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.
As the youngest child in a family of nine children, June was not pampered. There was no room for pickiness. She ate what was on her plate, didn’t go to MacDonalds, and rarely ever saw soda or candy. Her treats were popcorn and Kool Aid. But she didn’t feel she was missing out. There were holidays, backyard barbecues, and Sundays filled with delicious food with her aunt and grandmother. When the family moved to the country, her mother canned food from their large garden. And her naturally inquisitive father was always exploring new foods. She didn’t know it then but she was on her way to becoming immersed in food culture.
Friday night in suburban New Jersey was the time teen-aged Alexander and his friends cut loose and headed out to the mall. Freedom. Maybe they’d stop for a burger or a slice on the way, a quick bite. But there was something Alexander couldn’t get out of his mind. Back home about now, his mom and dad and their best friends, the Ks, would be pouring wine, laughing, and sitting down to a stupendous, beautifully grilled Pacific salmon. He had tasted some once in Seattle and it was out of this world. And here he was, about to eat fast food out of a bag and miss everything.
Her mother was such an unhappy cook that Charlotte almost lost all interest in food as a child. Meat and potatoes, overcooked frozen vegetables, balogna on Wonder Bread. Lucky for her she lived near the ocean. In the summertime there were scallops, quahogs, and all kinds of seafood. Clambakes on the beach with lobsters and crabs and potatoes and corn steaming in an underground pit. But it wasn’t until college that she began to experience a wide range of food. Before long she was learning how to produce most of her own food. Nothing was the same after that.
She was only six years old but Jane loved ice cream so much that one day she and a friend got lost walking all the way downtown to get some. She craved candy too, but it was forbidden by her father who was a dentist. Yet she was never short of sweets. Her home was fragrant with baking — cakes, cookies, brownies, pie made with apples from local orchards. She loved desserts, along with the good meat and bread and vegetables her mother served. And especially the seafood on Nantucket where her family spent the summer. She was eager to help her mother in the kitchen. She found food fascinating and wanted to learn how to cook it.
When Maria was a young girl her mother began taking her along to family gatherings with her mother’s sisters and sometimes her brothers. Those were days of cooking and eating the kinds of food that reflected the family’s Mexican heritage. But at home Maria’s mother disliked cooking and turned out bland meat and potato meals with tasteless overcooked canned vegetables. It was a relief on weekends when the family turned to fast food chains like McDonalds or Wendy’s, but even better when they went over to an aunt and uncle’s house on Sundays for a delicious home-cooked dinner.
Sitting in a red leatherette booth, Elizabeth, just 10, sipped her cocktail of lemon soda and grenadine garnished with a maraschino cherry on a toothpick. She really didn’t need the menu to decide what she wanted – her favorite, spaghetti with meatballs. The meatballs had strange green stuff inside that she might have picked out at home, but for now she would eat everything just like it was. She took a piece of Italian bread from the basket. Then, when no one was looking, she cut off a piece of butter from the little waxed cardboard square and stuck it straight into her mouth. This was heaven. She loved eating in restaurants.
Once in a while, when he would leave his Dallas high school to deliver the school newspaper to the printer, Humphrey would stop off at Peggy’s Barbecue for a brisket sandwich with onion rings. Another favorite place was Jack’s Burger Shack where burgers and fries were sprinkled with celery salt. Simple, but it made all the difference to Humphrey. He loved food. His whole family loved food. It bound the generations and the siblings together, connecting them to the foods of his grandparents in Arkansas and Oklahoma. Whatever it was, chitlins, duck with shot still in it, Tex-Mex, his mom’s fried chicken and cream gravy, his grandmother’s apricot fried pies. And especially the barbecue his dad introduced him to.
Twelve-year-old Hanna came home from school hungry. She walked across the green and gray checkered floor of her mother’s spotless kitchen, opened the door of the big refrigerator, and scanned it for a snack. A gallon of milk. Ugh, she hated its tasteless whiteness. Cocktail olives. A frosty bottle of Beefeaters. Moldy American cheese. A dried-up chunk of pot roast. Mayonnaise. Cold shriveled raisins. She closed the door and went to the pantry. She reached for the top can from a stack of six or seven, cranked the can opener and took a fork out of the drawer. In this house, a can of tuna fish was about as good as it got, definitely as good as she was going to get.