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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It was so hot on the prairie that 9-year-old Benjamin’s leather chaps stuck to his legs as the horse trotted around on the dry earth. It was the first time he’d worn a genuine cowboy outfit and rode a horse on a real working ranch, so he ignored the flip-flops in his stomach as he bounced along. At lunch he still felt queasy. He drank the ice cold glass of dark red juice his friend’s mother gave him to settle his stomach but it had just the opposite effect. He decided then and there he would be very, very cautious about trying unknown foods in the future and he would never drink currant juice ever again.
Late on a steamy summer night Estella’s mother and father went to the shed and took out their spears. Quietly making their way down to the footbridge by the stream, they stopped just below it and stepped into the water. They took turns as one of them held a flashlight while the other deftly wielded the three-pronged implement, bringing out four eels in just a couple of minutes and dropping them into a canvas bag. As they made their way back home, they imagined how delighted little Estella and the other two children would be when mother put tomorrow’s fried eel dinner on the table.