I’ve been reading essays about food lately and have thought maybe I need to expand my skill set and give it a go. I mean, my relationship with food is salacious, poignant and relevant just like some of the essayists I’ve read. I can write about my confusing relationship with asparagus or my obsession with marzipan shaped to look like fruit in the Betty Crocker cookbook I read when I was 10. What about my attempt to make Beef Wellington when I was 15 with ground beef? Or how I like to buy Mother’s Iced Oatmeal Cookies, open the package and let them get stale for a couple of days before I will eat one?
I have always been a creative, maker-type person. Preparing food fits naturally with my personality because it is taking a very basic need and changing it, adjusting it, customizing it to your own tastes and ideas. You can give 12 people box Mac n Cheese and a full pantry and you will have 12 bowls that taste different. I find that truly fascinating. I always have.
I used to read cookbooks as a child. My two favorites were the Joy of Cooking and the Betty Crocker Cookbook. We also had Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking which I did read from time to time, but a lot of the recipes seemed a little too sophisticated to my elementary school palate. I loved watching Julia on her PBS cooking show, however. And The Galloping Gourmet program was a treat whenever I was home sick from school. You would think with all this French cooking and culinary wizardry, I was a little gastronomic adventurer. But no. My tastes were fairly ordinary. I liked chicken, beef, the pork ribs from the Chinese restaurant, spaghetti, pizza, baked potatoes, cooked carrots, spinach, hamburgers, white rice, fried egg and bologna sandwiches and anything made with Shake & Bake.
I rarely had to venture outside my comfort zone because my mother is not an adventurous eater. I never had to eat lima beans or brussel sprouts because she didn’t like them. Unfortunately she did like liver and green beans, so that was the form my torture took. Once when I was about 4 or 5 I was stubbornly refusing to eat my gross green beans. I only liked the skinny green beans and these were the short, fat green beans with the giant lima bean looking thing in the center. Ugh. I had to sit at the table until they were finished. As I sat there I was inspired by a book at the table – my new book of jokes. What better place to hide unwanted green beans! I was clever enough to put the stuffed book on the bookshelf wedged tightly between Fox in Socks and Miss Suzy so the pressure actually allowed the beans to dry without going moldy, which would have given me dead away. I found the book probably 8-10 years later, beans and all.
In 5th or 6th grade my class took a trip to a television studio to watch a taping of one of those morning type shows with incredibly perky hosts. First we were ushered into a room that I now know as Craft Services where food was lined up on tables as far as my pre-pubescent eye could see. What had caught my eye was a big brown cake in a tin. Fruitcake, it said. How could I lose? I loved fruit, I loved cake! Win! No. Lose. I don’t know what those jellied green bits are in fruitcake but to this day they still give me a bit of shiver when I see them in the grocery store during the holidays.
My day of horrible tastes was not over! The show we watched taping live had a cooking segment. I think they made some sort of trifle with ladyfingers soaked in booze. They called for volunteers from the audience to taste the finished product. Me and a classmate were chosen. Booze and kids, what can I say? It was the 70s. The fruitcake experience hadn’t deterred me – the law of averages was on my side, right?
So, so wrong.
It wasn’t the booziness that did me in, although that was not good. I think it was brandy? It was the soggy bread. If you give me a choice between short, fat green beans, fruitcake or tiramisu? Tiramisu is coming in last. Somewhere in the archives of NYC ABC programming there is a videotape of me trying very hard not to make the gross-out face with a mouthful of brandy trifle.
Still, these were very minor setbacks dragged along the heels of homemade pretzels, fresh bialys from the deli near where my mom worked, cream puffs made by my best friend’s mother as an after school snack, duck a l’orange from the Jamaican restaurant downtown, veal and pepper subs hot and running with juice, the impossible combo of carrot cake held together with thick cream cheese frosting, my mother’s twice baked cheesecake and so many other delicious things. Once I was exposed to a world of food beyond what I’d grown accustomed to, I was fascinated by the combination of basic ingredients that made up the world of tastes that everyone experienced differently.
Today I have only a couple of food taboos: no innards (I’m not a huge fan of meat, anyway), no dyes (allergic) and preferably nothing that resembles that awful green bean casserole made with condensed soup. I still have some major dislikes: coconut, peas, walnuts, hazelnuts, pickles, soggy bread but I can tough those out if need be. I’ll try very hard not to hurt someone’s feelings if they’ve gone out of their way to cook for me. I don’t know if I have a voice when it comes to food writing, but I’m looking forward to exploring the options.