Food – A Hate/Love Story

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!


22 thoughts on “Food – A Hate/Love Story

  1. Yes, I ate well… most of the time. Thanks to our garden, welfare cheese, freshly caught fish, and venison. There was that time when my mother bought the cheapest thing at the store. Beef tongue. She dutifully ground it up and mixed it with a little mayo for a sandwich. I decided to throw it in the blackberry bushes behind the house and go hungry.

  2. As you know our house had a LOT of mouths to feed. When I was young, we fished for our food and even ate a fresh road-kill deer that the local forest ranger brought to us–slaughtered it right on the kitchen table because we couldn’t afford groceries. Yuck! Still can’t stand deer meat or trout.

    When I went to live with my dad and step-mom (even more mouths to fee), she’d make home-made bread (6 or more loaves at a time) which was tasty– but “pre-made” food was really not an option.

    • Ugh. We ate fish that my Dad caught, occasionally, but thankfully he wasn’t a hunter! I respect people killing their own meals…I just never could get into venison.

      I could fairly easily give up red meat. Except I love a good filet.

  3. WOW. I don’t remember ever complaining (as an adult) for the wonderful food I grew up on, but I definitely feel 10x more guilty for the picky eater I was (like your son).

    We were quite the opposite – happily religious and overweight. Our healthiest breakfast was Honey Nut Cheerios, and most of our southern society was shocked that I didn’t like hamburgers OR barbecue sauce. Outrageous. My mom is a wonderful cook, but as a newlywed, I’m now learning how to eat appropriate portion sizes. I even bought my first box of milled flax seed! (only used once so far)

    • Thanks for stopping by and reading! My husband and I spent 11 years in the South…so I know about that southern cooking! Lard in everything…and so yummy.

      You are beyond me with the flax seed! You go, girl! 🙂

  4. You had tuna???
    The foodstuffs Nancy left out of our meal repertoir was Spam (yes, truly; sliced, fried and drenched in syrup), canned mackerel, home ground wheat cereal, and powdered milk.
    I keep hearing how wonderful venison is, but let me tell you, it’s real turnoff to see a dead deer on your kitchen table and then be told it’s leg will be in the crockpot for dinner….

  5. My sister and I recall eating the same thing every night. Hamburger made on the pancake griddle unseasoned or maybe over seasoned with Lawry’s season salt, green beans or corn and potatoes of some form. Every night. That was if we were lucky. Sometimes we had boiled rice. We added milk and sugar on top to make it taste good. It wasn’t that we were poor. My mom was just lazy or overwhelmed or whatever…. Breakfast was always cold cereal. Cheerio’s or Raisin bran. It was the best meal of the day! But we didn’t complain. We didn’t know better!

    • This may sound bad, but…I’m glad we weren’t the only ones! 🙂

      It’s nice to know that not everyone was sitting down to delicious gourmet food, as kids…

      We were allowed to eat Shredded Wheat cereal, too, with a little honey. That was much, much better than the Puffed Wheat. I quite enjoyed the Shredded Wheat, now that I think about it.

  6. I laughed picturing you scouring the aisles at the grocery store finally eating what you wanted. Great post Cathy!

    I actually ate well growing up. My mom is a great cook and I was never one of those picky kids. I pretty much ate everything that was put in front of me. Oh, except mayo. Still won’t touch the stuff! Blech!

    • I have another friend who DETESTS mayo, too. So I won’t mention to you that I could eat it out of the jar. I don’t want to gross you out. 🙂

      Thanks for reading!

