Those of you who follow me on Twitter, or Facebook, may have noticed that I mention food occasionally.
Okay; a lot, I mention it a lot. In fact, to the point where you might be forgiven for thinking I am a little obsessed with eating.
But it’s not my fault, honest.
I was born in 1970, to parents who were just becoming ultra-religious health-food hippies. Well: hippie-like, in an ultra-religious way. Drugs and sex and rock-n-roll: no way. Prairie skirts and wheat germ and supplements: heck, yeah.
My Dad was a coach who owned some gyms and a health food store. In fact, for my entire childhood, I was as comfortable in a health food store as most kids were in a candy shop. You could have blindfolded me and set me loose in a new one, and I could have easily found the vitamins, the canisters of protein powder, the bottles of Kefir. I was the granola equivalent of a truffle-hunting pig.
Unfortunately, man shall not live on Tiger’s Milk bars alone.
And unfortunately, no one in our house could cook. At all.
Oh, peeps. If you could see what we ate.
It was nothing exotic – just the opposite. First of all, somewhere along the way, my parents got it in their heads that refined sugar was either going to poison us to death or send us directly to Hell; I never did get a straight answer as to which. It’s entirely possible that I reached the age of ten without ever having consumed a gram of the stuff. My parents scoured ingredients lists – if a food contained sugar in any of its forms (syrup, starch, etc.) it was banned from our household.
Bread. Ketchup. Salad Dressing. Cereals.
So we started our days with plain boiled eggs and Puffed Wheat, a Styrofoam-like cereal that could not be improved upon with any amount of honey, and which, unfortunately, came in enormous value bags that could sit upright in their own car seat like a fourth child. Once you had a bag of that stuff, you pretty much never ran out.
We ate sugarless-peanut-butter sandwiches on sugarless bread. Naked, bun-less hamburger patties, with a daub of sugar-free ketchup to dip them in. Fried liver and onions with plain boiled vegetables on the side. A few pieces of iceberg lettuce in a bowl, topped with ketchup and mayonnaise.
Any or all of the above were often sprinkled with yeast, or protein powder, or bran flakes.
And then there was tuna, my Dad’s protein of choice. The cheap stuff, the kind that was packed in oil and streaked black and red. Dad mixed it (barely) with mayonnaise and slapped it on bread, and threw an unevenly-sliced hunk of cheddar cheese on top. He then wrapped it in tinfoil and voila, there was our lunch. To take to school, or to track meets.
Let me just say, if you haven’t sat on metal bleachers and choked down a slick tuna melt that has been in the sun so long the cheese has gone sweaty and the mayonnaise bad, and washed it down with a can of tomato juice with yeast powder floating on top – then you, my friend, are a food pansy.
I do not recall, even once in my childhood, ever having spaghetti or tacos or casseroles. We only ate plain meat or organs, and plain veggies or fruit.
My Dad did our weekly grocery shopping, and I honest-to-God used to go with him just so I could look at all the food in the store. I would pass by the frozen dinner cases and drool.
I fantasized about cooking, incessantly. I collected recipes from old magazines, and pasted them into notepads, or copied them down on index cards that I kept in my own recipe box. Never mind that I had never heard of most of the ingredients in these recipes – and probably wasn’t allowed to use them anyway. I wrote everything down, and I dreamed.
After I got married (at 18) and moved across the country, my husband and I, predictably, started eating everything we could get our hands on. I had no experience cooking, so I bought ramen noodles and tuna helper and Coke and Oreos and chips and frozen dinners. I was like a parolee who’d spent twenty years behind bars. We spent $100 a week at the bargain grocery store; and keep in mind, this was over twenty years ago.
It took me many years, but I eventually learned to cook all those delicious foods I’d longed for all my life. I started out slow. Pasta mixed with store-bought sauces. Holiday pies that started out crappy but improved, year by year. I worked my way up to tacos, and chili made from seasoning packets. Little by little, my skills improved. I kept at it, doggedly.
These days, twenty-one years on, I make most things from scratch, and am always experimenting with new recipes. I am no gourmand – there are still many things I won’t eat – but I keep my family (and myself) full and content. I still accumulate recipes – whenever I buy a new cookbook, I cradle it in my lap for hours, flipping through the pages, looking at the gorgeous pictures, planning menus.
The memory of all those pale, tasteless childhood meals is never far from my mind. It ever spurs me on.
My two boys don’t seem to know how good they have it. Often, after I’ve spent an hour or more creating something new and delicious, my four-year-old will take one look at his plate and wail, “I don’t like it!” But that’s okay.
If he grumbles too much, I can always threaten him with a sweaty tuna melt and a can of V-8 juice.
With or without the yeast.
I don’t usually end my posts with a question, but I’m curious: Did you eat well as a child? Leave a comment, and let us know!