Sunday, October 09, 2011

What food brings back childhood memories?

I've been signed up with Proust, a memory-jogging service designed to help people tell their stories.

Every week they send a question meant to encourage me to write something. I've mostly been ignoring the questions. Until this past week. This past week, I couldn't ignore the question. So I finally wrote an answer this morning.

What food brings back childhood memories?

My answer?
Ah! Buttermilk!

I remember the Carnation brand buttermilk my mom used to have us drink when we lived in California. Little flakes of yellow ("butter!" we were told; I have my doubts; but it sure tasted good). "Churned" buttermilk. Yum.

So we often drank it for lunch. And one day, in fifth grade--probably sprintime of 1966, I came home from school for lunch and a brilliant idea crossed my mind. I loved buttermilk and I loved chocolate milk. What could be better than combining two drinks you love? So I proposed to Mom that I would mix some Nestlé's Nesquik® into my tall glass of buttermilk.

"No! No, John. You don't want to do that!"

"But, Mom! It'll be great!"

"I'm sure it won't."

"But I'm sure it will."

"Okay. Let me suggest you make a very small amount of chocolate buttermilk just to test it."

"No. No! I'll love it!"

"Okay. If you make a full glass, you're going to drink it all. And you're going to have to drink it all before you go back to school. I'm not going to let you throw it out."

"Don't worry, Mom. I'm going to love it."

Oh, fool that I was!

How horrible!

Oh, woe was me! How could two things that I love so much on their own taste so horrible when mixed together?

My mother, tough lady that she was (and she was tough!), made me drink every drop before I could go back to school.

For some reason, I recall I was late getting back to school that day.


Another food. Actually, a meal. Saturday nights: Hot dogs, baked beans and brown bread. Actually, hot dogs, Boston (B&M brand--Burnham & Morrill) Baked Beans and Boston (B&M brand--Burnham & Morrill) Brown Bread (with raisins!). Always. Every Saturday night.

And make sure you add the extra molasses to the baked beans while you're cooking them. And butter the toasted brown bread.


I'll tell you, none of us ever complained!

Only many years later--like, maybe, in the past five years, did I discover that this was (and maybe still is) a tradition among New Englanders. (See, for example, Boston Baked Beans: It's Not Called Beantown for Nothing by Kim Knox Beckius.)

My mom was from the Boston area, so it makes sense.

Funny, though, how a tradition like that can be so strong in your family growing up, and then it kind of disappears when you get out on your own. And, now, sadly, with my gluten sensitivity, I'm afraid I won't be eating too much Boston Brown Bread in the future!


Oh, boy! And then there was the time my parents left us in the hands of a babysitter. I had to have been in first grade. It was winter in Syracuse, NY. So it was probably about February of 1962.

The babysitter was an older woman and, to my eyes, she looked like a witch. I think she had a mole on her chin. She definitely had obvious whiskers. And Mom and Dad left her to feed us something I can't remember having ever eaten before: liver and onions!

Oh, did that smell awful! And it was being cooked by a witch!

I knew she was going to kill us.

And Mom left her with specific instructions, probably because of me. I was a "problem eater." (Still am, apparently. According to Sarita.)

Anyway. That horrible-smelling liver came out of the frying pan looking gray and mossy, and I wanted to throw up.

The witch made sure we knew we had to eat it all, and if we didn't, she was under strict orders to put it in a Tupperware container so we could eat it the next day. (Oh, barf!)

I took a little nibble and left the rest on my plate. There was no way I was going to eat that! I would let it sit in the refrigerator (or out; it didn't matter to me) until it turned moldy and I couldn't eat it. My mom was definitely not going to win this particular contest!

I ate whatever else was available that night, but the mossy, gray-brown patty of liver remained on my plate.

The witch dutifully packed my liver away in the refrigerator so I could eat it the next day.

The next day--for some reason I think it was a Monday; it might have been Tuesday (and this was important, as you'll see in a moment)--Mom asked me if I wanted my liver for breakfast.

"No!" (Obviously! Why would I want it for breakfast when I hadn't eaten it for dinner the night before?)

"That's fine," she said. "But you can't have anything else for breakfast. Indeed, you won't be eating anything else until you eat the liver. So, if I were you, I would simply get it over with."

