I was born in a very small town, about a population of 5,000, Bedford PA. When I was in second grade we moved to Chambersburg, which is more like 20,000 or so. Which is my dad’s home town. They’re both in south central Pennsylvania near Gettysburg, heart of the bible belt. Also, a very German area, not in the heart of the Pennsylvania Dutch country but very close to that. There were a lot of German people and a lot of German food. My mom grew up in New York City, so I had this very hybrid upbringing, but definitely WASPy on both sides. Later in life I thought it was really sad that I had to grow up in such a boring, WASPy family with no food traditions when I talked to other people who had definite ethnic-related food traditions. But we had some of our own all the same.
The earliest thing I remember eating was Gerber rice baby cereal. It had to be pretty early on that I had that. My other very early memory – maybe age 4 or 5 – that, oddly, has stayed with me throughout my whole life, is that my dad tried to feed me peaches. And, apparently, I mean not quite literally but almost literally, tried to force feed me. Not only do I not eat peaches, I just don’t eat fruit. At all. And haven’t my entire life. That’s the weirdest thing about my food history, for sure. If forced, I will eat raisins or apples or bananas, but other than that, no, definitely not! So, get that out of the way as my strange alien-from-another-planet food habit.
She had very little interest in food
My early food eating was influenced most by my mom, who was an intellectual, not a homebody, but was raised at the time when women stayed home with kids. So she did stay home with us when my sister and I were young. But it must have been when I was very young, Mom had a really terrible flu and lost most of her sense of smell and taste. So, therefore, added to her disinclination to begin with to be an interesting cook, she had very little interest in food. Not surprisingly because there was very little payback for her. My dad did not cook at all. Men didn’t do that in his world. And so we ended up having pretty much the same things on a rotating basis. It wasn’t quite Tuesday is Prince Spaghetti Night, but it was close. We had spaghetti, we had hamburgers, we had meatloaf, roast chicken. We had what we always called square fish which meant that it was frozen haddock from the store that came in a rectangle. It was just dumped out of the box, and not even separated into filets, but just cooked in the rectangle it came in and served.
There were essentially two or three “spices” in our house, which were salt and pepper and sugar. Except for spaghetti which did have very small amounts of oregano and basil. Everything was store-bought even though we lived in a farming community, except for corn on the cob – we would go out and get fresh corn. But, pretty much either there weren’t any farmers’ markets or we didn’t go to them. We always had vegetables. Mom was very clear – we always had an orange vegetable and a green vegetable, every dinner. No doubt she read that in some book as the way to raise healthy kids. And we always had milk and all that kind of stuff. So we ate a pretty good diet in that regard, but everything was frozen vegetables and mostly store-bought things. She would make spaghetti sauce, chili, stuff like that. I never even heard of most ethnic food when I was a kid. That was a great discovery later on.
Something called puddin
We did eat some traditional German Pennsylvania Dutch foods. For New Year’s Day we always had roast pork and sauerkraut and mashed potatoes. Dad’s parents would make their own sauerkraut. They, as they said, “put up” various vegetables like corn, green beans, tomatoes, that they would can, meaning put into jars down in the cellar. They made sauerkraut as well. Most of the things that my dad liked that his mom made were things that he had to go to their house to eat. My mom wouldn’t let him eat them in our house because they smelled so terrible. Of which, one of them was hog maw, pig’s stomach. Yeah! I don’t even really know what was in the pig’s stomach or whether you ate the pig’s stomach because we didn’t have that in our house. And something called slippy pot pie which is slippery pot pie. All I remember about that was that it had beef and sort of gravy and noodles that were very slimy. So that was not one of my favorites. We had mince pie, but it was made with something called puddin, which was some kind of liver-meat-ground-up-thing that was in my dad’s mind an essential ingredient of mince pie. It was called puddin but it had nothing to do with dessert pudding. I tried scrapple, which is as far as I can tell is suet and little pork bits all ground up in it. It would come in a big block like a block of cheese and you’d slice off a piece and fry it and have it with breakfast. So we did have that.
