We have become a nation obsessed with food, or as I like to say, a Foodie Nation. Television is to thank for the revolution and evolution of preparing food. Twenty-four hours a day, you can tune in and find someone cooking something that sets the bar higher and higher. Demi-glazes, sautés, pan roasting, crapes, crème fresh, sushi – food as entertainment has arrived.
Being a kid who grew up in the 1950s, my mother’s repertoire consisted of certain meals produced with mechanical procession (versus passion) on specified nights. For instance, you were always guaranteed hot dogs and canned baked beans on Saturday night and a roast of some sort on Sunday with mashed potatoes (sans oven-roasted garlic) and corn-starched gravy. Scrambled eggs with Brown-N-Serve sausages occasionally made a midweek appearance at suppertime. In the summer, she had access to fresh fruits and vegetables, such as succulent beefsteak tomatoes – the kind you will not find in the supermarket today. She’d serve BLT sandwiches on Wonder Bread. The smell of those fleshy tomatoes, hot bacon and yeasty white bread slices makes my mouth water now.
But mostly we enjoyed every type of convenience food that was invented during the decade between 1950 and 1960. There was Chef-Boyardee canned spaghetti – no one called spaghetti “pasta” in my neighborhood – and Swanson frozen TV dinners (yes, eaten in front of the black and white TV). Betty Crocker came out with a line of instant cake mixes, although the frosting Ma would make from scratch. There was even some sort of Salisbury steak that came in a can with gravy. We couldn’t help salivating as the smell wafted through her tiny kitchen. We ate everything she put in front of us, including the liver and onions, considering ourselves lucky because children in China were starving. Our palettes were not discerning in the least. This is what we knew and we enjoyed it.
It wasn’t until much later when I was exposed to foods gracing tables in other homes and places that I realized there was a wider world of edibles than what my mother was able to produce. I’m not knocking her, I’m just saying.
My first set of in-laws introduced me to jagacida (Cape Verdean rice and beans), milk cracker stuffing, and pies with homemade crust (not Table Talk). I never mastered gufong (a type of fried dough) or munchupa (a stew made with hominy), but I look forward to one day doing just that. There must be an octogenarian Cape Verdean who is still cooking and remembers these old-time favorites. If you are out there, please let me know. My son and granddaughter would be eternally grateful.
During the time I lived in Italy, one family in my apartment building took pity on this then very naïve young American and invited me to their table regularly. I watched as the matriarch of the family rolled out dough for homemade tortellini or grilled thin marinated steaks over a tiny charcoal contraption on a post-stamp sized balcony. When I lived in California, I learned about “real” Mexican food from a wonderful Mexican family. Their use of the peanut and pinto bean was simply amazing. These exceptional people helped me understand that food was much more than just something you had to eat – it could be an event, experience, art form, a gift.
A friend of mine is of German Jewish heritage. His memory of growing up in a multi-generational home in NYC brings to mind the warm fragrances of stews and casseroles, and I’m not talking about Dinty Moore, my friends. He shares that during the 1940s, the war years, rationing was a daily reality. Along with that was the imperative of not wasting anything that might be of use. Even rendered animal fats were collected for the war effort. Surrounded by parents and grandparents, he learned very early on the importance of frugality. His mother and grandmothers were able to create hearty delicious meals often featuring potatoes and meat scraps. Coming home after school to smells of slow cookery, especially in the winter months, is a fond memory of great food and love for him.
Homemade doughnuts, cakes and French meat pies populate my husband’s memory food bank. His mother, Anna Belanger Coderre, was a consummate cook, nay, chef, by today’s standards. He recalls sitting on her kitchen counter waiting for the first batch of doughnuts to come out of the fat, and because he was the spoiled youngest child, being served first as his siblings waited. No wonder his older brother threw his beloved toy rabbit in the trash. Holidays in his household brought out every table and chair available, along with relatives to fill them. The double parlor of their family tenement building rang with good cheer and the aroma from tables filled to capacity with seasonal treats.
My dear Italian pal, Joe Colangelo, also grew up surrounded by generations of fine cooks. His childhood is the material of movies. Think the meal scenes from The Godfather series minus the bloodshed. From his rich treasure trove of remembrances, he shared the following:
“The kitchen was the epicenter of the Italian family in the ‘50s. It provided the forum for the exchange of the day’s events, the expression of feelings, hopes, dreams and desires. Its agrarian roots fostered the dietary habits, which became its hallmark. Numerous dishes utilizing the many organs and body parts of various livestock remain today as testament to the economic realities of farm life in an era gone by for most. The anticipation of the seasonal dishes rooted in tradition still exists today. The spring lamb which adorns the Easter table, the vast preponderance of fresh vegetables especially home grown, the celebration of the pig in the fall heralded homemade sausages, various roast preparations, and for the true die-hards, home-cured products. And then there was the culmination of the calendar year with the ultimate seafood tribute, ‘The Seven Fishes.’”
Globalization in many ways has given us the opportunity to expand our food knowledge and desire to try new things. Year round, globally sourced fresh fruits and vegetables, fish whose names we never before heard, and multicultural integration on the grocery store shelves has combined in the mixing bowls of our imagination where chicken fingers once may have reigned supreme. Yet still, we needed to be freed from our traditional apron strings.
Julia Child helped make it happen. Her singular passion for understanding and teaching French cooking combined with her ability to connect with the American cook gave her wide appeal. She was then and now an institution in the world of food. We watched as she talked to us about preparing food step-by-step, albeit sometimes awkwardly. It made her all the more “real” to us when things didn’t go so well. When my son was a baby, his father would rock him in his little rocking chair with his foot doing the work while he watched with rapt attention to Julia de-boning a chicken, unsuccessfully flipping an omelet, or sloshing egg whites onto the counter. When Julia’s show came on, the nation tuned in and turned away from processed food.
“The French Chef” was the genesis for all who came later. Jacques Pepin, Joyce Chen, The Galloping Gourmet, The Frugal Gourmet, The Cajun Chef, Paul Prudhomme, and others too numerous to list, all became household names thanks to Julia Child.
My cooking is far from that which my mother was able to accomplish. My interest is trying new techniques, and sourcing ingredients isn’t something that would have intrigued her. But, then again, she didn’t have Julia to free her from the humdrum of Birdseye frozen vegetables.
Food – its taste and smell – can stay with us for decades. My mother’s kitchen in the late afternoon was warm and the ambient air was filled with the delicious smells of something being prepared for supper. Meager though it might have been, the memory is lush.
Julia wrote in remembering the first meal she ever ate in France that “in all the years since that succulent meal, I have yet to lose the feelings of wonder and excitement that it inspired in me. I can almost taste it now. And thinking back on it now reminds me that the pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite – toujours bon appetite.”
By Marilou Newell