Benjamin, age 53

I grew up on the prairie in the 1950s and 1960s. My parents ran a dairy farm and they had five children. I was the youngest. I had four older sisters and my youngest sister was seven years older than me, so I was almost in a separate family. It was a rural community fifteen miles from a city, largely of Scandinavian and other European immigrants. The city, being an economic center, was close enough to bring the world of modern commodified food to our stores. We shopped at Food Town which was an independent, sort of IGA, store with wooden floors and sawdust on the floors of the butcher shop. My parents knew the grocer personally. Maybe they sold eggs to him.

My parents divorced when I was 10. After that I lived in a college town 60 miles from the farm, where my mother worked for a college. My sisters, who had gone to college and moved away, were concerned that I wasn’t getting enough protein when I was in high school. And that I wasn’t getting enough new clothes. They sent my mother money or somehow arranged that she would buy things for me, both clothes and a locker of beef for one season. My mother was inclined to save money on food, so we had lots of those single-serving pot pies and we had lots of macaroni and cheese as a main course. My sisters probably thought that I should have protein since I was a teenager, and they thought protein equaled beef.

I started cooking when I was young. A former brother-in-law wrote to me recently and said he remembered visiting my family when I was 7 and he was impressed that I made the lunch, which I don’t remember, but I have been cooking for other people in large groups since I was 15. I was night cook at a truck stop in high school and in college I was opening cook at a pancake restaurant so I needed to do all the egg dishes and pancakes and waffles.

When I was about 5 there was this little diner near my grandfather’s secondhand store where I would sit at the counter and spin around on one of those stools that had a vinyl seat on a chrome pillar. I would love to spin around waiting for my favorite menu which was a hamburger and chocolate milk. It was just this generic place in the warehouse district. But the hamburger had a special taste because it was fried on a grill and of course we didn’t eat out much and nothing cooked at home was fried on a grill and so the flavor, when you really flattened it on a grill, was memorable. My mother took me there, my grandparents took me there. They had one of those pie cases with glass doors on it sitting on top of the counter so you could see the pieces of pie and drool over them, including my favorite which was banana cream, which was also something you didn’t get at home. I didn’t know anybody could make banana cream pie. Those are things you only got from commercial establishments.

I certainly was shocked to have mayonnaise on the top

When I was about 10 we took a trip to Washington to visit my sister and it was almost my first time out of farm country. I had not seen cities before, and just driving at night on the Ohio turnpike was a surreal experience. My family liked to travel at night. They drove long days and if they stopped at a motel it would be really late because they wanted to get as far as possible in a short period of time. I remember just the oddness of being on the superhighway which was something I’d never seen before. And then stopping at a Howard Johnson’s which was dramatic because I hadn’t seen the architecture before. I remember the orange roof and the green lettering. The color combination was odd for me, coming from the country, and I don’t know why that was. And the cafeteria had bright, bright lights, lots of chrome, lots of glass cases. You walked along. And that was what was striking about it, that you saw things under bright light on these glass shelves, behind these glass doors with chrome, and it just gleamed. Everything, including the tray rail, was very bright, and since it was late at night after driving it just made an impression on me, probably because I was up past my bedtime too. And then the food I got there, for the very first time, was Jell-O salad which had some kind of fruit or vegetable suspended in it which I think was shredded carrots. I think I had lime Jell-O with shredded carrots in it, with mayonnaise on the top. I had had Jell-O before, with fruit in it, but probably not with carrots because that’s a vegetable. And I certainly was shocked to have mayonnaise on the top because that was not sweet. I remember thinking the taste was really strange. I’m not sure I even liked it, but I’ve never forgotten it because sweet salads my mother made had sweetened whipped cream. So this white dollop of mayonnaise on the top that I thought was whipped cream really shocked me.

Fruit in Jell-O reminds me of my grandmother’s cooking which I also really liked because she took care of me, sort of my babysitter when my mother was out working somewhere. I would stay at her house sometimes and she cooked — very unwillingly, she didn’t like to cook and her house was not a homemaker’s showplace. She really was kind of a hermit, kind of a recluse, though she loved to go to card parties. She had been one of the first telephone operators in that town, so she’d been a working woman and she just was not domestic. But her best dishes were goulash, as we called it — though I don’t know if other people would use the word goulash for what she made — and navy bean soup with ham. Ham and bean soup. I just never got it anywhere else and she’s the only person I knew that made it. It was really good. It had chunks of ham in it, and it was white navy beans, or whatever kind of beans, that I never had anywhere else. But the goulash — my sister recently said she tried to reproduce the recipe and just couldn’t do it – it was extremely simple. It was just hamburger, probably cooked with onions or tomato sauce or canned tomatoes, and elbow macaroni, and I’m sure the only “spices” had to be salt and pepper because those were the only spices we knew about in the country.

