From Too Many Chefs - www.toomanychefs.com

September 13, 2005
More Food Memories

I was also tagged for the food memories meme a long while back. I lost my inbox in a computer crash, so I don't have a record of who it was that tapped me. My apologies for not remembering off the top of my head (and for delaying so long).

Here are five memories of food from my childhood:

Any early December 1969-1976ish: The box of Norwegian baked goods.
I only ever met one grandparent of mine - Marie Washburn, my mother's mother. Our family tends to reproduce late in life, so by the late 1960's and early 1970's my other grandparents had passed and my remaining grandmother was well into her 80's. I don't know the full story, but as I understand it she had grown up on a farm in Norway near Bergen. She moved here to the United States (to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan near Minnesota) with her doughboy English husband sometime before the end of World War I. There was some sort of a scandal of some sort about him - no one in the family spoke much about him, at least not to her precocious young grandson.

Marie eventually decided that Northern California suited the family better and relocated to Santa Rosa, California where I visited her on one of the two trips that I remember. (There was one other trip, but I was in diapers at the time and failed to take notes).

Every early December, we'd get a big box of sugary baked goods from her and from my Aunt Georgia and my Aunt Jackie. I'd see the brown paper wrapped box, read the "Santa Rosa, CA" on the return address and know what was inside. A couple of years, my parents tried to not park the box under the tree and not open it until Christmas, but even they couldn't resist the contents that long.

There were always many varieties of sugary cookies and gingerbreaded treats, but the best item was always this sticky nut log my grandmother made. It made my teeth hurt to eat it, but it was so good, it was impossible to stop. It impressed me even then that in her 80's, this diminuitive and delicate Norwegian grandmother with a halo of frizzy white hair was still baking (for hours!) every December for her far-flung family.

Late 1973-early 1974: Lunch at home
I grew up in Elmhurst, Illinois on a little street called Atwater Avenue (431 Atwater, to be precise). My father used to tell me the story of the real estate agent who showed them the house. He'd pretend to be lost and kept driving past the elementary school just two blocks away. I'd run home at lunch, eat fairly quickly then run back to school for the afternoon.

My mother was not a great cook. Even she would admit that if she were here today. Her lunch specialties tended to be baked hamburgers or egg noodles in butter with salt. Both are pretty hard to mess up - I still love egg noodles in butter. How could you not?

I'd eat with her at the table and watch Bozo the Clown on a little black and white TV. During Sam Earvin's Watergate hearings, there was no Bozo. It seemed unfair to me ("What a gyp!"), and it annoyed my mother as well since the hearings interrupted her soap operas.

Feeding the fishies - 1979: - Age 12 or 13
This is more peripherally related to food, but I'm counting it. My best friend growing up most of the time was named Thad. I was with Thad when he cut his leg and he drove (at age 14) to the hospital, and he and his family were there for me when I was 11 after my mother died and my dad and I didn't know quite how to speak to each other.

His family was an auxilliary family to my own father. One weekend, his father got the idea that he and Thad and I should go ice fishing at Lake Geneva. This was, I should mention, one of the coldest winters on record. Thad's dad, Ted drove us up to Lake Geneva and we fished.

On Sunday, we'd all gone out on the lake the previous day and had a hole drilled for us. It was pretty cold, but no worse that 5 or 10 F. We pulled in a bunch of small sunfish and perch and resolved to go back out again the next morning.

That next morning we got up and it was a lot colder and the wind was bitter - bitter enough that Thad's father said he'd be glad to take us to the lake, but he'd be waiting in the bar for us nearby. We persuaded him that we'd be fine and he took us to a supermarket where we bought way too many danishes to take with us out onto the ice.

It didn't take me long to realize that we might have made a mistake in the cold. After Thad's father dropped us off, we trucked our butts out onto the ice and plopped down two tires his father had left us as seats. We hd to chip out the ice from the hole the day before which overnight had grown to be a half-foot thick. The ice we stood on was at least four feet thick. As we prepared to drop our lines in we noticed that not only was it very cold, but very few people were out on the ice with us and my eyebrows were starting to frost over.

I shifted my weight on the tire as I contemplated just how long I was willing to sit on the ice for the sake of fishing, and my foot kicked the bag with the danishes. To our horror, they went right into the hole and disappeared below the thick Lake Geneva ice.

Having stuffed the fish to the proverbial gills with Danish, we decided there really was no point in being out here in the unbelievable cold so we picked up our blankets and tires and fishing tackle and trudged back across the ice to the Hilton just across the road from Lake Geneva.

Thad's father turned up not ten minutes later, having heard at the bar that the temperature with wind chill that day was 81 F below zero. I'm pretty sure there are parts of me that haven't been warm since that day. We ended up feeding the perch and sunfish to an obnoxious cat outside a bar in southern Wisconsin on the way home.

1978 - Beef stew and a deluge of food.
My father was caught out when my mother passed away in 1977 (I was 11). He worked at a uniform retal and sales plant in the city. He got up every morning at 3:45 to get to work by 5:30 so he could open the plant. He'd be home around 5:00 and asleep by 7:30 most nights. This didn't leave a whole lot of time to cook and eat dinner after work.

Thus, the crock pot was his best friend. At this time, there was a bit of a craze and the crock pt was a whole lot of people's best friend. Dad would put together a stew of carrots, potatoes, celery and beef chunks and get it going early in the morning. It would sit in the crock pot all day long until night when we'd have it for dinner.

Truth be told, it was pretty good, but we had it twice a week or more for months after my mother passed. I couldn't look at stew. Luckily our neighbors were kind, generous people and for months after Mom passed, a neighbor would appear at our door with a casserole dish or a plate of lasagna that we could reheat and eat. I was a typical ungrateful little wretch at the time, but I can see now just how hard the neighborhood worked to get us through the initial shock of losing my mother. In retrospect, thanks everyone for what you did for us.

1984 - Football roasts and crunchy mashed potatoes.
Did I mention my mother wasn't a great cook? Well, my father thought he was a good cook, but he had some issues as well.

One of the meals he did make VERY well was a simple roast beef with what we'd call now a potato Gratin Dauphinoisse, but which he called crispy potatoes. He'd engineer it somehow so almost all of the potatoes had a lovely crispy golden brown crust. I've never had better potatoes since. We'd have this meal every Sunday during football season. He'd make it about 11:00am and we'd pick at the roast all day long as we watched the Bears more often than not go down to defeat with their patented "Walter Payton go left, Walter Payton go right, Walter Payton go up the middle, then punt" offense.

One day, however, he didn't make the potatoes for the roast the way he usually did, but made mashed potatoes. OK, fair enough. I liked mashed potatoes just fine. I put a spoonful in my mouth, bit down and hit something crunchy.

"What the heck?" I exclaimed (Actually, I was just learning to be a potty-mouth so I probably said "What the hell?"). My father explained, "I put celery in the mashed potatoes so they'd have crunch!" I still don't understand why anyone would want their mashed potatoes to crunch. That certainly became his most memorable dish, but he did make the concession that when he made it after that day he'd make a portion of the potatoes without celery so the "Philistines" who didn't appreciate his cooking wouldn't have to be offended by it.

I've decided not to pass the meme on (Meg has done so already), but thanks for making write about these times. It was a good excuse to think about things I haven't for a while.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at September 13, 2005 3:03 PM | TrackBack
Comments

Barrett, those are very poignant memories. I remember when I read Toast (by Nigel Slater) thinking that there were a lot parallels with your life. I don't know if you'd find it interesting or just painful though!

Thanks for sharing the celery story - it's one of my favorites!

Posted by Meg in Paris on September 15, 2005 at 2:23 AM