We had a few fun things. Even though my mom wasn’t a cook she had a great imagination. Whenever my dad was out of town for business or away for the evening for some reason, we would have what she called caveman dinners. Which meant that we took a tablecloth and put it on the floor of the kitchen instead of eating at the table. We had an indoor picnic. Sometimes we had them outdoors, but we could have them indoors year round. So we would put the tablecloth on the floor and have anything that we could eat with our hands. Which usually meant a whole head of iceberg lettuce that we would rip apart and fried chicken and maybe deviled eggs. Oh, pickled eggs was a German Pennsylvania Dutch thing I really loved, which was hard-boiled eggs in beet juice and probably sugar and vinegar water as far as I could tell. I loved those. I don’t remember what else we might have had at a caveman-style picnic on the floor, but the whole point that we could eat with our hands and sit on the floor was really a huge treat.
Another huge treat was TV dinners! — the kind that actually had a picture of the TV set on the outside of the box. They had something called Salisbury steak which as far as I can tell was hamburger with gravy. But whatever it was, if it came in a package with a little metal tray with the dividers for the vegetables and the mashed potatoes and the meat, whatever, that was the best thing that we could have. We only got those when Mom and Dad went out for the evening to do something and we were with the babysitter. That was considered great.
For birthdays, she would make cake mixes, usually, although both my grandmothers made cakes from scratch and sometimes we’d have those. My favorite, of course, was a store-bought bakery cake! With horrible, I guess it wasn’t lard-based, probably Crisco-based icing, that white stuff that would come out of the fancy piping. That was a real treat if I could have that for my birthday.
When I say my mom was a bad cook, here’s how bad she was: I loved cafeteria food at school. I thought it was excellent! No matter what it was. I don’t know if this was just us or if every kid does this, but one of the things I remember from school food was that every time they cut the grass outside the school, the next day we would have hoagies, which are, you know, subs or grinders. They would say they put the grass in the hoagies instead of lettuce, shredded lettuce. So, when I was very little I wondered if that was really true, but then of course I learned it wasn’t.
They did not believe in spices
My grandparents, my dad’s parents, were both from the Chambersburg area and both had very limited educations. They were not Mennonite which is close to Amish, but they were the next thing to it. So they were almost Plain Folks as we used to call the Mennonites. They did not believe in spices. So it was very simple farm food. They were not farmers, but their families had been farmers. And so they’d grown up eating a lot of food, which you would obviously need if you were doing hard physical labor. There was a lot of starch involved in everything. Even to this day there is a restaurant that is connected with the Gibble’s potato chip company. They have their own restaurant. They always have “starch of the day,” which just cracked me up. Because anywhere else it would be vegetable of the day or special of the day. But they have starch of the day. And you can always have two starches. So it’s a very starch-heavy culture and I adore starch still! Bagels, toast, bread. Pastries and bread products. Corn meal, cornbread. Although I never had a bagel until I was probably 25. But toast we had. The best thing you could possibly have for breakfast, as far as I was concerned, was buttered cinnamon sugar toast that was cut into thirds. And then you have to eat the outside part first and the center part last. I don’t know why. That’s just the way it is.
We had Lebanon bologna, which is a little bit like salami. From Lebanon PA, so it’s a Pennsylvania Dutch thing. It was spiced beef bologna. And it was dark. It looked more like salami. And I guess it’s the closest thing except that it’s a little bit sweet. There were two kinds. One was a little vinegary and one was sweet. I liked them both. In later years, when I lived in Vermont in my 20s when I was on my own and I’d go back to Pennsylvania to visit, I would bring back Lebanon bologna with me. One time, I must have opened my sandwich at work, to put on lettuce or something, and my co-worker looked at it like she’d never seen anything so revolting. “What is that disgusting brown meat?” So ever after it was called “that disgusting brown meat.”
I loved all the kinds of things most kids probably love. Peanut butter sandwiches, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Fluffernutter sandwiches with marshmallow fluff, which we couldn’t get in Pennsylvania, so the only time we could get that was my best friend’s mom lived in Marlboro, Mass. and she would go bring it back when she went to visit her family. Velveeta, we had Velveeta. And lots and lots of ice cream. Oh, this is weird — I didn’t realize until adulthood that most people did not have dessert for lunch. We always had dessert for lunch and dinner. And sometimes the rest of the family would have fruit and I would have nothing. But many times we would have cookies or ice cream – a lot of ice cream. Mostly Hersheys because we lived an hour from Hershey and that was the local company. We got it from the store, but there was a local ice cream place that is still going called The Igloo, that has soft serve. Better chocolate than anywhere else except for Herrell’s. So I loved that. There were other local ice cream places. We would walk down to get ice cream.
