Lately, it seems as if everyone is writing about food. There is rising hunger and “food insecurity” in the United States, but there are also increasing waistlines (including my own) and the obesity epidemic. Farms and food issues are discussed and debated and then there are the folks who take pictures of their restaurant dinners and people who chase food trucks for the latest food trend, possibly wrapped in bacon. Cookbooks and food “personalities” capture our attention along with headlines and world events.
While there are serious food issues to ponder, I will leave that for another day, or perhaps someone else. Today, I thought I would join in the fun with some of my favorite food flavors, cravings, and the memories that shaped my experience and sharpened my palate. These are my “formative gastronomic” experiences, as Mario Batali would say. If we are what we eat, then we are shaped by the early food memories that guide what we eat today.
I have lots of food memories, many wonderful ones, so if read alone, this list would seem as if I never ate any healthy food growing up or as an adult. Untrue. These are just the foods that I care to mention as unique or important in my own experience.
1. Mashed potatoes with cream gravy – Particularly, those made by my grandmother Nan, my mother, or Furr’s Cafeteria. This has been my ultimate comfort food to fix everything from elementary braces tightening to mid-twenties work-life angst. Down home cooking that beats ice cream just about any day. The time that it took to make them, peeling the potatoes just right with the perfect “unlumpy” gravy meant someone really cared for me. Even today, I can make order in a chaotic world with boiling water, a bit of salt and butter, and those wonderful potatoes. When I make my own, I leave the skins on and relish the lumps.
2. Fast food of Curry & Roosevelt Counties, New Mexico – Twin Cronies, Foxy Drive-In, I don’t know if there is really something in the water, or just knowing that I lived in an area that is still a secret to most of the world (which I love). They have the best, independently owned fast food restaurants in the whole world. Good chili, amazing hot dogs and burgers, and oh, yeah, the ice. Try Twin Cronies for its namesake dish, hot dogs on a hamburger bun with chili. The Foxy Drive-In can’t be beat for Tuesday Taquitos, cheap and by the dozen. Allsup’s (yes, I know this is a convenience store, but when you grow up in a town of less than a thousand your definitions have more expanse) is not just the place to fill up with gas for your car, but a place to fill up with a burrito for your gut.
3. Mexican food from northeastern New Mexico – When I moved to Springer, New Mexico in the fall of 1987, I was in the seventh grade and battling my almost-a-teenager-anxiety. Luckily there was great food to calm the storm. We had grown up eating Mexican food, but this was better and around all the time. Generations had fixed it this way and it’s what I consider true, wonderful Mexican food. The choice of red or green chile sauce on your burritos or enchiladas (which I think is the state question of New Mexico), the smell of chilies roasting in the fall (when you buy a 25 pound bag and then proceed to freeze in smaller batches to put on everything from eggs to burritos to burgers), posole (a thick stew with hominy corn and pork), refried beans made with lard. Just typing these words, my mouth is watering. Go find a map, pick a small New Mexican town. Visit and choose a small restaurant (if it’s big enough to have a restaurant) with all the pickups parked outside. Order, my friend, and I dare you not to fall in love.
4. The vegetarian choices of the Northland College caf (cafeteria) circa 1993-1995 – In late August 1993, when I was 18, I flew to Duluth, Minnesota and was picked up by the Northland College admissions van. I had decided, secretly over the summer, to become a vegetarian. It seemed to fit my new life as an environmental studies major at a small “liberal arts environmental” college in Ashland, Wisconsin. The other person picked up that day was Kim, another new Northland student. She was lesbian and vegetarian and very proud of those labels. I began to pick up subtle cues from her and other friends who had been vegetarian for years. Luckily, those cool friends and a wonderful vegetarian chef Lucy in the caf made it really simple to enjoy and fall in love with vegetarianism. Unlike many new vegetarians, I didn’t have to stumble with vegetable sides or endless green salads. I could enjoy wonderful fare like eggplant parmesan, tofu enchiladas, and so many others. I was a fairly strict vegetarian for eight years and luckily had the foundation that the vegetarian options in the caf built. Even in my omnivore days now, I still find myself reaching for those recipes and dishes I coveted as a newly minted vegetarian.
5. Eggs and bacon with toast – When I was much younger and Pa Pa (my mom’s dad) was still alive, I would wake up early to eat breakfast with him when we came to visit. We bonded over the morning smells and I felt special because neither of my sisters loved eggs as much as I did (over-easy, the yolk all the better soaked up with toast) and I loved eating with him. Nan flipped the bacon and got the eggs perfect each time, their black coffee poured in cups. She sat down with us with her bowl of cereal and it was quiet and comforting. It’s still my favorite smell–bacon–and one of my best-kept memories.
6. Corn bread and milk – Mom grew up with corn bread. Her parents, my Nan and Pa Pa, grew up with corn bread. It is cheap, easy to prepare, and nourishing. Nan and Pa Pa grew up in Oklahoma during the Great Depression both in large families without much money. But as I understand it, there was always corn bread. It’s a comfort food and it’s a comfort having corn meal in the cupboard, knowing I can whip up a batch in almost no-time. I like it hot, straight from the oven, baked in either a cast iron skillet or cast iron corn bread pans (so that the pieces of corn bread come out in the shapes of stalks of corn). My favorite, though, is to have it the next day for lunch mashed up in a glass of milk using an iced tea spoon to fish out the milk-soaked bits and pieces.
7. Biscuits and gravy – One of my favorite words is biscuit. I like how it sounds, how it’s spelled, and I love how they taste. Biscuits with cream gravy is a favorite breakfast or dinner. Again, cheap, easy, and simple and it ties me to memories of my mother and grandmother. It’s still a bonding meal with us. Two visits with my mother, this past summer and fall, included meals of biscuits and gravy and long conversations.
8. Tomatoes fresh from the garden – We had a garden a few times when I was a child, but it wasn’t consistent and not much after I turned 7 or 8, but I remember a few tomato plants. My grandmother, Nan, also had tomato plants and I remember picking warm tomatoes and eating them fresh. Neither of my sisters liked them, so I didn’t have to share. Some people say oranges taste like sunshine. I would argue it’s the first taste of a tomato plucked in July and August. Makes me think of two wonderful songs, Greg Brown’s “Canned Goods” and Guy Clark’s “Homegrown Tomatoes.”
Others to mention another time: examples of regional food in the U.S. only found in that area (like pasties in Northern Wisconsin), high school concession stand Frito pie, Indian fry bread (no, not naan), farmers’ markets, green chile Quiche, Grape Nuts & Cheerios, banana bread, sopaipillas with honey, and the list goes on. . .
Which foods and memories keep you nourished?