Slogging through our current economic crisis, nostalgia has gripped us all. Everywhere I go I overhear people of every age recalling the good old days and invariably these recollections turn to food memories. Everyone has their beloved recipes, dishes and mealtime stories that capture a moment in time that glows more brightly with each telling.
As a restaurant consultant, my work takes me to the cutting edge of today’s food scene. Digesting it all, I’d gladly swap a composed salad of frisee, arugula, roasted beets and crispy duck lardons (with a drizzle of white truffle oil with a port reduction swirl) for a bowl of my grandmother’s macaroni soup. Boy, oh boy, what my grandmother could do with one 3-pound chicken and one pound of hamburger!
My first food fantasies began when I was about 7. Up until then, food was something they made you eat, not something you wanted to eat. What’s all this nonsense about kids menus in restaurants today? Baloney. We ate what Mom and Dad ate, only in smaller quantities. (We ate lots of baloney too.)
Who had ever heard of chicken fingers and fries? Or a “Happy Meal”? We were happy just to be having a meal considering those starving kids in India breathing down our necks, desperate for those untouched peas on our plate (does anyone still eat peas)? Oh sure, nutrition hadn’t been invented yet with school lunches of macaroni and cheese and fish sticks (my personal favorite) or a fat slice of meatloaf sitting in a congealed pool of lumpy gravy. The only attempt the public school system made at balanced nutrition was a barely-cold half-pint of milk at lunch and the two 3-inch carrot sticks that used to sit next to the soggy grilled cheese (on Tuesdays).
Sunday nights were a veritable ritual around our house, as we’d pore over the upcoming weekly school lunch menu printed in our local Sunday paper. As I think back, it seems that I was sick a lot of Wednesdays and Fridays — “meatloaf and mashed” (they never said “potatoes”) or the dreaded American chop suey. I brought Oreo cookies on chop suey day.
Summer vacation sometimes meant boredom but it also meant good eating. Except for the time my Italian grandmother baby-sat for three days while my parents went off to a church conference. She cooked pretty well except for the dandelion salad she tried to get us to eat. I remember watching her march into the front yard with a plate and a pair of scissors. Amazing! I thought that she was trying to help my father grow a better lawn or something, but when the dandelion greens showed up on my plate with some oily dressing and thin slices of lemon, I really missed my peanut butter.
Peanut butter: ambrosia of the Gods. I have tender memories as a 5-year-old sitting on the porch steps eating a barely-ripe banana slathered with peanut butter. I was in my own secret world of haute cuisine. It’s still my snack food of choice, except I just discovered I am now allergic to peanuts! Marshmallow fluff still tastes great with grape jelly, though.
My French-Canadian grandmother (we called her “meme”) was my Julia Child. I used to look forward to the occasional Saturday mornings when I would run up the hill to her cozy little house and then be allowed to walk to the store to purchase the fixings for our lunch. In those days, the streets were safe from predators, and we 7- year-olds had the run of the neighborhood.
An hour would pass and my grandmother would call me in for lunch. She never had to call twice.
There, on a frilly white paper placemat, sat a big bowl of steaming macaroni soup with little floating halos of chicken fat. The macaroni was meaty and the broth was the color of ripe tomatoes. A fat slice of warm bread sat by my bowl and I slathered on as much soft butter as the slice could hold. Even though the snap on my plaid shorts suddenly felt rather tight, I always held out for a refill and tried to finish that off, but I never could.
Dinnertime was at 5 p.m. Coming in the back porch, I could smell those mysterious aromas that made my stomach growl.
Our plates held a center mound of soft mashed potatoes, pressed down in the middle, holding a crater of thick chicken gravy. A few big pieces of chicken swam in the pool and a mountain of corn or a cob of corn sat on a separate plate. My grandmother never ate her cobbed corn sitting at the table. She’d put the hot pan of corn near the kitchen sink and hover over the sink, her 4-foot-6-inch frame barely clearing the basin. She spent no more than 60 seconds meticulously cleaning three or more cobs of their milky kernels. Sans butter or salt, just corn.
A pound of hamburger held no fewer charms. Her “hamburgs” (as she used to call them) had a magical flavor. Unbelievably juicy and almost salty, they were a real Saturday lunch treat. “Hamburgs” always came on a soft bun with two tiny sweet pickles to keep it company on the plate and nothing but French’s Mustard in a little glass jar would do for me and my American cheese (barely melted) cheeseburger. Sometimes we ate potato chips but I never really cared that much for them. “Sodee” pop was a looked-forward to excitement and I treasured the invitation to visit the cool covered porch and pick a bottle of root beer or ginger ale. On lucky days I’d find a real delight: Canadian cream soda. It was oh so sweet and foamy: a special treat. Poured over ice cubes, it got real frothy and I’d slurp the sweet foam and lick my lips with feigned drama.
Meme always had sherbet in the freezer — raspberry or lemon were my favorites. We’d each have one big scoop in a glass sundae cup while the sun went down, the house got dark and the TV’s drone began.
Stomach full, a pan of tomorrow’s soup cooling on the counter; the clink of my empty “sodee” bottle as I put it back in its slot within the wooden crate, told my grandmother that I was ready for my bubble bath and then for bed. And boy, was I. Happy meal: Indeed!
Please share your food memories or recipes with me so I can write about them. E-mail me with your phone number at JLFaiola@Juno.com.