I would watch my aunt at my grandmother's house making biscuits. She used a dishtowel that was reserved for this purpose, rolling the dough out on the cloth and using a cutter to make perfect biscuit shapes - the left over dough was rolled together to make one that didn't match the others, but tasted just the same. My mom on the other hand, never used a biscuit cutter, instead snatching up a lump of dough and tossing it from hand to hand until it was round. There was always either biscuits or cornbread at my grandmother's house - a meal without bread was unthinkable, which makes my wonder what they would think of my current intolerance of not only biscuits and cornbread but all other glutenous snacks.
When I came home on the weekends from college, I would invariably find myself wedged into the top step of the step-ladder that sat in mom's kitchen, watching her and talking while she cooked. It was here that the left-overs of our daily phone calls would come out - some how you never can get all that out on the phone. In my mind, she is always making taco salads, browning the ground beef and dicing up tomatoes in her palm. I am always dragging the stool over to retreive her pyrex dishes from the top of the cabinet. This is low-key cooking. On high feast days, momma and I would be up till midnight the night before. On Thanksgiving, I am roasting the sweet potatoes and then relieving them of the skins, mashing them into the sweet potato casserole. On Easter, I am peeling the boiled eggs, turning them into Deviled Eggs (where exactly did the term "deviled" come from anyway?) This food is transported (at times more successfully than others) to my grandmothers - where the countertops are straining under the weight of dishes - my father even had to make a wooden board that would fit down over her sink in order to open up that much more space. On these days, no breakfast is eaten in order to create room for all the food that will be consumed - a little bit of each casserole, maybe a little turkey and some ham, and always dessert. I don't suppose that this sounds like the healthiest method of eating, but these days were the exception rather than rule, and much was made out of them.
Somehow, my sister and I were inoculated early with a love for fruits and vegetables. My aunt tells the story of how my uncle would say to his buddies "Hey, watch this." He would then offer to my sister and me a piece of fruit in the one hand and piece of candy in the other, telling us we could have whichever we wanted. Invariably, we would choose the fruit. Pretty good for kids who were so young at the time that they can't even remember the event now. We were also able to resist the evils of fast food at a very early age. My grandmother, with whom we stayed in the summer, had a "town day" every Friday in order to run errands, and we always got to go out to eat with her. Sometimes we would go to McDonald's, where my sister and I would order, not chicken nuggets, not a cheeseburger, but "a chef's salad, please." I actually remember the cashier goggling at me. I don't remember exactly how we were taught these things, which I think is indicative - we weren't taught them, we were immersed in them. We always had fruit and vegetables at home, rarely went out to eat, and weren't given candy as a reward for anything (I do remember being told that I was allergic to chocolate - apparently my allergic reaction was to become extremely hyper). I believe that my parents didn't have to undo any bad eating habits in us because they were never allowed to develop. Eating vegetables was not optional. Now, as an adult, it is not hard to turn down the candy bar. I still save my Milky Way bars for a really good book, but the idea of eating an entire bar in one sitting is almost nauseating.
I have as an adult developed a lot of ideas about food that are based on things I have read or studied, but the foundation is based on those things that I was taught and experienced as a child.

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