Once we moved to Chambersburg, we lived across the street from a little corner store run by the Wolf family. But the way people in town said it, it was Woofy’s. We’d go over to Woofy’s and they had penny candy, still actually a penny, in a wooden case with glass sides. And we could go back and pick our own. They also had big candy bars. Those were a nickel. There were a lot of places you could get those, and also ice cream bars, like ice cream sandwiches and chocolate covered vanilla on a stick – things called banjoes for some reason. And popsicles, all those sorts of things were a big hit.
We had a lot of junk food, like Twinkies and Hostess cupcakes. You were allowed to have dessert. You were allowed to have snacks. Definitely there was a preference for healthy snacks, but we used to tease my mom about it. Celery sticks and carrot sticks! We would eat them if we had to but . . . We didn’t get a lot of allowance money but my allowance money, as I recall, was largely spent on junk.
There is a food I’ve never heard of elsewhere called mosies. They were essentially like giant lollipops except without sticks. I’ve never seen them in a store. They were homemade by people’s parents when I was in grade school. They made them in the bottom of muffin tins, filling the muffin tin maybe a quarter or a third full. I didn’t know how they were made exactly, but they had to be made with corn syrup and flavorings and sugar. And something to make it harden. I have no clue what would have made it harden. There were all different kinds, like mint and cinnamon and chocolate and butterscotch and cherry. Every flavor that you can think of. The thing that was interesting about these, other than that they were homemade, is that they became a kind of currency in the grade school. A mosie could be traded not only for another flavor of mosie, but also for store-bought candy bars, other homemade snacks, or even small toys. At Halloween, mosies were what we most wanted to receive at neighborhood houses while trick-or-treating. I learned later that what we knew as a “mosie” was probably what the Pennsylvania Dutch called a “mohjy,” a traditional hard candy made of corn syrup, sugar, water, and butter.
We had water buffalo butter
When I was in college I had my first experience with foreign foods. In lots of ways. My junior year — well, before that, I went to Egypt for a month on an art-study tour. We had water buffalo butter and water buffalo meat at the place where we were staying. That was really amazing and fun. And then there were, of course, lots of traditional Egyptian dishes, one of which was called something else but was essentially hummus. Loved that. And there was something called jalebi. It was bright orange and it was a dessert. And it was translucent. If you squeeze funnel cakes out of a funnel and they get into pretzel shapes, all squiggly – it was like that. It was really sweet, but it wasn’t candy. It was a bit like gum drops. And it didn’t taste like orange at all. It must have been some kind of honey dessert. So, that was very cool.
And then I went to London for a semester my junior year and discovered meat pies. British meat pies and pasties and all those kinds of things. I just thought they were the best ever. During a vacation while I was in London I went backpacking through Europe with, as it turned out, a Smith student. Who I didn’t know – she just happened to be from Smith. She had been a high school exchange student in southern France, in Provence. I can’t remember now what town it was, but whatever it was, we went back to see her host family. They had a lovely, lovely lunch for us, but it featured artichokes, whole artichokes. I’d never seen an artichoke before. So I was in a country where I couldn’t speak the language with a food I’d never seen before, trying to be very polite. It was also fairly formal, so I really had no clue. If you think about eating artichokes and how you have to scrape the pulp. Even if you take the petals off, then what do you do? Do you just eat the whole thing. I mean, what do you do? It was very nervous-making, but it was also wonderful. It was kind of fun to discover new foods, but that one just really sticks in my mind because I was so flummoxed. What do you do with this?
When Richard and I got engaged, it was my senior year in college, and my dad’s parents invited us over for steaks in the backyard. Which were always called “steaks in the back-yowd.” Just the way they said it. So I made a big point to tell them that Richard liked his steaks medium rare. I made sure to tell my grandmother, who we called Mammy, that. Because they liked theirs really, really, really well done. So she put a steak aside for him and made sure that all of theirs were cooked the way they liked them. Then put his on separately, and called me over and I said that looks perfect. Because of course she wasn’t used to telling what would medium rare look like. I said, that’s perfect, that’s perfect. So I went back to wherever we were waiting for them to serve us and a couple minutes later they brought the steaks over. I couldn’t tell his steak from all the others. And I said what happened to Richard’s steak, is it still on the grill? And she said, It didn’t look like it was done so I browned it up for him. Forget medium rare. There were just certain ways of having food that you had to eat. That was it!