("Forget it!" I said to myself.) "Well," I said, "Then I guess I'm not eating anything."

It must have been a vacation period. I didn't get to relieve my hunger at school. And I can't imagine Mom would have sent the liver with me as a lunch option. She would have known I would have dumped it in the trash or otherwise disposed of it.

Lunchtime came. I wouldn't eat it.

Dinner. No liver for me. (And, therefore, nothing else, either.)




By this time, I was becoming very weak. For some reason (because she didn't want to be viewed as abusive?), as I recall, Mom let me not go out during the day. I remember wearing my PJs and bathrobe around the house in a way that I wouldn't have normally.

Finally, Sunday noon came. The time we had our fanciest meal of the week.

I still hadn't eaten that vile (and reviled), mossy, grayish-brown-green hunk of . . . body part.

Mom knew my favorite dinner at that time was her fried chicken and mashed potatoes.

"Look," she said. "We are having fried chicken and mashed potatoes for dinner today. If you will eat half of it, that will be good enough. You may then have some fried chicken and mashed potatoes."

"Half of it?" I said.

I looked critically at that awful, putrid piece of flesh. It wasn't perfectly symmetrical. What was "half"? How could I know when I had reached her stated finish line?

I scraped gently at the mossy coating on top. It looked awful, but it was definitely not mold.

I began to realize I would not be able to hold out long enough for it to become mold.

I then drew a line across the top of the piece of meat.

"So if I eat this part [which was pretty obviously somewhat less than half the total volume], I can have some chicken and mashed potatoes?"

Mom was in a forgiving mood at the moment.

"Yes," she said.

With gag reflexes at the ready, somehow I got that portion of the whole all in my mouth and began to chew.

It was enough for her to reward me with chicken and mashed potatoes on a fresh plate.

I got some chicken and mashed potatoes in my mouth to help that hated liver go down my throat.

Five days without food because of a strong-willed mother, a witch who served as a babysitter, and a stubborn boy who didn't want to eat the mossy, gray-green substance called cow's liver fried with onions.


Another food memory: brewer's yeast. Every morning in our orange juice. Mom said it was good for what ailed us, and if nothing ailed us, it was good for what might ail us. Or, at least, that's what she claimed.

Oh! But did that stuff taste awful!


And another regular: Every Sunday morning. (Or, at least, almost every Sunday morning.) Oven-baked Finnish pancake (pannukakku). With canned blueberries on top. And melted (or melting) butter.


Every Sunday morning.

Mom was of Finnish extraction. I guess that was one of her favorites from growing up. It is (or was) certainly one of mine!

What a delicious smell. Not to mention taste!

And one last memory: Fish. With bones.

We weren't Catholic, so we didn't eat fish on a regular basis. Indeed, we rarely ate fish. But when we did, I found it was inevitable: I'd always get a bone stuck in the roof of my mouth.


Why didn't my parents teach me how to avoid them? Or show me how to fillet the fish. Or do the filleting themselves?

I was surprised, a few years ago, to discover that there is a "secret" that can yield almost 100% bone-free fish. And it's not too difficult.

If only I had known. . . .

Oh. I guess a couple more. And then I'm done.

We hardly ever went out while I was growing up.

I remember Mom coming home from shopping sometime around 1963 or so while we were living in Syracuse, NY. "There's a new hamburger stand," she announced. It was a McDonald's hamburger stand (definitely not a sit-down restaurant!) and it featured Mr. Speedee. I have this vague thought that the hamburgers were 15 cents apiece or something like that. And I think Mom brought some home once.

The other thing Mom would bring home in the fall while we were in Syracuse: fresh squeezed apple cider.

And then, finally, while living in Palo Alto in the mid- to late-60s, I remember that every once-in-a-great-while we would go to Shakey's Pizza Parlour. What a blast! Great pizza and old-tyme (silent) movies. I seem to recall a player piano, too.

So though most of my most well-formed memories are related to unpleasant food experiences, I do enjoy a lot of good memories as well. And, certainly, the regular experiences of life had to do with good food. (Except for the brewer's yeast! Yuck!)
So what food memories do you have?
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