I’m an eater from way back. Since birth, to be precise.
In my early years, eating was primarily a matter of survival. Taste was secondary.
One story about my childhood that my family gleefully repeats concerns an incident when I was perhaps age two or three. I was outside and spied a caterpillar. Something — curiosity? hunger? quest for flavor? all of the above? — compelled me to reach out, grab the caterpillar, and transport it to my mouth. My frantic mother – “my child is eating wild fauna!” – intervened.
Thinking I was hungry, my mother rewarded me with an extra snack. Score! Back then, noshes between meals were few and far, so wrangling an unscheduled snack was awesome.
I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s. Things were different then, cuisine-wise. For starters, food was more expensive. Or, more accurately, the cost of food consumed a higher portion of a family’s budget then it does now. Because of that, people shopped more carefully and tended to serve less generous portions.
Food wasn’t expensive because people were eating steak or fresh strawberries in December. The former was financially out of reach for most people (except for special occasions) and the latter just didn’t exist.
Well, maybe those who lived in Florida or California could buy strawberries in winter, because they were in season in those places. But the rest of the United States? Forget it. Air freight essentially didn’t exist. Interstate highways were in their infancy (meaning that the roads basically stank). So by the time you’d truck perishables across the country, you had frightfully expensive “produce” that basically was one step removed from becoming compost.
Except for iceberg lettuce! That’d weather any trip and had great shelf life. It was green, and thus assumed to be nutritious. And although it was not prohibitively expensive, it did cost money. So you’d better eat it if you knew what was good for you — and wanted dessert. Flavor wasn’t part of the equation (a handy policy, since iceberg lettuce didn’t have any). But because it was a fresh vegetable, it was perceived as being not only higher on the food chain, but even a small luxury. We certainly didn’t have it at every meal.
In general, fresh vegetables and fruits weren’t dinner staples. Although they were plentiful during growing seasons (spring and summer for most locales), they were scarce during much of the year because of those pesky transportation issues. So canned vegetables graced our nightly table most of the time. Frozen versions did exist, and were becoming increasingly available and affordable. But during the 50’s and early 60’s, most green vegetables one ate — no matter their species — all had a distressingly similar tinned taste.
Still, we lapped it up. Which was not surprising, given how small servings were then. My family of six routinely divided one can of peas among us at dinner. The rest of the meal was usually meat and a starch of some sort. These dishes could be reasonably flavorful, particularly the meat. In fact, meat quality at that time was probably better than today.
But meat was (relatively) expensive, so sometimes we had substitutes that weren’t so tasty. A prime (so to speak) example would be our weekly Spam dinner. The six of us would share an entire tin of Spam – we lived large! – glazed with brown sugar. Nobody was fooled into thinking we were actually eating ham. Not my favorite meal of the week.
Dessert would often be a bowl of Jello or packaged pudding. A special treat would be finding half of a maraschino cherry hidden beneath the pudding’s surface! No wonder people generally weighed so much less then – we just didn’t eat that much.
Then There Were the Special Occasions
Holiday meals and special occasions were quite different, however. Not only did we have a greater variety of foods and larger quantities, but it was all tastier — delicious, in fact. For Christmas, we had cookies in what seemed like unlimited quantities, a dozen varieties at least. And homemade stollen.
On Thanksgiving, we had homemade pumpkin pie and a great turkey. (I know many people dislike turkey. I’m not one of them).
There was homemade cherry pie on Washington’s birthday.
At Easter, we had ham. With a brown-sugar glaze, naturally.
On birthdays, the “person of the day” got to specify what he wanted for dinner. And there was a homemade cake, of course.
Even the prosaic hotdogs we had for Fourth of July tasted good — mainly because they were cooked outside on one of the charcoal grills that became synonymous with suburban living in the 50’s (carcinogens be damned). We all loved grilled food. (We called it barbeque then, not understanding the distinction). Grilling added flavor.
St Louis Q
Speaking of barbeque, it was when my parents moved to St. Louis in the early 60’s that I learned about it — and discovered that food could routinely taste good. St. Louis isn’t famous for its barbeque (unlike Kansas City, Missouri’s other major urban center). In fact, some people in Tennessee, the Carolinas, or Texas might scoff at applying the word “famous” even to Kansas City barbeque. But talk about Q rivalries can wait for another time.
St. Louis has a distinctive form of barbeque that is sauce-centric. The city is reputed to be number one in the country for sales of manufactured barbeque sauce. St Louis barbeque is also pork-heavy, with pork steaks (blade steaks usually cut from the shoulder, the Boston butt) being the primary focus. At some point in the future, we’ll discuss St. Louis barbeque in detail. If you can’t wait to learn more, Wikipedia has an excellent write up.