I talked about the mince pie that Dad’s mom would make for him specially. In addition to the puddin stuff, it also called for two tablespoons of whiskey. They wouldn’t have whiskey in the house. Because – and I was told this directly – the minister might come over! As if the minister was going to go through the cupboards, searching for it. So every time that Mammy was going to make mince pie she came to our house and took back two tablespoons of whiskey to go into the pie.
Also in college, most people discover drinking. I hated beer so I didn’t drink very much at all during college because it was mostly beer. The only huge memory I have of drinking in college was when I was visiting my dear friend Jackie who lived in Richmond and we were at a party at a friend of hers. They were serving gin and tonic. They gave me one. I had never had it, had no idea of what it was supposed to taste like. I thought this can’t be right, this tastes so terrible that it can’t possibly be right. But, again, I was too shy to say to my friends “Is this the way it’s supposed to taste?” Apparently it was. Everybody else thought it was just great. But the taste of tonic water, never mind gin and tonic, is one of my least favorite tastes in the world. I literally thought it might have been poisoned or something. So I did that thing that you see people do in the movies, which is to surreptitiously pour it into a plant. Being from this small hick town, there was a lot of the world that I didn’t know about.
The whole world opened up
When Richard and I got married in ‘78 and moved to Vermont the whole world opened up, including food. As I think I mentioned I never had a bagel until I moved to Burlington. I was working on the same block as the original Ben & Jerry’s store. So on my breaks, almost every day, since I love ice cream, I would go up and have a Ben & Jerry’s cone. Which I guess I could do in my 20s without gaining a ton of weight. They were still using individual churns — they were motorized. They were making all their ice cream in just a couple of churns that were in the front window then. Now they have a factory. They kept making all these bizarre flavors, just to try them out. Somebody would say, what about this? We’ll try this. One day they had on their Euphoric Flavors list licorice peppermint lemon – as one thing. And I thought that sounds so terrible, it must be great. It was terrible. I actually said that to them and they gave me something else. But I was a big fan of Ben & Jerry’s. I don’t eat it so much now because I know how bad it is for me, but I ate a lot of it then.
In that same time period, I discovered vegetarian cooking. I’m not vegetarian. I knew the word vegetarian before that but I thought they must just eat what everybody else eats but just without the meat. So, like plain green beans and a salad or something like that. I learned about vegetarian cooking from Moosewood [cookbook] and a place in Montpelier called Horn of the Moon Café. They also introduced me to international foods. I started making bread. I like most international foods that I’ve tried. I particularly like Thai, Indonesian, Indian, Moroccan – pretty much anything that is pretty spicy but not crazy hot. So no Chicken Vindaloo for me, but otherwise I love spices.
I found out what the secret ingredient was
I have a story that continued over a long period of time. My mother’s mother – that we called Brownie – was one of the best people I’ve ever met. Lovely woman. She didn’t have a mean bone in her body. She was one of the kindest people ever. Except for one thing that bothered her. My dad’s mother, Mammy, thought that she was the better cook. And Brownie thought that she was the better cook. So every holiday they would take turns cooking various things for a holiday dinner. Usually there was turkey or something that required gravy. So, when Brownie made the gravy, Mammy would say, I don’t understand how you can make gravy that’s better than mine. I think I make the best gravy, but yours is even better. What do you do? Brownie would just smile quietly to herself and say, There’s a secret ingredient. This went on for years, I mean decades! Over the years this scenario played out many times. It wasn’t until I was probably 40 that I found out what the secret ingredient was. One holiday I was asking Brownie, What is the secret ingredient? I want to watch you make this gravy and find what the secret ingredient is. So she was making gravy the way everybody makes gravy and I thought what is the big deal? She finally called me over and whispered, Here’s the secret ingredient. And she opened a can of canned gravy. That was the secret ingredient! So every time I make gravy now – which isn’t that often – I always think of the secret ingredient, whether or not I use it. It was the one time she sort of went Let’s turn the knife – and the one thing that Mammy can’t do better.
