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.
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.
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.
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.
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.