There wasn’t much that we produced on the farm that we ate

People think that farmers are closer to the land and naturally eat things that they have grown, but I think that’s only partially true. Certainly in my part of the Midwest after the Depression or after World War II the main thing was to be in the mainstream and to get the latest, most technological stuff and I think for farmers that meant eating canned and frozen foods and having processed foods from General Foods and Kraft and big names. General Mills, that was what they had, and Del Monte canned apricots, Birdseye frozen peas. There wasn’t much that we produced on the farm that we ate and I don’t remember any of it being that good. Certainly the garden was always a failure. And I think it was lack of attention and skill that made the garden always a failure. So I don’t remember any garden products fondly as a child.

Sometimes we had our own beef, but it was not slaughtered on the farm that I remember. I think that was a generation before me when farmers actually might have slaughtered hogs, more likely, and then less often beef, on the farm itself and somebody would actually know how to carve a full animal. And that’s a skill most people didn’t have by the time I was a kid. But what you would do is take your animal to the local locker, and I don’t know who slaughtered it, but then the locker would cut the meat into the various cuts. Not the most exclusive cuts. It seemed they had a limited repertoire. There was no Kansas City strip steak, there was no New York strip steak, there were just t-bone steaks, there were roasts. It seemed there were fewer kinds of steaks and more roasts and lots of hamburger. And then they would freeze it. Usually I considered it to be in cold storage for the winter, so presumably you would order this in the fall, it would go into the meat locker, and whenever you needed meat you would go in there and get as many of these wrapped packages that you wanted, and take them home to your home freezer. And of course the freezer at home was part of this rural electrification phenomenon that people really liked. The deep freeze had the ice cream and all the frozen meat and frozen fish, and if anybody went fishing or hunting and got something that we wanted to eat later, they would freeze that. So the deep freeze was always full of stuff. I remember those packages of frozen beef vividly because they were wrapped in white butcher paper with a handwritten label on the outside that said what the cut of beef was and what the date was, and I think there was a rubber stamp that was filled in from the locker. It impressed me when I was a little kid. It wasn’t something that you saw anywhere else, except from the meat locker.

I remember the beef also. I think because it wasn’t aged particularly, it tended to be tough, and I think the flavor might have somehow been affected by being in the freezer. It wasn’t like aged beef that I remember eating later. Even steaks that you eat at a restaurant that have been previously frozen have more flavor than this beef did. It seemed to be sort of raw and unprocessed. It might be that it was closer to the real thing, without the intermediaries that actually know how to cut and age beef or go to more trouble with it. I remember mostly pot roasts and my mother’s potatoes and carrots that have this nice glaze from being roasted with the beef. The beef was stringy from being slowly cooked for a long period of time and the meat kept falling off the bone. I don’t know if my family didn’t eat steaks or they didn’t give me any, but I don’t remember any as well as I remember the pot roast.

I don’t remember food at home very well, but I remember the spectacle of my mother preparing food for a threshing crew. Suddenly the house would be full of fifteen or twenty people, hungry men. A pile of mashed potatoes in the middle of the table. But it was canned beans, and canned peas. I don’t think of anything being memorable in the everyday food. Once my sister made fancy tea sandwiches for me, when she was treating me like a doll, probably playing house. And she made Miracle Whip sandwiches on white bread with the crusts cut off. And of course factory bread was fascinating. Wonder Bread had just come out with a national advertising campaign, so factory bread was supposed to be much better than other bread. My mother often made bread on Saturdays and then my sisters, when they were teenagers, took it up, and I remember the bread being really good and really tasty when it was fresh. The bread would rise on the TV. It was 1958 when we got our first television set, a metal television set on a metal stand with casters, very ’50s. And since it had a picture tube that would get warm, that was the place where my mother would put the bread to rise, in a white enamel washtub which I remember fondly, with a kitchen towel over the top. And I loved punching down the bread when it had to be punched down a couple of times and it smelled so good.

When I was 11 my mother and I went to Alaska to visit my sister who lived there. At Haynes we stayed at an inn. I remember the dinner at that inn very vividly because it was one of the few dinners I had at a commercial establishment when I was young that were served family style. Everybody staying at the inn came down for one seating at dinner, and there weren’t that many people staying there, like eight. One of them was this woman who was an oil painter – and I don’t know if I’d ever met an artist before then. And we were sitting around the table, and maybe I felt very grown up that I got to sit at this table and listen to the conversation. In the middle of the table was an entire salmon. I had never seen fresh salmon ever before in my life, before that trip. The salmon was out of this world. I had not tasted any fresh fish in my life that tasted like that. Granted I had not even eaten fish that much. I remember eating fish at home, and mainly that it was a lot of trouble, especially since what we caught most often were bullheads, a dark-meat fish that’s not a flaky, tender light fish. And they are not scaled, they are skinned, so I just remember it being a lot of trouble to get very little food that wasn’t that good. I think a lot of fish we had was industrially frozen — from the late ’50s on it was frozen at sea or it was fish sticks. So having salmon in the middle of the table! I don’t remember how it was garnished — I just remember it being buttery and totally delicious. And a spectacle! The whole memory of salmon being sliced off and passed around the table, with all the other food, and adult conversation, and being in a hotel in a faraway place, it was unforgettable.