We didn’t go out to eat often. We had plenty of money in terms of not starving, or anything like that, but we didn’t have a ton of money growing up, not a lot of extra money. So going out to eat was definitely reserved for anniversaries or birthdays, or big, big occasions. When we did we would go out, usually, to the same place called the Copper Kettle that was supposed to look like Early American I suppose. They had very traditional roasts and pork chops and roast chicken and things like that. It was rare to be able to get seafood. You could get fish but it wouldn’t be fresh fish, but it was better than the square fish we had at home!
That was another thing I discovered as an adult: how much I love fish and seafood. Living in New England, even in Vermont, it was much easier to get, of course. I also discovered that a lot of vegetables that I was not fond of as a kid was because they were way overcooked. So green beans, for example. And I found out that I love, love beets. That’s one of those things that people either love or hate, I guess, but I really love them. Mushrooms. I found out that people ate things raw, sometimes, that we’d only seen cooked. So there was just a lot of learning.
Richard and I both cook. He’s a better cook than I am. I start out with a recipe, and then add things, but I’m just in recent years learning that it doesn’t have to be so regimented. I don’t mean in terms of using different spices and herbs and things like that, but just whatever you have. If it’s thick you can make it a soup, if it’s thin you can cook it down. Stuff like that. Or that something you might have had as a filling for one thing, would make a good sandwich spread if you purée it. So, that’s been good. I think the early lessons, or rather lack of lessons, in cooking took a long while for me to overcome.
I knew absolutely nothing, nothing, about cooking
The very first time I cooked anything on my own I was in junior high school and my mom was in the hospital. She was laid up for several weeks. All of a sudden I had to cook everything. I knew absolutely nothing, nothing, about cooking. I could make scrambled eggs. That was about it. I very clearly remember going to the cookbook that Mom used that was about five or six inches thick, called the Encyclopedic Cookbook, and looking up how to make mashed potatoes. If you’ve never made mashed potatoes and you don’t know anything about anything, do you take the skins off or not? Do you mash them somehow first? Do you cut them up or do you boil them whole? There are more variations than you could possibly imagine. There was no internet, so it was all about go to the cookbook and try and understand what it says to do. I don’t remember anything else that I made except I very clearly remember wondering How do I do that? Mashed potatoes, those are easy, but how do I do it?
And the good thing about my mom not really caring about food, and my dad not really caring about food either — only wanting it prepared for him – was that anything was ok. I don’t remember people ever complaining about food not tasting good. I’m sure I must have put some extremely questionable meals on the table that few weeks. We had all sorts of canned things, you know, Dinty Moore Beef Stew. Or there was Chun King Chow Mein in a can. Chef Boyardee Ravioli. So we had a lot of canned food.
Although Mom did make stew. She made something that she called Giant Stew, which is just like everybody else’s stew except that it was in bigger pieces. Whatever she could do to make it take less time, so that she could be out of the kitchen and doing something more interesting, she did! She was a teacher later on, as soon as my sister was old enough to be in school. She taught English and French in various levels and went back and got her Masters. She was really not a homemaker at all. She was into it in the creative sense of making costumes or cards or toys. She loved that. But the cooking, no.
The thing that’s hard to explain is how radically what I ate changed when I moved out of Pennsylvania and to the north. It was a whole new world for a while. I suppose we must have eaten mostly the same stuff, but we were discovering everything new, new people, new habits, new music. It was the times, but it definitely was not happening in Chambersburg at the same time. As recently as about two years ago, I said something to my sister about hummus and she had no idea what I was talking about. She’s lived in different places in Pennsylvania and Maryland but she’s back in Chambersburg and has been there for a while. There are some international restaurants there, but most of the people who live there consider going out to eat at a place like say, Ruby Tuesday’s — which has perfectly decent food — as where you go out to eat. If you don’t go out to a fast food place. Or Bonanza if you want a steak. They have every food chain known to human kind there, but very, very few individual restaurants. They have a lot of immigrants in recent years from Mexico and Guatemala, so there’s some good Mexican restaurants there now, which is fun. And, for reasons unknown – I have no idea how this happened – there was a great Indonesian restaurant there in the ‘90s. Somebody moved in and opened it. That lasted a while. They were really spectacular.