      Aren’t you southern? Of course your Mama could cook…

  7. Okay, I could go for days. First of all, you KNOW how I ate growing up. Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, roast beef, gravy, homemade biscuits, fried okra, fried squash, fried-anything-that-can-be-battered-and-made-to-taste-better-with-a-good-ol’-pot-o’-grease. Coke, Dr. Pepper, SWEET SWEET SWEET tea. Oh yeah. And now at 42 I have paid a huge price for this type of “eating”. Wow – what a mess! It’s amazing I am still breathing. Things have changed, of course. I can’t recall the last time I ate a piece of fried chicken, and now the okra is put into the steamer. No cheese sauce on the broccoli, just a little Mrs. Dash table blend sprinkled on. And I LOVE IT!!! But let’s move on to your post –
    Okay, I completely guffawed when I read that about the tuna “melts” in foil. I will NEVER forget your dad whipping out one of those foil wrapped creations (resembling something close to a sandwich) in the movie theater when he was visiting here in Georgia. I am sitting next to him, as he laughs aloud at some scene in the movie – very loudly – and all of sudden I’m thinking WHAT IS THAT SMELL? I didn’t recognize it as fish at the time because who in the world would whip out a tuna fish sandwich in the movies? A man who loves his protein!! I love that man – and his foil wrapped tuna-somethings!!
    I am laughing as I imagine what your dad (and YOU) thought when you sat at my table in Georgia and I cooked the richest, most fattening, buttery chicken casseroles. Complete with butter coated, toasted ritz crackers smashed on the top of everything that was mixed together and needed a CRUST of some kind. It makes me laugh so much now to think of the shock you guys must have felt. I’m surprised you didn’t feel the need to rush right out for a packet of colon cleansing tablets. Now I sort of feel bad about it. I fed you all sorts of monstrosities!! But I loved it! Here in my neck of the woods, it’s meant to be a blessing when we try to kill you with a good ol’ fashioned country m eal! It’s meant to show genuine love and affection, all the while your arteries are crying out for oxygen and a good dose of brussel sprout.
    I could go on and on – this was my favorite post ever!!! Love you…

  8. Oh my goodness. This is a great post! I could feel your pain as I read it. Not quite so unfortunate, but had an interesting cuisine growing up. Yes, as someone else mentioned, we too had the occasional tongue — and sweetbread, now that I think of it. We ate and tolerated — but, trust me, neither are served to my family. I think thrift was always first and foremost in food selection growing up — so it required a lot of creativity. How many ways can you fix hamburger (pre-Hamburger Helper days). To this day, I still loathe canned asparagus — can think of nothing more difficult to swallow. Love the fresh kind — quickly steamed and still slightly crunchy but NOT slimy. Can’t make myself buy it in a can.

    Always loved it when my Grandma visited. She made the best homemade bread and baked beans (with ham in it, of course). We survived on lots of carbs and fat. It is a wonder our blood can still flow through our veins. Much healthier diet today — and much happier blood vessels.

    Loved your post — you really should write a book! I’d buy it.

    • Tongue? Sweet Mother of…no, as far as I know, we never had that! How awful!

      My grandma was an excellent cook, too. Unfortunately, she lived in CA, so we only got to sample her food once a year.

      Thanks for reading and sharing your memories! 🙂

  9. I grew up in a house with a Diabetic Mother whose Father ate few vegetables and often got up from the meal prepared by my Grandma and made something more his taste. My mom saw food as a necessary evil. You had to eat to live, but then you had to figure out how much insulin it would take to process the sugars. We ate the same things week after week at the same times every day. Much of our food was typical midwest fare: cheese sauced veggies, Meat, Potatoes and the occasional iceberg lettuce salad with thousand island dressing. I never went hungry. My Dad’s Mom was a country cook, and a good one at that. She made the best Roast Beef, Mashed Potatoes, green beans, biscuits etc in the world. I learned to cook by watching her when we visited. By high school, I started to do all the cooking as I had become a better cook than my mom and I enjoyed it. It was always centered around meat and had a carb and a veg though, so not super creative unless it was Italian. Then in my late 20’s, I gave up meat. I learned more about fresh herbs and how to liven up tofu. It was good. Then I got pregnant and craved meat. But this is all good as my carnivorous husband appreciates meat back in his diet. I cook vegetarian meals still. I used to cook more exciting dishes, but cooking additional spiceless meals for the kids gets daunting. But we have a big ole jar of garlic chili sauce and that gets added at the table!
    As far as Southern cooking…I lived in Mississippi for 2 years. I swore I would never eat Chittlins…somehow they got past my radar once. I liked the okra, grits and fries with gravy…but so glad I don’t live near all that artery clogging food any longer.

    • Yes, the country cooks are the best! But…I am glad that I do not eat like that now, in my 40’s…my metabolism couldn’t keep up, I’m sure!

      I feed my kids a wide variety, and they eat most of it. The 4-yr-old has gotten a little picky, but he still eats pretty well. Although I have a hard time getting enough green veggies in them…

      Thanks for reading! 🙂

  10. Your post was so funny! I too grew up with very health conscious parents…not as much as you did…but we took vitamins and did all sorts of interesting “alternative/homeopathy” things. I think you and I could definitely trade some stories. haha…

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