Monday, May 28, 2012

We Are What We Ate

I stumbled across a book on today called "We Are What We Ate: 24 Memories of Food."  It appears to be 24 essays by people who explore the meaning of food in our lives and culture. I didn't order the book, but if it had come in a Kindle edition, I might have.
The Table of Contents includes such intriguing titles as:   "Onion Pie," "We Eat the Earth," "Watercress," "Her Chee-to Heart," and "Eat your Pets," among others.
It got me thinking about food and my relationship with it, as well as special food memories throughout mylife.  Surprisingly, when I sat down to make a list of the truly "special" memories, I didn't come up with many.  

I wasn't going to start with "Onion Pie," but when I saw it in the Table of Contents, I do have to tell about an experience we had once.  We had been invited to a dinner given by some gay friends of ours.  I had been asked if there was anything that we didn't eat and I joked "liver and beets" (because my host knew of my hatred of those two foods).  It didn't occur to me to let them know that Walt didn't like onions (nor does Marta, silly people) because he's been putting up with my cooking with onions for nearly 50 years and he just pulls them out of whatever it is that I cook and leaves them on the plate (you should see what his plate looked like when I decided to shred golly he pulled every shred he could find out!)

Anyway, we got to the home of our hosts and as we were walking into the kitchen, the cook said "I decided to make an onion pie."  I could see Walt turn pale right there.  But polite guest that he is, he ate every single onion that night (and this was a very thick pie, loaded with onions).  I was impressed, and very proud of him!

My mother is a very good cook, but she was never an adventurous cook.   The things she made that I remember fondly were her fried chicken, her pot roast, her leg of lamb, and those hockies--fried bread dough that we would have for a special treat.  We didn't have fancy vegetable dishes or fancy salads.  She didn't bake her own bread, but she made the best turkey stuffing ever--I like mine, but hers was better and, of course, she can't remember how to make it now. It was all pretty standard fare.  Her one special dish was enchaladas, which she learned to make from a Mexican neighbor.

She never taught me how to cook.  I learned how to cook by cooking 4 nights a week for the guys who lived in the house where Walt was living. I liked cooking, they didn't and they were happy to have me cook for them (except for the one guy who insisted on cooking when it was his night).  My budget was very small so I got to be really good at cheap things, like breast of lamb (which was 25 cents a pound in 1961).   But my cooking skills improved while I cooked for Newman Inn.  

I'm the kind of cook who almost always makes a new recipe for guests, because it's my one chance to try something that looks good.  With very few exceptions, the dishes always turned out well (the few that didn't failed spectacularly!)

But in thinking back about special food memories, I remember being in my grandmother's kitchen -- my mother's mother.  She was a farm woman and cooked on a big ol' black stove. None of that frou frou stuff for her.  I remember that she cooked tongue once and I remember loving it, though you couldn't get me to taste it (or any other organ meat) today.  I remember that my grandfather ate tomatoes sprinkled with sugar.  He also had no teeth and could clean corn off a cob better than most people with teeth.

The Hippo was a hamburger joint in San Francisco.  They had dozens of kinds of hamburgers (including a hamburger sundae, which Jeri usually got, since she could have dessert that way).  It was a favorite place to take the kids in San Francisco.

It was right across the street from The Prime Rib, which was a special place we went when I was a kid.  My memory from there was the night my grandmother decided to take half of her slab of meat home to have for the next day.   This was long before "doggie bags" became acceptable.  You just said you had a dog and asked for a bag, but most people were going to have the food for themselves and my grandmother, being very proper San Francisco matron would never give anybody the satisfaction of knowing she wanted the food for herself.  So the waiter said he would wrap it up for her and disappeared with her plate.  He came back with a big bag.  Being a kind person, he had wrapped up a whole bunch of leftovers from all sorts of plates for her non-existant dog!

My father had no qualms about asking to take home leftovers when we went to an Italian restaurant on Broadway St. when Walt and I were dating.  He filled up so many doggie bags with leftover meat, and pasta, and garlic bread, and salad and he even joked about bringing back the antipasto platter.  Then he asked the maitre'd if we could get someone to carry his bags to the car for him.  That is a very pleasant memory of a fun night with my father.  I can't remember when I laughed so hard.

I remember the first time I ate snails.  Paul was working on a Lamplighters show and I drove him back and forth to rehearsals. After the show opened, Gilbert decided to take the two of us out to dinner to thank us for all the commuting we did. We went to The Hungry Hunter and I remember I had filet of sole amandine.   People near us were having escargot and it smelled so good.  Gilbert talked about having had escargot at a French restaurant and, since his 50th birthday was coming up, I told him I would take him to that restaurant for his birthday and I would eat escargot.  We went and the snails were en brochette with a cream sauce and so delicious that we had a second order.  Fabulous.

I also remember a French restaurant that Walt and I went to once.   It was owned by some famous chef and it was the most fancy restaurant I had ever been in.  It was the kind of restaurant where the prices were on the man's menu, and not on the woman's. The waiters didn't hover at all but the second you were thinking that maybe you wanted something they were at your side to give it to you.  The tables were also spaced far apart, so you didn't feel you were eating in your neighbor's lap or listening to their conversation.  I remember that I had rack of lamb which was amazing. I also remember that when I got up to go to the ladies' room, one of the waiters escorted me there and back again.

I remember going to San Francisco's Cliff House with Walt's cousin and Tom.  I don't know why Walt wasn't along.  Anyway, the dinner was great, but we had baked Alaska for dessert and Tom, who was just starting to be the great chef he has become, was so intrigued he decided to learn how to make it and did.  He made it for our Thanksgiving dinner that year--and for many Thanksgiving dinners thereafter.

There was the great 9-course Chinese meal we had in Sacramento.   I had taken two courses in Chinese cooking from Martin Yan, who taught a very expensive course at the University and a very cheap ($25, as I recall) course through the adult school.  He told us the two courses were identical.  At the conclusion of the classes, he took all of the students out for a "real" Chinese meal.  It wasn't cheap, but we were happy to pay.  He bypassed the touristy Chinese places and took us to a place that looked like a real dive but it was some of the best Chinese food I have ever had.  One of the dishes was many different kinds of mushrooms, including one special variety that he told us ridiculously expensive (may have been as much as $50/lb). That was, by far, the best mushroom dish I have ever eaten.

We had good food on our China cruise last year, but not nearly as good as the food we had on the Russia cruise.  I would be hard pressed to choose the "best" food from that trip, but everything (particularly the soups) was exquisite. (I'm anxious to see what it is going to be like on the trip this summer!)

So many years, so many foods.  I don't know what I am based on what I have eaten...except, maybe, fat!

BTW,  I finished the book about the convent I mentioned a couple of days ago.  Pretty much did nothing else today but read.  I have very mixed feelings about it and thought I'd direct you to my book review.

1 comment:

Harriet said...

I've written about food memories from time to time, but no one ever mentioned tongue, that I remember.

I used to love it, especially pickled in the kosher fashion. Even if I could find it now, I wouldn't buy it because I'd be the only one eating it.

By the way, tongue is not an organ; it's a muscle.