I’ve been thinking about to what extent my childhood food memories are ethnic and to what extent they are sort of industrial middle-American and I think I grew up in that overlapping period. So the church suppers that we had were really memorable, in the basement of this Swedish Lutheran church out in the country. I loved the atmosphere there. I loved the building. I loved playing around the outside of it. It was the location of many fond childhood memories. The food that would be served at these gatherings was either for the annual meeting or annual church anniversary celebration. There would be regularly these major meals for large groups of people in the church basements and I would get to go into the kitchen and watch the women preparing them. One thing that really impressed me were these trays and trays of open-face sandwiches that were made with store-bought whole wheat bread. It was cut diagonally so each piece was in a triangle, then each piece would be coated with Cheese Whiz out of a jar. So that was light brown and orange — the color was important. And I like the flavor of Cheese Whiz anyway because it has this kind of salty cheesy flavor. To decorate them, they would slice these Spanish olives with pimentos in the center which I suppose are called cocktail olives now, but since nobody had cocktails in this culture maybe they just called them green olives or pimento olives. If you sliced them crossways you’d have this red and green disk that looks really great on top of the orange open-face sandwiches. These were cold sandwiches, light refreshments. They’d serve them on a long table, with a woman at each end serving a beverage, punch at one end and coffee at the other. The punch was something like Hawaiian Punch. People also made punches with Kool-Aid. There was a lot of Kool-Aid drunk on the farm. It was the non-alcoholic beverage of the working man all day.

Some of the church suppers actually had lutefisk, which is codfish cured in lye. Then they boil it and serve it hot — boiled, gelatinous, pickled cod, served with butter. Really it’s mainly texture and butter as far as I can tell. I suppose you would historically eat it with potatoes or potato pancakes. I remember lutefisk as being remarkable and kind of scary and I’m sure I hated it. It was kind of disgusting and frightening but I remember it as a spectacle. I remember the atmosphere and the production and the drama and how people were making a big deal out of it. And the lutefisk I remember as being very hot and steamy and you don’t even want to taste it. But it’s very cold outside in the winter, and dark, and you go inside and there’s this big boiled pot of steaming fish. I think a lot of the serving was cafeteria style, so that in the basement of the church you would see that it came out of the kitchen in a big container. And the fact that it’s mid-winter, that’s when you get the fish out of the barrel. My father connects it with Christmas and New Year’s. My father was the only one who liked it, so we didn’t often have it at holidays at home.

One summer when I was about 9, my mother and my grandmother and a sister went to the western prairie to visit a family who were old friends of my parents. That was the first time I visited a real ranch. One thing that made it a real ranch was these people lived in town in the winter so the kids could go to school and they could survive the climate – which was just horrendous on the prairie because the wind never stopped — and they would take care of the ranch from their house in town. But in summer they lived in a ranch house, which was an unheated, cool, one-story, rambling house along a creek, in a low area. It’s near the high desert, a place that in the summer heat you would not survive. This was very exotic to me, to go to a ranch where these people lived in the summer. They took us to a swimming hole which was this little, slightly deeper spot in the creek next to their ranch house. And I even got to put on chaps and a cowboy hat and ride a western-style horse for the first time in my life.

Milk was my drink

We had what was called dinner with them, which is lunch, the mid-day meal. I don’t remember what we ate but I think I was either coming down with the flu or the heat was getting to me. I felt kind of woozy and ill. When I was little, I never liked tea or coffee, I never drank them. Milk was my drink. The mother of this family we were visiting said, Oh, what you need is some iced tea to cool you off. Well, I’d never had iced tea in my life, so having this unsweetened iced tea was kind of a shock. I remember drinking it and the flavor’s very vivid and I still flash on that experience when I drink unsweetened iced tea. When I first tasted it then, it was this shock of the icy flavor, the sort of caramel caffeine flavor, and no sweetener. It was just hard to take. I took a taste of it, drank a little bit, and said I don’t really want to drink this. Because I’d never drunk anything that wasn’t sweet in my life, except milk which is sweet in its own way. So they said, Oh, well we have something sweet, we have currant juice. So they gave me this currant juice which they had made from currants that they had harvested. And that was another exotic thing. I don’t know what currants are, I don’t know what they grow on, I never saw a currant bush. They had currants growing along their creek, on this ranch, so they gave me this currant juice. And it was extremely syrupy and sweet. The combination of that caffeinated, unsweetened iced tea that was cold, followed by syrupy, ultra-sweet, tangy, sour currant juice made me so terribly ill I couldn’t eat anything. I just had to go to bed. I was torn inside out by this assault. But it’s funny that the attractiveness of it is still there. And I love iced tea. I don’t think I would like currant juice even now.

