As a child who enjoyed frogs’ legs and snails while still in kindergarten and loved eating street food on excursions to Mexico with her grandparents, Susan has always been open to new food experiences. So much so that she tried her hand at catering when she was only 20. She treasures the food traditions that she grew up with in Los Angeles. How they show love, how they knit people together. Her parents guarded family dinnertime, and they loved to entertain. She does too, taking turns hosting dinners with a regular group of good friends, holding family meals sacred, and organizing big summertime potluck feasts in the backyard. Her daughters seem poised to carry on and — just maybe — she’ll start teaching cooking to teens.
Richard’s father was an alcoholic who frequently lost jobs, so it was fortunate that his mother was a good cook and a clever manager who knew how to stretch food. Still, the family sometimes had to rely on donated venison, squirrel, or government surplus cheese. His mother rinsed the aluminum trays that TV dinners came in and re-used them with her own version. The family’s meals were plain, fried or boiled, and heavy on carbohydrates. In summer he went to live with his grandparents on their farm, where food was basic but plentiful. But just like at home, vegetables were home-canned, never fresh from the garden. It wasn’t until he and his wife Chris moved from Pennsylvania to Vermont that he discovered seafood, fresh vegetables, seasonings such as basil and tarragon, and Chinese, French, and Italian dishes.
Living in a small town in south central Pennsylvania, Chris’s childhood experience of food was limited. Although her family lived in an agricultural area, most of their food came frozen or in cans from the supermarket and was served without seasonings. With little interest in homemaking, and having lost her sense of smell and taste through illness, it was scarcely surprising that her mother was not much of a cook. She heated frozen fish in the oven just as it came out of the box, in a block. Her Giant Stew sounded intriguing but actually was a time-saving way of chopping ingredients. In contrast to meals at home, Chris thought the lunches served in her school’s cafeteria were delicious. Yet, despite her limited eating experiences as a child, she became an adventurous eater once she left home. She tried new foods eagerly, especially from cultures far removed from her Pennsylvania childhood.
Poppy was raised as a vegetarian by her mother Vera. Growing up in Vermont, she enjoyed eating what the state had to offer, not only fresh vegetables from local farms, but also ice cream and cheese, lots of cheese. She and her mother belonged to a food co-op and her diet was based almost entirely on alternatives to products sold in mainstream supermarkets. Still, she was intrigued by what her school friends ate — Wonder Bread sandwiches, fruit rollups, packaged cookies. And once a year she and her mom would indulge themselves with non-natural Fritos and supermarket sour cream dip while they watched the Oscars. As she grew older she tried eating meat. But she always came back to the fundamentals of her childhood diet. When she discovered kale, she loved it right away. And when she began to shop and cook for herself she realized that not only was food pleasurable to eat but its preparation was a relaxing and creative activity.
His mother cooked by the book and the book was Betty Crocker. Not all bad, but unimaginative and bland. Arthur realizes now that his tastes were incongruent with his family’s palate. The first sign came in grade school when he got a chance to sample sushi. Although he had never heard of it and had no idea what it was, he dug right in. His teacher was impressed. Arthur could not foresee that this was the beginning of a food odyssey of a very adventurous eater. Serve him brains, serve him tongue, but please don’t give him Twinkies.
Even though her family lived in a cramped Greenwich Village apartment with a small kitchen and her mother had a demanding full-time job, Vera enjoyed good home-cooked meals. There were recipes handed down by her Romanian and Russian grandparents, and her mother’s dinners of pot roast, chicken, and pork chops. Plus, there were bagels from the Lower East Side and fresh vegetables in summers spent in rural New Jersey. She especially loved sweets – cheesecake with her father, fudge sundaes with her grandmother, and the brownies she and her friends raided from the kitchen of their boarding school. She still loves sweets but gave up eating meat long ago.
Read interview with Vera’s daughter, Poppy.
For Jonathan, memories of food and family are almost inseparable. He studied in France, cooked professionally, and can turn out elegant French dishes, but the food he loves best, the food most deeply entwined with memory, is the simple food of home and the roadside stands and diners of New Jersey. Buffets at the Claremont Diner made a big impression. He loved his mother’s corned beef and cabbage, his grandmother’s sunnyside-up eggs, his aunts’ expertly constructed sandwiches. But it was his father’s almost insatiable appetite and love of food that really affected him, linking food and happiness tightly together. Not surprisingly his future career was going to be about food and the joy it could bring.