Pork steaks don’t have the same significance for me that madeleines did for Proust (in his Remembrance of Things Past, the flavor of a madeleine mixed with a sip of tea renewed forgotten memories). But my first encounter with barbequed pork steaks is seared into my memory in a way that would do Proust proud — although in my case pork steaks created, rather than recreated, an indelible memory.
I was at a church picnic, standing in line for the eats. The food queue snaked past a large grill with maybe 50 enormous pieces of meat cooking away, and someone was mopping red sauce on them. I had no idea what the meat was, but other than roasts I had never seen cuts that big. Surely they were going to be sliced into smaller individual portions. No one would eat a piece of meat that big!
The meat probably wasn’t for me anyway, I thought. In my experience, hot dogs were the usual church picnic fare. Although, all of a sudden, the wiener I was eagerly anticipating when I queued up didn’t seem so appealing.
Well, I soon discovered that the hunks of meat were pork steaks. And they WERE for me. And — even better — I received an entire pork steak! Once I knew more about them, the idea of cutting pork steaks into smaller portions seemed absurd. Eating a piece of meat so large that it left little room on the plate for side dishes was a new experience — one I quite liked. And the barbeque sauce! I hadn’t tasted anything like it before. It was beyond good.
My whole family discovered pork steaks that day. We also learned that they were a supermarket staple. Relatively inexpensive, too, so they could be everyday fare. And, best of all, they were always grilled.
In those days, male members of a family often (usually) tended the grill, so I got my share of grilling opportunities. In time, I became the family’s “go to” griller. And thus began my education as a cook.
The Great Food Awakening
Around the same time I was learning about pork steaks, the rest of the United States also seemed to be waking up to food. A good part of this development was propelled by Julia Child’s TV program “The French Chef” which began broadcasting on PBS in 1963.
People originally started watching her program as entertainment. In most places at the time, there was little choice in TV channels — usually just the three networks, along with PBS and maybe one or two local UHF channels. And Julia’s unpolished but enthusiastic presentation was refreshingly different.
In time, though, her program taught many of us that French cuisine was accessible to the average cook — and that a whole new world of tastes and flavors awaited. As disposable income grew during the 1960’s, people also began to travel more and discover new foods, or at the least explore “ethnic” restaurants near home.
My childhood meals of Spam and canned peas reflected my “white bread” background (with the Christmas stollen hinting at German ancestors). And many of my friends’ families ate the same way mine did. Even at the time, however, I was dimly aware that my eating experiences weren’t universal.
In my mother’s kitchen, Italian cucina consisted entirely of spaghetti and meat balls, or maybe pizza. Meat sauce was considered somewhat exotic. But I had friends of Italian ancestry, and their mothers’ kitchens smelled much different from mine. Garlic! Olive oil! Parmesan cheese!
The foods these friends had for their daily meals were also available in Italian restaurants. And as Americans in the 60’s began to explore some of these restaurants, many discovered a world of food that was literally at hand (thanks to our wealth of immigrants), but never before experienced by middle-class suburbanites. Lasagna, which is mainstream today, was totally foreign to many mid-20th century Americans. It all sounds quaint and naïve now. But it was reality then.
So my personal food awakening essentially paralleled that of the nation as a whole: I grew up as Americans were discovering new tastes and cuisines.
Starting to Cook
As I grew older and moved away from home, I wanted to sample as many new foods as I could — and this led me to cooking. I didn’t often have the money to eat out in those days. But I could always buy the ingredients and, with the help of a cookbook, discover new flavors.
In time, I became a decent cook. Today, people usually salivate when they get a dinner invitation from my wife and me, because they know that at least they’ll be well fed.
Why have I taken the time to discuss all of this? Well, “the Child is father of the Man.” And a lifetime of eating and cooking are my only qualifications for writing this blog.
I have no professional culinary credentials. I still make mistakes in the kitchen. My habit of rarely preparing the same dish the same way twice occasionally results in some interesting outcomes (never inedible, but sometimes an experiment I don’t want to repeat). There are still wide gaps in my knowledge about different foods and cuisines.
Why Is Kitchen Riffs?
More on this in my next post, but my motivation for starting this blog is to close some of those gaps. I’ll be exploring flavors (both familiar and unfamiliar) with the goal of becoming a better and more knowledgeable cook.
I hope that, along the way, I’ll help you do the same.
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What is Kitchen Riffs?