I didn’t know you could make chili at home

Ione’s was a downtown restaurant where my mother and I would go quite regularly, and we would order the chili. And the chili was memorable to me because we didn’t make chili at home. I didn’t know you could make chili at home. And the chili was your typical diner chili. It was different than Hormel canned chili in that it was more like soup. It was made with onions and ground beef and chili spice, but the memorable thing is the chunks of tomato in it, which probably were canned, peeled whole tomatoes like you still can buy. But my family on the farm didn’t cook with tomatoes. That was sort of, as they would say, Eye-talian to cook with tomatoes. No tomato sauce. Chef Boyardee, I think, had canned spaghetti in the 1960s, but we actually ate a lot more of the canned Chinese food such as Chun King chicken chow mein than we ate spaghetti. There’s something about Italian food that was extremely foreign in this Scandinavian farm cuisine.

Just the memory of Ione’s reminds me of going to that kind of restaurant – a brightly lit restaurant with vinyl booths and seats and formica tables with chrome or stainless steel around the edge of the table, and a formica and glass and brightly lit diner lunchcounter side – where a major feature would be the beer ads. And my favorite beer ads would be the lamps that would have a scene. For instance Hamm’s beer would have a scene of a Minnesota lake that would move around in a circle that was probably propelled by the heat of the bulb. One of the few times that my father came to visit — even though my parents were divorced, I think he came to a cafe with us once in a while – I talked him into letting me have some beer. He was not a beer drinker, never was a beer drinker. I think he was afraid of alcoholism because in the ’30s drinking was associated with losing class status and being socially ostracized. And his father-in-law, my grandfather, was an unacknowledged alcoholic, so I think especially among the rural Protestants, drinking just wasn’t something that they did. But on some occasion I got him to give me a sip of Miller beer. Miller was interesting because it was the only beer that came in clear bottles. And it was this extremely gold, filtered beer. I remember the taste so vividly because it was very, very light. I don’t know how to describe the flavor. That’s a very vivid memory, my first taste of that Miller beer, and it’s associated with the color of the beer, the bubbliness of it, the clear bottle, and being in this kind of a restaurant.

When I was a sophomore in high school and on the debate team in the late ’60s I got to go to restaurants much more often than my family would ever have done. And supposedly better restaurants, although we didn’t go to big cities very often. We went to the conference center hotels in small cities like Sioux City, Iowa. Nothing cosmopolitan, but it was where business travelers were staying, so certainly exotic for a farm kid. And that is where I and my girlfriend — my girlfriend, being from a college family, had more exposure to this kind of thing — would get me to try things that were also new in the menus in the upper Midwest. And one of the things was frozen rock lobster tails, maybe newly imported from South Africa. So you could get surf and turf, which was a big deal. I vividly remember discovering, at age 15, drinking iced tea in the restaurant and having baked potatoes with sour cream, these giant Idaho baked potatoes in their aluminum foil wrappers. And those lobster tails. That made me feel grown up or cosmopolitan. Because it definitely is not farm food. When my mother made potatoes they were boiled or roasted, and nobody had Idaho potatoes and nobody baked them in aluminum foil. And you didn’t put sour cream on potatoes. You put butter on potatoes.

Today I eat a wide variety of things

I see my story as becoming exposed to food of the world through industrial agriculture and the corporate food industry. And my current relation to food is trying to escape the corporate food industry and actually eat locally grown food – which we hardly had when I grew up on a farm. And to think about how agriculture is related to the way people live in different parts of the world, making it possible for that to continue rather than having everything be homogenized. That’s why I like to go to small independent restaurants that have innovative cuisine, but I also try to use local products. I love food. I really love, love food. I really like lamb. I like Asian spices and I like Indian spices. I love Italian food and pasta. I like soups and salads. I think my eating has changed a lot since I was little, but the thing that’s changed the least is that I still eat cereal for breakfast. But otherwise I eat a wide variety of things, especially things like fresh bread and homemade soups and things that I cook such as paella or cioppino or pork roasts or something as simple as chili. I really, really like living near bakeries with good baked goods and cafes with good varietal fresh-roasted coffee. I love going out to restaurants. And I like cooking a lot. I do almost all the cooking in our home and I like it. It’s relaxing, it’s a routine, it’s creative, but somehow reassuring at the same time. You see results fast.

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